Growing up, my favorite people to observe were my elders. I have always felt drawn to people who are older than me. They have so much knowledge and can save me from making some mistakes. I just need to ask, sit, and listen.
No matter who you are and where you are in life, it’s important to have a mentor. One of mine, is my dear friend G. Peter Jemison, aka Pete. Pete is a member of the Seneca Nation, and is of the Heron clan. Pete is known within the community, not only for his artwork, but for his work with multiple organizations that promote Native history and culture. Currently he is the Site Director of Ganondagan, a New York State Historic Site.
When I moved to Rochester, Pete was one of the first people I was introduced to. I met him the day Ganondagan broke ground for what would be the Seneca Art and Cultural Center, located in Victor, NY. I don’t know when my friendship with Pete began. At some point it went from being colleagues to me being unafraid to joke with him. He likely made fun of me first, thus allowing me to return the favor. While I have a deep respect and admiration for Pete, his friendship means more to me than the titles he holds.
So many people vie for Pete’s time. I take what I can get, and if he is too busy, I wait. Usually, I don’t have to wait for very long, because offering to bring him coffee or buy him food works!
Recently, we both found ourselves in a rare situation- we both were waiting to meet with someone, who was running late, AND he had nowhere else to be, because his next meeting was a one-on-one with me! So, I took advantage of this rare (!) opportunity and asked if I could interview him for this blog. He agreed.
I was glad to be meeting with Pete that day, because I had been hearing things about the Seneca Nation and New York State lately, and the things I heard were upsetting me. I was upset because people were not educating themselves on the issue, every news outlets narrative was on the side of the State (not surprising), but it did not help to educate the public on understanding both sides of the issue. While I enjoy living in this state, the one thing that frustrates me is the relationship between the Nation and NYS. I’ve heard the history of their relationship and I know casinos are a touchy subject. This post will just briefly touch on the issue, in hopes it will raise your curiosity and you will dig more into the topic on your own.
The main purpose behind this post is to highlight one of my favorite individuals, to briefly share his heritage, and for him to share his knowledge with me.
What do you wish people knew about the Seneca people?
That we are still occupying, sovereign land and that we have our own government. We are within the territory boundary of [New York] state and the [United States]. We are still here. Our territories are very small now, in comparison to what we had. The treaties that guaranteed us land have all been violated. An example of that is the Canandaigua Treaty, signed by the 1st president of the US. It was violated within a year.
What would you like to share on the topic of casinos?
Well, when Handsome Lake [leader and prophet] had the vision that the world was coming to us and how we would survive to the future, his advice as that we don’t get involved with gambling. It would inevitably lead to a downfall, and would bring about difficulties that would hurt us. Our people, who were not traditional, did not listen to that message. They were looking for a means of survival. Casinos are profitable for a short run of time. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and now New York state has legalized casinos, creating more competition. We cause of our limited landbase, that we have left, we have to identify an industry, or resource, to support our fire department, our law enforcement, our early childhood learning, and our basic infrastructure of government We have a lack of education on Native issues, Ganondagan is a historic site that is trying to tell our (Seneca people) story. To add, we were paying for exclusivity. There was a violation of contract, which is why the Seneca Nation has halted payments.
Writer’s note: The Seneca Nation has paid over $1 billion dollars to New York State. I asked Pete about the issue because I needed to be educated, in order to accurately discuss the issue. One inaccuracy that has been overly reported is that the “non-tax paying Senecas” have gone back on the original agreement. The one thing I’ll say about that statement is that all native people pay taxes! So, please, just stop with that narrative.
Interviewee’s note: The Seneca Nation completed the terms of the compact with NY it was for 14 years. That term is up now.
Now, onto some lighter topics.
Okay Pete, share with me, what inspires you?
