For Noel Chrisjohn Benson, a visit to the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave is like spending time with family.
A member of the Oneida Nation, Benson will be one of about two dozen or so Iroquois artists selling their wares Saturday and Sunday at the 37th annual Iroquois Indian Festival at the museum. While he was born in Puerto Rico and grew up going to public schools, including in Cairo-Durham and Catskill, he quit high school before graduating and moved to Woodstock for a short time and then Santa Fe, New Mexico. And while he feels a strong connection to the American Southwest, his link to the upstate New York area and the Iroquois Indian Museum eventually helped propel him back east.
“I’ve been coming to the powwow since I was a kid, when it was held at SUNY Cobleskill,” said Benson, referring to the Iroquois Festival. “The Iroquois Museum was actually blessed by my grandfather, Richard Chrisjohn Sr. Over the years I’ve watched the museum get built, then mature, so it’s kind of like a relative to me, and I feel quite at home when I am here.”
While he has returned to the Hudson Valley and the Kingston area, Benson has always had a bit of wanderlust.
“I was born on a naval base in Puerto Rico,” said Benson. “That’s kind of what has made the traveler spirit in me. I’m always traveling and it’s always easy to live somewhere new.”
In New Mexico, Benson attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he developed his natural talent for sculpting. He has work on display at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in Albuquerque, the University at Albany’s University Art Museum and the Iroquois Museum.
“I do a lot of work in different mediums,” he said. “So much of it is exploring, and it’s not always considered ‘Native American.’ But I also work odd jobs on the side that I find through Craigslist. If I were to really buckle down and concentrate only on artwork, I would have to depend on sales, and that means deadlines, and some of them don’t necessarily pay the bills, especially when it’s kind of spontaneous and sales aren’t always there all the time.”
Visitors to the museum on Saturday and Sunday will have plenty of opportunity to see Benson’s work.
“I plan on doing a stone-carving demonstration, and I will also have jewelry, bone carvings, stone carvings and small crafts for sale,” said Benson. “What I make is entirely up to my mood. I actually work a side job specifically so I can do more art without disruption. If I’m stressed or nervous, the art won’t come out right.”
Benson’s Native American heritage has always been a big part of his life.
“We grew up doing powwows,” he said. “That in turn brought us to many native circles. I’ve attended a number of longhouse ceremonies growing up, should have been more, and I have also participated in other native ceremonies that we don’t talk about in public really. We have a lot of rare stories passed down through our language, which fortunately enough is coming back to the people, probably our most important factor in keeping our traditions alive.”
Benson said he has been influenced by many artists, including Native Americans such as Allan Houser (Apache), Dan Namingha (Hopi-Tewa), R.C. Gorman (Navajo), T.C. Cannon (Kiowa), Fritz Scholder (Luisene) and Charles Loloma (Hopi).
“They cemented my future as an artist, not just a native artist, but an artist that happened to be native,” said Benson, who has an art studio in Kingston. “They made me realize that anything can be pushed further, like using gold the same way as Loloma, or making a stone sculpture into bronze like Allan Houser. As for the future, I am looking to make larger stone sculptures and larger bronze sculptures. I am also looking into 3-D design on future pieces to push the boundaries even further, and I also want to complete some very large alabaster pieces.”
Along with Benson and other Iroquois artists, the weekend’s activities will include festival regulars Perry Ground, an Oneida storyteller, and the Sky Dancers from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Wildlife rehabilitator Kelly Martin will also be on site to discuss wildlife conservation, and display a variety of wild animals and birds of prey in her care.
’37th annual Iroquois Festival’
WHERE: Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave
WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: $10 adults; $5 students
MORE INFO: www.iroquoismuseum.org