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Closing the door on history and culture

LIVERPOOL, N.Y. - On the east shore of Onondaga Lake, nestled between a noisy four-lane parkway and a railroad track, sit a museum and a reconstructed French fort that briefly take the visitor back to 1657, the year of first contact between French missionaries and Haudenosaunee Indians near present-day Syracuse.

In a rather ironic turn of events, legislators from a political entity named for some of those Indians, Onondaga County, announced on Oct. 11 that Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois, the area's only educational facility to discuss contact from the Indian perspective, would be closed for a year.

"It's a shame," said Karen Crow, who has been at Sainte Marie for over nine years. She referred to the fact that area school children, who have visited Sainte Marie by the thousands each year since a $2.3-million renovation in 1991, will lose access to a unique and valuable educational experience.

County legislators, who included property tax hikes of 6.3 percent in their 2003 budget, voted 13-6 to close Sainte Marie during 2003, which eliminates six jobs and saves the county just under $336,000 for the year, according to the Oct. 11 edition of the Post-Standard of Syracuse.

Sainte Marie is slated to shut its doors on Dec. 31. Also getting the axe is "500 Nations," the museum's external program for students fourth-grade and up, through which students Central New York were introduced to Indian culture, food, clothing, language and beliefs.

The "French fort" was originally built in 1933 as a WPA project. This original version of the reconstructed mission, Crow said, was a "misinterpretation" of historical reality.

"This was a Jesuit mission to convert Indian people," Crow told Indian Country Today during an Oct. 11 tour of the grounds. "But the [first] reconstruction had cannons sticking through the palisades." The real French mission, abandoned by the Jesuits in 1658, was not armed and was actually located a couple of miles away where a restaurant currently sits, she added.

A committee formed in the mid-1980s to discuss refurbishing the dilapidated and historically incorrect "fort" included Onondaga, Tuscarora and Seneca members, which lent considerable legitimacy to its efforts to better capture historical reality and give the facility a better Indian perspective. After a four-year project to renovate the fort and built the adjacent two-storey museum, Sainte Marie reopened its doors in 1991.

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An annual average of 45,000 people has visited Sainte Marie since then, though attendance declined to some 29,500 in 2001.

Crow, Seneca Turtle Clan, and Indio Tensa, Taino, are the only two native people currently on the staff. When interacting with visitors, Crow said she generally dresses in "regular" clothes to "show that Indian people are still present in contemporary society." Tensa, dresses in Iroquois regalia when speaking to visiting school kids.

"The kids love Indio," said Crow of her colorful co-worker, who is not however "in character" during his presentations. He speaks as a contemporary to the children, standing beneath an elm-bark canoe suspended from the ceiling, explaining how the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquoian word for themselves, hunted, fished and farmed the land.

Crow and Tensa do not sanitize their presentations. They speak quite frankly of how the local Indian population was decimated by diseases contracted from Europeans and how game in the area, particularly beaver, whose pelts were prized by French and then English traders, were rapidly depleted. They also talk about the sharp differences between Indians who converted to Catholicism and those who retained traditional beliefs.

Outdoors, visitors see a small hunting lodge, a fish drying rack, a smoking oven and an herb garden. The museum staff teaches young visitors the art of making corn husk dolls and clay pots.

"We don't teach them how to make rattles and drums, for those are sacred objects," Crow said. "But with the dolls and the pottery, we explain how the native people hundreds of years ago put their hearts and souls into the things they made."

French re-enactors, in 1656 period dress, staff the mission itself, which includes a chapel, a woodshop, a blacksmith shop and a refectory, the priests' sparsely furnished residence. Bread is baked in an outdoor oven just outside the gate.

Crow, Tensa and Sainte Marie's other employees' employment status is secure through the end of the year. Whether they can remain in the county's employ has not been determined.

"I'm not worried about myself," Crow said sadly. "But how are we going to tell our story? It's a shame."