By Renée K. Gadoua
Saturday morning, Lee Miller will don a long black robe and black hat, the garb of a 17th-century Jesuit priest.
Portraying the Rev. Pierre-Joseph Chaumonot, Miller will stand on the shore of Onondaga Lake and greet canoes to mark the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jesuits who created Ste. Marie, a Catholic mission that operated from 1656 to 1658.
The 20-month presence of Chaumonot and six other Jesuit priests and their relationship with the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, mark a prominent chapter in the history of Central New York.
Some describe the Ste. Marie mission as a heroic example of human courage and faith overcoming obstacles. Others consider it an example of racism, arrogance and greed motivating European colonization of the Americas.
Miller is aware of that tension.
“It’s a remembrance, not a re-enactment,” he said of the weekend events, which include Saturday’s canoe ceremony and a Roman Catholic Mass on Sunday.
“We recognize some of the consequences of the time here,” he said.
Onondaga Nation Chief Irving Powless said the 350th anniversary of the French Jesuits’ arrival at the home of the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Long House, is not a happy occasion.
“The destruction of your people is not a celebration,” he said.
Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois Living History Museum on Onondaga Lake Parkway in Salina opened in 1933 as the French Fort, built as a Depression-era work relief program. The French named the mission after Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. It closed in 1988, amid concerns about its condition and complaints that the site portrayed historical inaccuracies and reinforced negative images of Native Americans.
It reopened in 1991, refurbished for about $2.5 million. Onondaga County closed it in 2002.
In August 2004, a group of volunteers reopened the site.
In 1946, when the Jesuits created a Catholic college in Syracuse named after the Rev. Simon Le Moyne, they reinforced the link between the 17th-century missionaries and Central New York, said Dennis Connors, curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association.
“If Le Moyne had not happened as a Jesuit school, that probably would have lessened the community’s awareness of this as a significant event,” he said.
And in 1933, when the work relief project began, Americans were very interested in the history of the 17th and 18th centuries, he said.
“In some respects, the French Fort of 1933 tells you as much about the 1930s as it does the colonial period,” said Connors, who is the former director of museums for the Onondaga County Parks Department, which oversaw Ste. Marie.
The Rev. Daniel Mulhauser, a Jesuit priest who serves as Le Moyne College’s alumni chaplain, remembers the French Fort from his childhood in Syracuse.
“When I was in third grade, I built a model out of corrugated paper,” said the priest, who will participate in this weekend’s events at Ste. Marie.
He urged people not to criticize the Jesuits’ motivation and behavior.
“We should not try to import the 20th-century mind to the 17th century,” he said. “That’s how people thought then.”
The image of the missionary “bringing Christ to the poor natives” is fading, said Mulhauser, who ministered in Guam for many years.
“The Jesuits and other missionaries tried to engage the culture,” he said. “There are many values that can be learned from each other. The original sorting out of that doesn’t come without conflict.”
Conflicts between the Iroquois and the missionaries sometimes turned bloody, even deadly.
Still, the events of 1656 to 1658 should be marked as a reminder of Central New York’s roots, Mulhauser said.
There’s no doubt the missionaries’ interaction with the Iroquois was significant, Connors said.
“It was the meeting of the Old World and the New World,” he said. “There was a lot of controversy and ramifications of that story down to this day with the land claims.
“These issues are still relevant,” he said. “We still have two different societies that have to try to get along.”
Powless doesn’t think the Jesuits’ original intention was to live together peacefully with his ancestors.
“They were trying to convert the native people and change their religion,” he said. “They’ll tell you they were doing good, just like the United States will say they are doing something good over in Iraq. The parallel is the U.S. is trying to make those people something they’re not.”
Europeans harmed the land, the culture and the people, he said.
“It wasn’t just the French, but everyone who came in,” he said. “The Indians didn’t pollute the lake.”
The Iroquois offered an alternative in 1613, with the Two Row Wampum Belt, which recorded a treaty with the Dutch settlers.
“We explained how we could live here and coexist as long as our hunting laws were respected and as long as the environment was respected and we were respected,” he said. “They violated the natural laws. They were very destructive to our territory.”
Miller, who retired in 2002 after 10 years leading the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and chairs the operations committee of the volunteer-run museum, said Ste. Marie tries to respect
the message of the parallel purple and white rows of the wampum.
“The message of the mission is the two cultures can coexist,” he said.