A variety of things. Being an artist, sometimes good art that is visually interesting is inspiring. It makes me want to get to work and do something on my own. A good movie. Something that stimulates and gives me a good feeling that acts as inspiration. Sometimes it is a person that becomes a muse to me. Other times, it is my way of life, my ceremonies, my Indian way of life that inspires me. Just being a part of our ceremonies lifts me up and pushes me to make it to the next one.
What was a defining moment in your life?
Coming back to Ganondagan. Before that I was in New York City. It was was a whole different kind of pace and energy. It had worn thin for me. It was 1985, after 7 years of being away from home, and I was just turning 40. It was such a hassle to live there and working to just pay rent. I couldn’t get ahead. All the money I would make just went out the door. I was losing my way. I said, “it is probably time to get out of the City and to go home.” My cousin came to visit me in New York City and told me about a job opening back home. He said, “you should look into it and apply for it.” I took his advice and applied.
I got the job. I felt that I was brought back in to see what I could do. They would give me more responsibilities. Certain elders then began to teach me. They taught me things they wanted me to learn. The elders acted as sound boards to questions I had. I felt fortunate. I had more of a relationship with them than when I was younger. The elders, they saw that I was serious about my learning, they began trusting me more, and they began teaching me.
What is something you think I should know?
That is a tough one.
Why is that? (Jokingly) Is it because I am all knowing?
No, because I am honest.
Uhh… maybe I shouldn’t have asked. I am now afraid of the answer. We can come back to it.
I once joked with Pete that I moved from Arizona to New York because it seemed that I was related to everyone back home. Unlike the Seneca people, Navajos (like me) have four clans, while they have one. You see, the clan system tells Native people who they are related to, so it lets you know who is off limits. So, in case you don’t understand the joke, it is that I had to move to New York to find someone to date.
One of my questions was to seek Pete’s advice on relationships. You see, from my outside perspective, Pete he has one of the stronger relationships I’ve seen. What I admire about Pete is that he has an incredible wife and partner, who I equally respect and admire. What is more he uplifts her, especially in public settings. To add, Pete also seems to be surrounded by strong- willed women. I have found that the most secured men do, and they will uplift these women. This makes me trust and respect Pete even more.
Okay, Pete, what advice can you give me on dating?
Okay, well finding the confidence. Give yourself a chance. You can play it cool for awhile until you get a sense that they feel the same way you do. You can try to find something that clicks between you and the other person, you must start by talking to them personally. Or you can invite them to dinner and make a meal together.
You might think you’re imagining [shared feeling], and they weren’t at all [sharing the same feelings]. Yes, it could be disappointing or it could be that you learn that they were sharing the same feelings. If you have no other commitments, then proceed and find out how far you can go. But find out what you have in common.
Nicole, my advice is to create safety for yourself. A lot of young people are moving faster than people did when I was younger. They will just jump in the sack. There is no meaning or commitment, it is as if they don’t need that. They are not looking for that. So that creates a different set of expectations. However, there are still other people who are looking for more. Slow it down, and get to know each other. As time goes on, you might find that it’s not what you are looking for, but because your protected yourself it allows you to move on quicker.
After answering that last question, we got a phone call that the person we were meeting had shown up. We ended our interview there and proceeded to our meeting. At the end of the evening, it was when we were leaving that I remembered I didn’t get the answer to my other question, so I asked him again.
Pete, before you go, what is one thing you think I should know?
Dance, learn to dance, Nicole.
Totally an unexpected answer. I laughed and thought how does he know that I can’t dance? I don’t know what to say, I guess, Pete just knows!
Okay Pete. I’ll learn to dance.
I can’t stress enough the importance of having a mentor. If you don’t have one, try to identify someone. I wasn’t looking for a mentor, he just entered my life at the right moment. From Pete, I’ve learned a lot about the Seneca culture, about myself, and about having a peaceful mind. There is so much more I have yet to learn from Pete, and as long as he is willing to share, I am willing to listen.
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.
Now our minds are one.
-excerpt from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address