Road Trip in Up State New York
After the music recording sessions in New City, the project moved back to documentary mode with the last phase of filming and recording. I was joined again by fellow Surgeon, Rob Rainbow as well as researcher and producer Helen Omand for a road trip up state to explore the stories, culture and voices of Native American culture.
Helen contacted various Native organisations and through her research arranged to meet and interview representatives from the Seneca and Mohawk tribes, both based in New York state. We traveled up from New York City by train to EMPAC's base in Troy, before collecting a hire car and hitting the road west towards Fonda to stay with the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community. Once off the main highway we headed along the Mohawk Valley and while trying to find the community we had arranged to stay at, we stumbled on this amazing architectural feat below.
After stopping for a closer look we were greeted by John, the rather eccentric home owner, who had constructed this house himself and who informed us that it was a work in progress and lead us over the rail tracks to see the pier he had created from reclaimed railway sleepers and flood debris. Next to his ad hoc out-house construction, John and his wife lived in a old bar from the prohibition days!
We spent our first night with Emily at the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community where we discussed the history of the community and explored their beautiful woods and river.
Upon returning to our room we discovered this little fellow:
Our first filming location was with a group of historical re-enactors who had organised an event at Herkimer Home State Historic Site. We visited them the night before the main event and spent the evening in animated discussions around their various campfires.
They enlightened us with stories about the culture of re-enacting, the various faux pas associated with wearing the wrong gear and their passion for history in general. After a few warming sips of home made cherry brandy and some Monty Python jokes, we decided to get out of the cold and the leave the hardcore history buffs to a night under the canvas.
The next day saw the re-enactment of a raid on a farming community by loyalist British and native American forces, a intense musket battle ensued between the invaders and the defending group of local militia, ending with a British soldier scalping one of their young female captives. We managed to catch a few interviews and made a sharp exit..
We continued our journey west the next day and headed for the town of Salamanca and the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum where Helen had arranged several interviews. We stayed the night in the charming Mountain View Motel, run by a suspect lady with no teeth. After a brief, disbelieving look at our rooms we ventured out to investigate the nearby and newly built Casino which was beaming out bright search lights into the evening sky.
Not being much of a gambler myself, I always find casinos very curious and strange places and this one was no exception; a maze of whirring machines and flashing lights, adorned with countless kitsch "native" references as well as overwhelming number of security cameras. After several foiled attempts to film and record audio covertly we fled to the relative safety of the Mountain View.
The next day we visited the museum and conducted our interviews which taught us more of the rich history of song, dance and oral traditions of native culture. We did some recordings with an amazing local singer, Josh Jonnyjohn, who sang and played the water drum. He then told us about the various traditional songs and dances as well as contemporary songs he had written in his native Seneca language. He told us about the battle to save their language and uphold their many teachings and mythologies.
I then had a long theological debate with another gentleman who was a born again Christian. Ralph was an elder who had left the ideology and teachings of the native Longhouse tradition for Christ. Kari, our contact at the museum, also explained the local politics of the casinos, the chief system and the many related issues surrounding native identity, all of which I found fascinating.
The next day, after exploring the town of Salamanca some more and getting lost in its back streets, we headed off towards Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
We arrived fairly late at night and crossed onto the Canadian side of the falls as we had been told that the view was better from there. Niagara is a very touristy place; full of casinos with their bright lights and kitsch attractions. We ventured out to explore this curious theme park.
The Falls are definitely worth the trip, they look amazing illuminated at night, I found it especially captivating to watch the the spay and mist dissolving into the air. We shot some footage the next day and decided the best place to film was from Buffalo on the US side, it gave you this nice sort of "edge of the world" perspective. This decision lead to a number of border crossings as we were booked into a hotel in Niagara, which seemed to stress out the immigration people somewhat, or maybe it was just the beards me and Rob were sporting.
On our way back east from Niagara we stopped off in Rochester to check out the home of Mr Kodak, George Eastman. There is an interesting museum which tells the story of Eastman and a great gallery of photography. The quote above was displayed on the wall in the entrance to the main exhibition and I thought it very relevant to the project..
