Cultural Conservation

How One Family Advocates for Indigenous Values

Dave Fadden grew up surrounded by the pieces of his culture that his grandfather had once seen stripped away. He spent his childhood summers walking through the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, which his grandfather had built by hand with wood from the surrounding forest. He enjoyed listening to his grandfather’s storytelling lectures at the museum, a traditional means of passing on history. He remembers being captivated by the rich stories and culture that surrounded him daily.

Dave Fadden, owner of the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, stands in the longhouse.

“His speeches were very passionate. A world-class storyteller. And as a young person — kids love stories — so I just soaked it all up,” said Fadden, who now owns the cultural center.

The cultural center, a brown and red longhouse, sits in Onchiota off County Highway 60. Painted on boards along the center’s driveway are men representing the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: the Mohawk, Kanienkehaka in Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. The Mohawk word for Iroquois is Haudenosaunee.

The dark brown interior walls house display cases of ancient arrowheads, pottery and handsewn moccasins. Yellowing handwritten posters cling to the walls, feathers from headdresses dangle from ceiling beams and striking colorful paintings pop out of the backroom. Ribbons of colorful beadwork wrap the ceiling, displaying symbolic pictographs. 

One long white piece with vivid pictographs stands out telling the story of the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. This epic story follows the life of a man, referred to as the Peacemaker, as he persuades the original five nations to end war between them. When the story of the beadwork is read aloud, it can take up to 10 days to recite. This cultural heirloom has been passed down through generations by oral tradition.

Fadden’s grandfather, Ray Fadden, opened the museum in 1954. He worked as a school teacher on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation for decades. Throughout his career, which started in the ’30s, he realized something: Many of his students did not have a sense of their own history. They lacked an understanding of their own culture due to deliberate attempts by the U.S. government to strip it away. 

At the time, the United States had created policy to address what they called the The Indian Problem. This policy attempted to assimilate First Nations, indigenous people of the United States and Canada, by moving them to cities and eliminating their homes on reservations. This campaign lasted 20 years and spanned some of Ray Fadden’s teaching career. 

The United States prohibited the teaching of indigenous culture or language. If children attempted to practice their own culture or speak their language, they were punished. Many First Nations children were sent to boarding schools, and in recent years, many have learned the extent of abuse that occured in these facilities. Hundreds of unmarked graves have been found at residential boarding schools in Canada. U.S. officials are searching for possible mass graves on similar properties.

After being separated from their parents, children were forcibly reeducated. The conditions at these schools were harsh: disease ran rampant, little food was provided and physical abuse plagued many of the childrens’ lives. When a child died, their families were often not informed. Many never knew what happened to their children. Dave Fadden’s own grandmother experienced abuse in a boarding school, along with many other loved ones in his life. For Fadden, and other First Nations people, these events are not of the past, but persist into the present.  

The children that survived these schools would return home with no identity. Ray Fadden, in an attempt to preserve his culture and restore identity to his children, sought to educate them secretly. He took it upon himself to reinstill pride and knowledge in the children. He risked severe punishment. 

He fundraised locally and took the school children on secret field trips to First Nations museums. Over time, and after much travel, he acquired memorabilia, artifacts and knowledge. Those who would visit his home would remark that his living room looked like a museum. That gave him an idea. 

In the ’50s, Ray Fadden officially opened the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center. He supplied many artifacts himself, but every year since opening, the Fadden family continued to acquire more.

Dave Fadden has now taken over the museum and center’s work. He continues the tradition of storytelling at the museum. Fadden hopes every tourist walks away with a new education and appreciation for indigenous culture, specifically the Kanienkehaka. The center is not just for First Nations to reaffirm their own knowledge, but for everyone else to gain an appreciation for First Nations’ culture. Fadden will wander around with any tourist curious to hear the stories behind each piece.

The main goal of the center is to give insight into the culture through education. Fadden often finds that combating visitors’ preconceived ideas of who First Nations people are is often a part of his role at the museum. 

“Our job is to help dispel those myths and stereotypes,” Fadden said.

The center’s three rooms display more than 3,000 items drastically ranging in age. Some artifacts are more than 10,000 years old, while others were made this year. To Fadden, the contemporary Kanienkehaka art and displays are just as important to showcase as the cases of chipped arrowheads, woven baskets and hand-sewn moccasins.  

“We are still here, still creating and producing art, and living,” Fadden said. “We are not this caricature in a history book. We are living in contemporary times.”

After years of running the center, Fadden felt his mission become clear. What has changed the most for Fadden is his attitude. 

“When I was younger, I was angrier. It was hard for me to read about my peoples’ history,” Fadden said. 

Dave Fadden displays and sells his acrylic artwork in the cultural center.
Dave Fadden displays and sells his acrylic artwork in the cultural center.

Today, he approaches his work from a different perspective. He uses this painful history in lectures and books to teach the horrors of the past. This education is vital in ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself. In the process of creating a center devoted to educating tourists, residents and other Kanienkehaka, Fadden has felt the anger fade away. 

“I realized my job was about educating. You move forward, but you need to use education. You don’t forget the past; you learn from it,” Fadden said.

As Fadden looks to the future, he recalls an ancient Haudenosaunee philosophy called the Seventh Generation Principle. It states that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable, healthy world seven generations into the future. It forces those with the power of decision making to think about how their actions will affect their children’s children and hopefully make choices that will benefit them. 

With each generation, a newer, emboldened First Nations culture forms. With each storytelling session, artifact placed in glass, and each stroke of acrylic over a fresh Kanienkehaka painting, a new story is being told. One of power, reclamation and strength.

Story and photos by Clarice Knelly

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