The term “Iroquois” is actually a slur and a term the Iroquois themselves don’t generally call each other.
The term means “snake people” and was used by Algonguins to describe the Iroquois, who were their competitors. Europeans who settled in North America heard the term being used by the Algonguins and decided to use it, as well.
On the first day of the two-day 33rd annual Iroquois Indian Festival on Saturday at the Iroquois Indian Museum, the Iroquois — or rather, the Haudenosaunee, as they prefer to be called — shared their culture through dancing, storytelling, food and crafts.
In the amphitheater, members of the Sky Dancers twirled, stomped and shuffled as they performed traditional Haudenosaunee social dancing for a large crowd. Some of the dances are structured, as the 15 members of the group shuffled and swayed while moving in a circle. In other instances, once the drums and rattles took up a faster pace, the dancers would hop and bend their knees, smile and move their feet at a faster, free-flowing pace, as if whatever they are feeling is channeled physically.
“You just listen to the beat,” explained Eddie Jimerson, 19, one of the dancers. “There’s no certain way to dance. You just dance.”
The Sky Dancers have been dancing at the annual festival since it began, as has Hubert Buck, another of its members. Being a part of the festival is a way for Buck and his group — and other Haudenosaunees — to educate non-Haudenosaunee about who they are and show them Native Americans aren’t one big group of people, but rather a diverse population.
“They have different speech, different customs, different ways of dressing,” Buck explained.
The Haudenosaunees are a six-nation confederacy of the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga — Jimerson is Cayuga — with the Tuscarora nation added to the confederacy in 1722. The confederacy was created as a way to stop the fighting between the different nations.
“We had the longest standing democratic form of government,” said Amanda Tarbell, an educator at the museum who is a Mohawk, “1,000 years before the Aztec Empire.”
Maria Vann, the museum’s director, explained that the confederacy was one of the influences on men such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and other founding fathers of the United States on how to form their own brand of government.
By using the festival, the biggest event at the museum each year, to teach people about the Haudenosaunee and show them the culture, organizers and participants hope visitors can see the Haudenosaunee and Native Americans in general as human beings and therefore stop using terms like “redskins” to refer to them. Vann explained the term derived from Europeans who scalped Native Americans and sold the scalps like one would sell a deer or bear skin; thus, it is a term they find offensive, despite the urgings of people like Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins professional team, who has rejected demands to change the team’s name.
The Native American culture is one that’s thousands of years old, and one that is far beyond is seen on television or in movies — or in a football team’s name.
“We’re not American. We’re not Canadian,” Buck explained during a break after the dancers’ first performance.
“We’re older than that concept,” Jimerson later added.
The event included Native American food, such as pumpkin fry bread and buffalo burgers, and vendors selling items like beads, paintings, and flutes.
Perry Ground, of the Onondaga nation, was dressed in traditional Haudenosaunee clothing as he hosted the event. Ground’s outfit included leggings made from deerskin, moccasins made from elk skin and a wampum belt. Wampum are little beads made from shells and used as currency.
While the festival is meant to show the history and tradition of his people, Ground said it is also intended to show the Haudenosaunee are just like everyone else.
“We’re showing people we still exist in the 21st century.” he said.
Ground, a member of the museum’s board of trustees, is an administrator in the Rochester City School District. In fact, after the festival is over, he will change from the traditional clothing into slacks and a shirt for a trustees meeting.
As for the term “Iroquois,” Ground said more people over the years are realizing the differences between different Indian groups and seeing them as humans and more than just stereotypes.
“Maybe 20 years from now,” he said, “we could be the Haudenosaunee museum and people would know that term.”