"Strawberry" by tsuppie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

ITHACA, N.Y. — As part of a new monthly series highlighting Haudenosaunee history and culture, speakers are sharing stories passed down for generations, and children taking part enjoy expressive art projects while learning about the indigenous traditions that have deep roots in the local community.

The History Center in Tompkins County, now located at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture at 110 N. Tioga St., has launched the series, “From Seeds to Wisdom: Exploring Haudenosaunee Cycles” in partnership with members of the Haudenosaunee community to strengthen awareness and appreciation for the Haudenosaunee way of life. The series explores Haudenosaunee Confederacy traditions in a child-friendly way through story-telling with indigenous people and art projects. 

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is comprised of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations, was formed around the 12th century to “create a peaceful means of decision making” between nations, according to the confederacy’s official website. The Confederacy describes itself as “one of the first and longest lasting participatory democracies in the world.” The land that now makes up Tompkins County was originally inhabited by the Cayuga and Onondaga Nations.

Julia Taylor, a youth educator at the History Center who helped organize the series, said these monthly programs are designed to teach children about their local roots.

“I believe that if young people understand where they’ve come from then they can make more informed choices about where they’re going and what their community means to them, and have more specific language and understanding of the culture and place they’re in,” she said.

From left to right, Rod Howe, Anna Gumaer, 7, and Mahkia Gumaer, 9. (Photo by J.T. Stone/The Ithaca Voice)

The series is part of the History Center’s education department, which is “committed to making history real and meaningful” for youth.  

“Not all of the museum is intended for kids as a primary audience and so we wanted to create opportunities for kids to really be able to show up and learn history in a way that’s appropriate for their age,” Taylor said.  

Locally, it’s strawberry season and the series kicked off June 9 with a focus on the importance of the fruit in Haudenosaunee culture.

Each spring, when strawberries ripen, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy celebrate with the Strawberry Ceremony, a time when thanks are given for the delicious berry and strawberry juice is prepared. At the June 9 event, children, parents and other community members heard an indigenous strawberry story and had the opportunity to taste freshly made strawberry juice. After, children decorated paper boxes in a way that “celebrates the strawberry.” 

• Related: Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Local indigenous communities work to rebuild

A speaker, who wished not to be named for the article, led a discussion about importance of strawberries across Native American culture and shared an Ojibwe story about the strawberries in Haudenosaunee culture by answering questions and sharing a story passed down for generations. Though the story she shared is from Ojibwe culture, Taylor said the story is “very similar” to Haudenosaunee culture in explaining why they celebrate the strawberry.

According to the speaker, a young boy in an Ojibwe village became frustrated with his people for not doing what the Creator said they were supposed to be doing, including giving thanks in prayers and ceremonies. He went to the village elder for help but was told, “You’re just a little boy. Go and play with your friends.” The boy later tried talking to his parents and friends, but when no one took him seriously, he decided to leave the village and climb the highest mountain so he could be close to the Creator and pray for his people. It took him a couple of days to reach the top of the mountain and he almost died of starvation. The village sent a search team to look for the boy who found him lying on rock in poor condition. One of the search team members saw a strawberry plant growing next to the boy and squished it over his lips and into his mouth. The boy woke up and left the villagers grateful to the strawberry for saving the boy. According to the speaker, the strawberry is known in Haudenosaunee culture as the “heart berry,” due its heart shape. She added that the seeds stand for “all of us” and that the leafy part on wild strawberries is heart medicine.  

The Haudenosaunee have 13 ceremonies throughout the year representing the 13 moons, according to their confederacy’s official website. These ceremonies, which often occur after seasonal change, are a way of expressing thanks to the people, the natural world, the spirit world and the Creator. Taylor said each event will have a connection to one of the 13 moons of the Haudenosaunee cycle, but said the series will end in December unless the History Center decides to continue it next year. 

While the series is meant to engage youth in learning about their background, Taylor said she hopes the series strengthens general awareness and appreciation for Haudenosaunee history and culture in Tompkins County. 

“We hope that people in our local community strengthen an awareness that the Cayuga people are here and have been here as stewards of this land throughout all of this time and will continue to be stewards of this land, and that, as members of a community, together we can work in partnership and learn about Haudenosaunee culture to be a community that respects where we come from,” Taylor said.

The next event in the “From Seeds to Wisdom: Exploring Haudenosaunee Cycles” series will take place from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m Sunday, July 7, at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture. The second program will focus on the Thanksgiving Address, a prayer reflecting the Haudenosaunee tradition of giving thanks for life and the natural world around them, and children will have the opportunity to create their own mini-books. Visit the Facebook event page for more information. 

Featured image: “Strawberry” by tsuppie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

J.T. Stone

J.T. Stone is a contributor for The Ithaca Voice and a 2020 graduate of Ithaca High School. Questions? Story tips? Email him at jt22stone@gmail.com.