Hobart and William Smith Colleges value history. Students waiting in line to matriculate are quizzed by the Orientation Team on fun facts like the founding dates of each college. Every admissions tour involves a stop at the Elizabeth Blackwell statue, and anyone who’s taken a Women’s Studies class knows how close we are to historic Seneca Falls. However, there’s a history that we don’t talk about much on this campus, a history that is often ignored, or, when it’s not ignored, misrepresented. It’s invisible to the community, even though it should be something we consider every time we step outside: the history of the land beneath our feet and whom it belongs to.
One not-well-known-enough fact about HWS and the surrounding town of Geneva is that before it was HWS and Geneva it was Kanadesaga, an important town for the Seneca Nation, one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people. Specifically, Kanadesaga was located at what is now the intersection of North Street and Preemption Road. Before the Seneca people moved to Kanadesaga, the site of HWS’ own Fribolin Farm was another Seneca settlement called White Springs. Only 40 minutes away is the Ganondagan State Historic Site, an even earlier settlement where the Seneca people lived until the summer of 1687 when they were driven out by the French. Today, Ganondagan is a park and museum that aims to educate visitors about Seneca history. However, these important Indigenous sites are much less talked about and visited by the student body than the more well-known and whiter history sites.
On September 7, 1779, General Sullivan’s American troops destroyed Kanadesaga in a “scorch and burn” campaign under the orders of George Washington as retaliation for the Seneca people’s association with the British in the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that some Haudenosaunee people fought with the American colonists. Washington said the goals of the campaign were “total destruction and devastation of the settlements and capture [of] as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible,” and that “It will be essential to ruin their crops and the ground and prevent their planting more.” Though the Seneca people avoided the campaign because of advance knowledge of the advancing colonial army, their home was destroyed as they were forced to evacuate to the west. One of the only surviving elements of Kanadesaga were the fruit trees that William Smith would eventually use to make his fortune, the fortune that would later found William Smith College. Today, the Seneca nation occupies a fraction of the land it once did.
Stories like this are all too familiar to anyone who is aware of the horrific injustices of early American history and the brutal colonization inflicted upon America’s Indigenous peoples. And these injustices are reflected and remembered in Haudenosaunee history. According to the museum at Ganondagan, the Haudenosaunee name for “George Washington or any other U.S. president” literally translates to “devourer of villages.” The town of Geneva, in contrast, erased this history by celebrating the “victory” of the Sullivan campaign with parades and speeches for years following.
After the Seneca people were forced off their land, the land that eventually became HWS and the surrounding town of Geneva was acquired by a British speculation company called the Pulteney Association through a series of legal loopholes that allowed a British company to purchase land at a time when it was illegal for non-Americans to do so. Eventually that land became the land upon which Hobart College, and later William Smith, were founded.
The fact that the Seneca people were forced off their land alone is enough to warrant more discussion of the history of the land at HWS. But the way HWS has reflected this Indigenous history throughout the years is even more problematic. Bringing up issues of Indigenous land and representation at Hobart typically leads back to one topic: the legend of the Hobart oar presumed to have belonged to Seneca warrior, Agayentah.
The general understanding about the Hobart oar is that it is guarded by the Druids and passed from one senior Hobart class to the next at the Hobart Launch during Senior Week. Graduating Hobart students receive their own mini-oar, which is supposed to remind them of their time of Hobart and the fact that they are the determiners of their own lives. This tradition has been practiced on and off since the original oar was found by a member of the class of 1859. There would be no reason to question this tradition if it did not also come with the vague tale of the oar’s connection to Agayentah and the Seneca people, whose land HWS now sits upon.
Many current HWS students don’t know who Agayentah was, though old issues of The Herald suggest that he was talked about very colloquially in the past and would have been known of by every student. Upon initial examination of the story, it is unclear whether Agayentah was a real person or a legendary figure. And if he was a legendary figure, who made him up? Supposedly, Agayentah was a Seneca warrior who perished in the lake (there are at least three variations as to how) and whose spirit was preserved in the form of an unusual tree, which then traveled around the lake preceded by a booming noise from the water. The unusual tree in the story is the one from which the original Hobart oar was supposedly carved. (There have been at least two different Hobart oars since due to time and theft). Professor Jeff Anderson of Anthropology, whose research focuses on Native American culture and history, has said that he’s “found no Seneca story that relates to [Agayentah] or his relationship with the lake.” Despite the fact that the source of the legend does not seem to be Indigenous, the story spread around the area. As early as 1875 the Little Falls Gazette published a version of the Agayentah story, showing that the perpetuation of the legend was not unique to HWS.
Perhaps the most troubling outcome of the dissemination of the Agayentah stories is the rampant cultural appropriation and disrespect that occurred at HWS regarding Agayentah and by extension Indigenous people as a whole in the 1950s. In 1947 The Herald reprinted the story of Agayentah, saying, “We are reprinting the legend in the hope that it will become part of the Hobart tradition.” And it certainly did, though not in a positive manner. The Hobart class of 1951, who would’ve read the article as first-years, gave a statue of Agayentah to the school as their class gift. The statue was almost immediately sent into a cycle of disrespect, being repeatedly stolen and vandalized until it was moved out of sight and put in Bristol Gym. Around the same time, Agayentah began being used as a mascot for Hobart sporting events. Students and even former Hobart President Brown would dress up as the figure and perform a “snake dance” at pep rallies. Thankfully, this is no longer the Colleges’ practice. However, incidents such as these illustrate how HWS’ relationship with the Indigenous people whose land the Colleges are built upon has oscillated between blind ignorance and blatant disrespect for many years.
