Eric Gansworth


     I am an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation which resides near the geographical heart of New York State, outside of the city of Syracuse. While tribally, this identity is mine because of the Haudenosaunee's matrilineal tradition, I am much more experientially allied with another tribe of the Haudenosaunee, having been born and raised on the Tuscarora Indian reservation, now in more P.C. times called the Tuscarora Nation, just outside of Niagara Falls, in western New York. The story goes, according to my mother, and hers before her, and back to the beginning of our time in this place, that the Tuscaroras, on their migration from the Carolinas, were accompanied to their present location by two Onondaga women who joined the Tuscaroras after their membership acceptance into the Haudenosaunee; thus, at the formation of this piece of land's identity as the Tuscarora Nation, in the 1700s, my direct ancestor was present--one of two Onondaga women who perpetuated their lines among the Tuscaroras.

     The first six years of my formal education were at the Tuscarora Indian School, where we learned the Tuscarora language, as well as standard elementary school fare. As frequently happens, upon entering junior and high school, I grew less studious in this area and indulged other interests instead of continuing in evening language classes for adults. Occasionally now I attend those night sessions, attempting to fit my adult frame into the confines of an elementary school desk, but every time, I leave the building at the heart of our reservation, overwhelmed by the knowledge I've lost over the twenty years.

     At home, I'm known for two things. The first thing resulted from my habit of wearing a towel pinned around my neck through my early childhood; even now, still known as Batman to most people on the reservation as I move beyond the age of thirty, I look at my extensive collection of Batman memorabilia as many years old and know they were right in giving me that name.

     The other area for which I am known is less dubious. I was the kid who could draw. Some friends and I even went door to door summers when we were kids, trying to hawk my drawings to the folks who lived down the road. Some asked me if I had any Indian drawings, but I never did. I could offer images from the Planet of the Apes, The Towering Inferno, Spiderman and, of course, Batman, but I had a critical shortage of Indian drawings. I kept thinking of those Curtis photos, and some of the Franklin Mint warrior and shaman prints people had up on their living room walls, and those works seemed so far removed from our lives, that Batman seemed closer to reality--and I'm talking about the campy, ludicrous television version of the caped crusader. Our lives were bright and colorful, full of laughter, and the villains were pretty clearly defined, too. The cliffhangers occurred at the end of the month, when we were never really sure we were clever enough to survive until the next check.

     I continued to draw, and advanced to painting, when I got a job in high school and could afford paints and brushes. I found after a while that the stories I was trying to tell in my paintings were becoming too busy and complicated, so I tried writing them--sometimes as well as, sometimes instead of, painting them.
As I left the reservation to begin college, trying to escape the disapproving look whenever someone realized I was Indian, I discovered, in the negation of my everyday life at home, what an incredibly unique upbringing I'd had. We weren't the stoic and frozen statuary Curtis captured, but our experiences weren't like anyone's I'd met who was from the outside, either. It was rather strange, because the "outside'' was only a three minute destination by car, but vast millions of miles away by thought. Even while there, I chose a profession that was considered "valuable" in our community; my Associate Degree from Niagara County Community College is in an Applied Science: Electroencephalography - the clinical study of brain waves. Writing and painting were not going to put food on my table, according to my family, so I went in the direction they wanted first, taking creative writing and literature classes anywhere I could fit in an elective.

     Once I had that degree, in case I needed it to survive, I began writing more seriously and decided to continue my education in a field involving the less clinical side of brain waves, in which I actually had interest. I concentrated primarily on American Literature in attaining my B.A. and M.A. in English from the State University College at Buffalo and can recall reading only one American Indian author for a class in my entire career as a student. On my own, I was reading the works of Louise Erdrich, Ted Williams, Leslie Marmon Silko, and others, as a way to keep connected with home. Through reading these novels, while I lived in the outside world, I was able to discover that the inside was as rich and satisfying--more so, in fact.

     While I continue to live and work off the reservation, about ten minutes away, by car, my connections remain strong. Presently, I am an Associate Professor of English at Canisius College, in Buffalo, where I have introduced a course in contemporary Native American Literature, hoping to raise awareness and be a positive role model in whatever ways I can. I have moved there, after eight years of work at Niagara County Community College, where I was an Assistant Professor of English. I am involved, at least weekly, with my family, (immediate members, 39, extended, closing in on 200) who all still live on the reservation; with that many members, there are plenty of birthdays scattered throughout the year.

     My rediscovery in college of the wondrous life I shared with my family and friends, over time, began to appear in my work. At one point, I had believed I was writing a Stephen King-ish horror story, only to discover I was taking my real inspirations from reservation ghost stories. Eventually, I came back around to writing and painting about what I know--reservation life. My first attempt to really capture the wonders of the reservation life I know, as itself, unadorned, without the trappings of modern horror pop culture, or any of that other nonsense, "The Ballad of Plastic Fred," also resulted in my first publication--a sign, I guess, of where I should have been in the first place.

Reprinted by permission of Eric Gansworth