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Sky Woman, Turtle Island, and the Great Celestial Tree Get a Movie (It's About Time!)

An innovative film project is calling upon animators and dancers to tell the Iroquois Creation Story.
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The Iroquois Creation Story—which tells of the Great Celestial Tree, Sky Woman, Turtle Island, Flint and Sky Holder—is an oral tradition that has been documented hundreds, if not thousands, of times by Iroquoian artists. But it's never been presented on film, says Peter Jemison, site manager of the Ganondogan Historic Site in Victor, New York. He aims to change that with a new animated film connected to a new building.

Sara Shahriari

Mercedes Guarachi Salinas and husband Felix Salinas Maldonado: "Pacajes was a forgotten corner. We had no highway, or health or education. But with this plurinational government we have health, education and a highway in Pacajes."

The building is the new Seneca Art and Culture Center being constructed at Ganondogan. Ganondagan is the site of a Seneca village translated as Town of Peace (Peace Town, or White Town due to the wampum color) that was destroyed by the French in 1687. Its granaries housed tons of corn that fed the Seneca and the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois White Corn Project was founded by John Mohawk among others and Peter Jemison brought it to Ganondogan some 20 years ago. When the new Center opens in July (in conjunction with Ganondagan's annual Dance and Music Festival) the construction will have taken about 2 years to complete, but the planning and fundraising took 12 years. This structure will be a permanent, year-round facility dedicated to Seneca and Haudenosaunee contributions to art, culture and society. The $12 million project was made possible by a grant from NY State economic development initiatives, contributions from the Seneca Nation, and corporate, foundation and private funds raised by the Friends of Ganondagan. This new art center will be next to the site's historic replica longhouse. Jemison said they needed a permanent building to ensure that the Ganondagan Historic Site would indeed be able to remain open far into the future.

That brings us to the animated film of the Iroquois Creation Story, a feature that will welcome visitors and help introduce people to the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee/Seneca cultures, beliefs and worldview. A cinematic hybrid, the film combines traditional animation with footage of flesh-and-blood dancers performing in animated settings. The filmmakers have enlisted the talents of the Garth Fagan Dancers (Lion King) based in Rochester and the Iroquois Dancers and Singers; the film has an original musical score by Brent Michael Davids. The director is Cat Ashworth, who teaches at RIT and who Jemison has worked with on other video projects.

The film is about 60% complete, says Jemison, with a projected $16,000 needed to finish it. An Indiegogo campaign has been set up to secure funding for the last stretch:

Jemison says they are using The Creation Story from J.N.B. Hewitt who wrote it down after hearing Chief John Arthur Gibson tell it in the 1890’s. Haudenosaunee scholar, John Mohawk annotated the story for a modern audience in his book The Myth of Earth Grasper - The Iroquois Creation Story. This film will be the introductory film visitors will see when they come to the Seneca Art and Culture Center and will be shown in the Orientation Theater. Financial support has come from the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation based in Rochester, NY and RIT.

Peter Jemison has been around Turtle Island. He painted and sold artwork on brown paper bags as an artist in NYC. He became the first director of the American Indian Community House Gallery in NYC, when exhibits there generated considerable buzz in Manhattan along with the evening poetry readings. He was one of the go-to Artists and Curators for all the Iroquois Group Shows around NY State, and became Education Director for the Seneca Nation. In 1985, he was invited to become the director of Ganondagan.

Though his Ganandogan duties take up the bulk of his time, Jemison hasn't stopped being an artist, and has worked more in video and film over the last 10-15 years. One film, The Mahheakantuk in Focus, interprets Henry Hudson’s journey up the Hudson River and the meaning behind the 1613 Treaty between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee, called The Two Row Wampum/Guswenta, whose symbology depicts a journey of mutual respect and mutual coexistence without interference from the other. Jemison also recently filmed a documentary at Ganondagan, which depicts his father’s desire to lose weight (due to diabetes) and to reach his personal goal of running up the steep embankment at Ganondagan while carrying a sack of corn on his back to the summit of the palisaded corn granary that once housed the Seneca’s sacred gift of corn. One of Peter’s first video projects was a beautiful little video installed in a dark room at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe 10 years ago that told a story without narrative, just using visual and audio effects. Titled “Wiping Away the Tears” (an Iroquoian ritual of grief and condolence) it was a post-911 film especially for New Yorkers. 

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM
November 20, 2014