We continued our road trip with a long drive up to Cornwall Island, on the Northern border of New York state, to meet Haudenosaunee people from the Mohawk tribe at The Ronathahonni Cultural Center. We arrived late at night and decided to investigate the casino and see how it compared to the Seneca casinos we had seen in Salamanca and Buffalo. This casino was smaller than the others and was decorated with some interesting sculptures depicting various native clan symbols. It was Rob's birthday the next day so we decided to hit the casino bar and began chatting with a local Mohawk guy who entertained us with his tales of hunting wild bears!
After we had explained the project to him he insisted on introducing us to his artist friend, Brad Bonaparte, who had been involved with the decoration and sculptures displayed around the casino. The next day, as if by some sort of magic he pulled up outside our hotel in the morning and escorted us to Brad's workshop. Brad showed us round and introduced us to a painter friend of his called Dave Faden who was installing his work in a community gallery space. We interviewed both of them and got some really great quotes. We discussed many things; cultural identity, local politics and the environment. Dave had a beautifully calm way of speaking which was a joy to listen to. After a brief tour of Brad's workshop we headed on for our afternoon appointment at the Ronathahonni Cultural Center. This involved crossing the border again where we were stopped and asked yet more questions by the guards.
The Ronathahonni Cultural Center is located in Akwesasne, between the borders of New York State, Ontario and Quebec. It is a cultural education and resource center dedicated to teaching the culture, traditions and history of the Haudenosaunee People. There was a strange atmosphere on this island, a limbo state between states. On arriving at the center we were met by a lady called Sarah and introduced to several young members of the Haudenosaunee community that were willing to take part in our interviews. A local singer called Sean sang some of the traditional Mohawk songs and played the water drum for us. After this we began discussing many of the topics we had covered in earlier interviews with Sean and another lady called Derry. With a growing understanding of the current native perspective and issues we posed more questions this time and got some new and enlightening responses.
We left Akwesasne in the afternoon and started the long journey back to where we started out in Troy. This final journey took us through the Adirondacks, a beautiful range of mountains and woodland which are among some of the only remaining wilderness in New York.
The sun set in the stream of tall fir trees and the road snaked through the mountains as we found our way to the small town next to Lake Placid. As it got dark and the snow began to fall we began to recall all the stories and information we had taken in over the last few days. It had been quite an adventure. Rob was due to get the train back to NYC the next day and make his way home to London. Myself and Helen had one last location to visit before we were done but neither of us were really looking forward to it...
Helen had arranged for us to film at Nichols Meat Processing, a meat packing and slaughter house located just outside Troy. Upon reflecting on the story of Uncle Sam me and Rob had recorded on our last visit, we had thought it would be interesting to show the reality of meat packing, Rob being a vegetarian had strong views on Uncle Sam the Meat Packer. I felt as a carnivore I should face the reality of my choices and go see it for myself. Once we had dropped Rob off at the station we gathered ourselves and headed for the last appointment with the Albany Butcher! To calm our nerves we stopped under a flyover where I had spotted a curious collection of hand painted murals.
Somehow they all seemed to be echoing the various threads of the project, the story of Uncle Sam, George Washington meeting the "Indians", the settlers of this "New" world, the patriotism of war and "victory", the fragility and sorrow of 911; all the various layers of history and myths that make up the collective American psyche.
We arrived at the slaughter house a bit later than planned after getting a bit lost and confused as to where it was located. Eventually we tracked down the right road which lead us up a hill to a small building below the power lines of a huge electricity pylon. Jeff the man who greeted us on entering the place was very friendly but had these huge glassy blue eyes which were a little unsettling. Helen chickened out of entering the main area were the animal processing took place and stayed near the entrance. Due to our late arrival we had missed the main work of the day, the slaughtering of 13 spring lambs and a cow. The real gore was over with already and all that was left was the still steaming carcass of a cow cut neatly into two halves.
I filmed a series of rotations with a motion control tripod head in the cold store room. The textures of the flesh of these suspended animals had a sureal quailty in the flickering florescent lights. It seemed a fitting end shot to the project, it really made me think of all the millions of animals we consume everyday without really acknowledging the reality of our consumption. This is another truth which is obsured by the packaged myths presented in advertising and perpetuated by our collective desire for freedom and choice.
Needless to say, we didn't stop for a road side burger as we made our return trip to Troy...