Though one can sort through many versions of the Agayentah legend in previous issues of The Herald and other local newspapers, the conclusion one must come to after all this reading boils down to the conclusion made by the Hobart Dean’s Council in its own research of the oar, supported by Dean Khuram Hussain. They concluded that “there were various iterations [of the legend of the oar] generated by Hobart students throughout the early 20th century, but no real historical evidence of an actual tie to the Seneca.” As a result of these findings, Dean Hussain and the Hobart Dean’s Council organized a panel to discuss the past, present and future of the Hobart oar.
The panel took place on March 26 in the Seneca Room, overlooking the lake named after the people HWS has so often failed to respect and remember. The panel consisted of Hobart alum Pat Solomon ’92, who has played on both the Hobart and Iroquois National lacrosse teams and has served as a tribal lawyer at Thomas and Solomon LLP; Peter Jemison, a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation and an educator and Historic Site Manager at Ganondagan; Professor of Anthropology Jeff Anderson; the Rt. Rev. Dr. Prince G. Singh, eighth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester and HWS Trustee; and Nicole Scott, the director for the Native American Future Stewards Program at Rochester Institute of Technology and a Diné (Navajo) of The Red Running Into Water Clan born for Big Water Clan.
The members of the panel brought various perspectives to Hobart and its history. Jemison brought his expertise on the history of the Haudenosaunee people, giving a history of the Seneca people’s past in the area and reminding the audience of their present, saying, “Although many historians have fallen into the trap of believing that we are a vanishing group, I’m here to testify that we are alive and well.” Scott talked about her experiences working with current Native American students in higher education and asked those at the panel to consider how the oar and the history of HWS’ land might make potential Indigenous students feel. She said, “If a tale is keeping students from feeling like this is a place for them to go to school, for them to be a part of this community, is that doing more damage than good? Really look at the story you’re telling with this paddle … how is that going to invite Native students to come to this college campus and how is that going to make them want to be here and be a Hobart student?” Anderson shared his research on Hobart’s specific history of Agayentah and the oar, much of which informed the historical accounts in this article. Rev. Singh discussed how Hobart could reexamine its history considering that the Episcopal Church, of which Hobart founder John Henry Hobart was a bishop, has now rejected the doctrine of discovery, saying, “in acknowledging the past it is probably most important to say ‘We were wrong.’”
After the panelists made their initial remarks, there was a discussion of what HWS should do both with the oar and in acknowledging this history in a larger way. It was one of the few times there has been any recent public acknowledgement that HWS sits on dishonestly acquired Indigenous land or that we have treated the few remaining people who originally called this place home with such disrespect. It seems that HWS is currently in another period of silence surrounding the history of HWS’ land when many other institutions are choosing to be more upfront about the Indigenous history that took place where they’re located. However, HWS could easily exit this period of silence, and events such as the panel are a good place to start.
One simple way HWS could start to acknowledge this history is with a land acknowledgement statement that would be read at public events. This acknowledgement would be especially fitting at events like lacrosse games, since it is originally a Seneca sport and Haudenosaunee teams used to play Hobart with regularity before NCAA rules made it an impossibility. Panelist Scott proposed that if the Hobart oar continues to be used as a symbol of connection to the Seneca people, the fact that the reminder that the Seneca people are from a matrilineal society could be an important reminder for Hobart students, especially in a time when HWS is also contending with how the coordinate nature of the Colleges perpetuates gender roles.
Another potential form of acknowledgement brought up at the panel is one that is already happening, though without much publicity. Last year, students in an Environmental Studies FSEM planted crops native to the area, which the Seneca people would have eaten, at Fribolin Farm. Becoming more educated about the land by eating and planting what and where the Seneca people did so many years ago is another way HWS could acknowledge its land’s history.
In the Herald’s interview with Professor Anderson, he also mentioned other relatively simple steps that could be taken, such as ensuring that the Haudenosaunee flag is included at Convocation and Commencement, establishing and maintaining a cultural group and supports for current Native American students, and teaching a less Eurocentric curriculum, which he reiterated as potential actions that could be taken at the panel.
However, before the Colleges can do any of that, we need to listen, acknowledge and show support for those whose stories aren’t told on our campus. When introducing the Q&A portion of the panel at the discussion about the Hobart oar, Dean Khuram Hussain said: “I do believe that for us who are in positions of administration at the institution, tonight is a night to listen and learn.” Progress will only be made in acknowledging our history if all students, faculty and administration adopt this willingness to listen. Change and acknowledgement will not come unless both Hobart and William Smith students show that we care about acknowledging an accurate version of the Colleges’ history.
In reference to a question about how best to go about acknowledging and moving forward, Scott said, “Someone had mentioned ‘How do you make up for wrongdoings in the past?’ You can’t. I think it’s unfair to place what people did centuries ago on people today because it wasn’t you who went out into these communities, but there is a point where you decide, ‘Well, what can I do to help? How can I make a difference so that people aren’t being left behind?’ Because really, how is that diminishing who you are if you’re helping somebody else who didn’t have the same opportunities you did?” Though it is still unclear what actions the Colleges will take to better acknowledge their past and brighten their future, it seems clear from the history and discussions that are being had that the Colleges must take consequential action to do better by both past, present and future Indigenous peoples to remain a place that can encourage its students to lead lives of consequence.