August 1994

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Seneca Heritage Day

and the

Genundowa Festival of Lights

September 3, 1994

at Overackers School House and Bare Hill

Stuart Mitchell

The Middlesex Heritage Group sponsors each year a Seneca Heritage Day on the Saturday before Labor Day. This year the date is September 3rd. Seneca speakers and story tellers will speak of Seneca myths and traditions at Overackers School House, on the corner of Route 364 and County Road 501, from 3:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon.

Later in the evening, at 9:00 p.m., the Genundowa Festival of Lights ceremony will be held on Bare Hill.

The Festival of Lights is a modern version of an ancient Seneca ritual to give thanks for peace and praise to Mother Earth for her bounty. The custom of the Keepers of the Faith was to build a fire each year as a signal to their brethren around the lake to light a fire as a common expression of gratitude, and to extend greetings to one another and the Great Creator.

Master of the rite is Peter Jemison, site director of Ganondagan State Park. Before lighting the signal fire he will explain the Seneca version of the observance and give a Seneca prayer of thanksgiving. After the fire has burned down he will lead those present in Seneca songs and dance.

To be in time for the beginning of the ceremony plan to arrive about 8:30 p.m. From the Overackers School House at the junction of Route 364 and County Road 501 drive toward Canandaigua Lake to Bare Hill Road. Turn right there and then left at Van Epps Road. Park along the roadway and hike about a mile to the site at the top of Bare Hill which is in a state park. Permission has been granted for the ceremony. A blanket and flashlight will be useful. People should be careful to take away everything they bring. For more information call 716-554-6592.

The event is sponsored by the Middlesex Heritage Group and by the East Shore Association. Flares have been placed in stores by the East Shore Association for people along the lake to purchase and use for the annual ring of fire around Canandaigua Lake.

The Middlesex Heritage Group is inviting people to attend Seneca Heritage Day from 3 to 5 p.m., September 3, at Overackers School House, corner of route 364 and County Road 501. Seneca descendants will be present to recall Seneca history and to retell the legends of the Senecas that are closely connected with Canandaigua Lake and the hills around Middlesex.

One of the legends of the Senecas tells that their first ancestors came forth from a split caused by the Great Spirit in a large hill. These people called the hill Nun-do-wah and considered themselves to be the people of the great hill, the Nun-do-wah-gaah. A gully on South Hill near Middlesex best fits the myth's description of the crack in the hill from which the first Senecas emerged.

Another legend of the Senecas explains why trees didn't grow on the top of Bare Hill. One version tells that a band of people fleeing along the east side of the lake from a hostile tribe made their camp on a high bluff. When they awakened in the morning they found themselves surrounded by a great snake who was so large that they could not escape. After several days of trying to find a way to get away, and desperate for food, most of the group ran into a tunnel hoping to get under the coils, but the passage way was the gullet of the serpent, and they were swallowed. All but two were lost. A young warrior and a maiden held back because a spirit in the form of an owl had warned the girl of the danger and had informed her how they might escape. She instructed the boy to fashion a bow from a special tree and to string it with her hair. Then he was to make an arrow and send it into a vital spot on the serpent. The boy aimed his arrow carefully and let it fly. The arrow pierced the serpent which in its agony tore out all of the trees and bushes on the hill before it finally rolled into the lake. This story explained the absence of trees on the bluff that came to be called Bare Hill or Genundowa. The legend also credited women with showing the warriors how to escape from the tribal wars that threatened their extinction. The boy and girl were the beginning of a new race of Senecas.

The Senecas believed that the round gray stones they could see down in the bottom of the lake were the skulls of their ancestors who had rushed into the serpent's long throat.

Traditional Senecas believe the hill is the core of their identity and is linked to the preservation of their beliefs. Others, too, have adopted the hill as a place to be close to nature where they can connect to the Earth and replenish their souls.

© 1994, Stuart Mitchell
Saint George, the Serpent and the Seneca Indians
Who Built the "Old Fort" on Bare Hill
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