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Seneca elder educates community through nature walks

Seneca Elder Marvin Jacobs describes how the Iroquois would use an American Bass Wood tree to create medicine masks while allowing the tree to grow.
Alex Simone
Seneca Elder Marvin Jacobs describes how the Iroquois would use an American Bass Wood tree to create medicine masks while allowing the tree to grow.

Spring marks the start of a new year on the Iroquois calendar, and with it comes more chances for education at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Basom, New York.

WBFO’s Alex Simone spoke with Seneca Nation Elder and Wolf Clan Member Marvin Jacobs about the importance of teaching about nature and their culture.


Alex Simone: First of all, you know, could you maybe tell me a little bit about just so when I tell people, well, he's with the Wolf Clan, you know, maybe what does that mean for the listeners.

Marvin Jacobs: The clans are divided into two separate (options), birds and animals … it’s matrilineal, through our mother's side of the family, and the clans are divided that way, because one clan can't marry into its own clan. A wolf can't marry a wolf, but they can marry anyone, other animals on the opposite clan side of families.

AS: So then, this, these tours, you said that you've been doing these since 2000 or 2008?

MJ: I’ve been doing these tours here (since) about 2008. When I first initially doing these programs, I was approached about doing -- if I could do anything about the Seneca culture, regarding the Iroquois Confederacy. But mostly because this is Seneca territory, originally lands of ours.

AS: You do a lot of different topics for your walks, right? So how do you select which things you're going to do and when you're going to do those walks?

MJ: I do a variety of topics here. I … originally started out with the moonwalk in June, which I still do, it's an evening walk, I wanted to do nature trails out here. The other ones, I teach about the wild plants that were originally used for medicines, which are, invariably they're used today in the same aspects. And also, I teach about the trees, you know ꟷ other than just the flowers ꟷ and I describe what their uses were to our culture.

AS: What's, maybe, the biggest surprise or the you know, the number one thing that you've learned along the way of doing all of this?

MJ: It brings back a lot of stuff that I grew up, at the time, learning and just over the years, right, more or less lost track of it. So, when I was initially asked to do these programs, I had to do a little more research myself, and get myself better acquainted. And then finally when doing research, it's like, ‘wow, everything started coming back together, I really guess I really didn't lose a lot.’ Which is nice, because people get out of here, and they say, ask me questions. And now I can start relating to say, Yes, this is how it was. And then I get a little detail, but I try not to press too much detail, because we're only going to have a time limit. It helps me out a lot.

AS: What's the interaction like, from the standpoint of, you know, understanding, there is that interest in that desire for people to learn about this cause which you're clearly passionate about?

MJ: People really didn’t understand what was going on, because it was regarded many, many years ago that we weren’t supposed to teach our stuff to so-called outsiders, outside the nations and the Tribal Affairs. But over the years, we've opened up and we let people understand who we are, and what we do.

AS: Does that help keep you going as far as the okay, you know, knowing that the kids and sort of the next generation is really getting invested in this, you know, does that keep you Okay? Oh, um, you know, I get to keep doing this for them.

MJ: I really enjoy it. A lot of the stuff, as far as I know, currently isn't taught in schools, that I know of. When I grew up in school, is that it was very seldom taught what our culture was like. Now having a chance to explain to the, to the newer Gen or younger generations now, or even the older generations that do come out, they have a sense of all learning and learning something new.

AS: Anything else you think we haven't covered, that you’d like to?

MJ: Not only do I talk about the native aspect, but it all kind of blends, because I teach the people that Nature’s for all of us. You have to get out into nature, listen to nature, because she has so much out here for people to look at, the same thing with the animal species. Every animal has its own, like humans has its own character. We pick out certain animals -- what we call cultural animals -- because they were very significant to us. And now for example, the give you the muskrat and the beaver for the simple reason because they both build huts, to be rebuilt, it lives in the water, whereas the muskrat lives up above the water. And the difference is that the beaver, in our culture, is very symbolic because he builds stuff. He's a maker of stuff. He's very wise, very thoughtful. Where the muskrat. He's awful. He's brilliant, he's smart and he's a thinker also, and he likes to store stuff. So that's how we learn about these animals and how significant they are.

AS: From the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Basom, New York, I’m Alex Simone, WBFO News.