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Kurt Jordan does his archaeological digs and research in a region very familiar to him—the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Jordan collaborates with Native communities—including the Senecas and Cayugas—uncovering ancestral details and lost history and connecting the public with archaeology of the Finger Lakes.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“The biggest misconception members of the general public have is that Native people are gone. There are established communities in this region, and they are still very invested in their ancestral lands.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Speaking of a student program for Native digs, “You really get a sense of the significance and importance of the work, so you don’t get so irked by the weather, or the fact that your shovel’s not sharp enough or whatever else.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Jordan has excavated enough artifacts to fill more than 100 banker boxes, all from archaeological digs in the White Springs, New York area, an ancestral home of the Senecas.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

The Native Archaeology of the Finger Lakes

by Caitlin Hayes

Kurt A. Jordan, Anthropology and American Indian and Indigenous Studies, grew up in a small town between Ithaca and Trumansburg, New York. After attending Cornell as an undergraduate, he left the Ithaca area and didn’t think he’d come back, at least not to do field work. “I wanted to go somewhere interesting, and this wasn’t,” he says.

Part of that was being a kid, he says. “The other part is that I wasn’t interested in the Euro-American history that was available here, and I wasn’t much exposed to the Native history.”

After living in places like Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where a historic sign marks every street corner, Jordan started to think more critically about the presence of indigenous history, or lack thereof, back home. “I did some reading and realized there was a big gap, a real problem, and I felt like maybe I could help address it,” he says.

Through his writing, archaeology, and outreach, Jordan works alongside Native partners to better understand the indigenous history of the Finger Lakes region. He strives to share that history and connect it to the realities of Native communities now. “The biggest misconception members of the general public have is that Native people are gone,” Jordan says. “There are established communities in this region, and they are still very invested in their ancestral lands. It’s an ongoing connection.”

The Seneca People, from Ganondagan to White Springs

In 1687 a Seneca village called Ganondagan, southeast of current-day Rochester, New York, was burned by the French in an effort to curb competition in the fur trade. The Seneca people from Ganondagan moved to a site near Geneva, New York, later named White Springs by Euro-Americans. This is where Jordan and his indigenous partners have been excavating since 2007.

It was Jordan’s Seneca collaborators who chose White Springs. They wanted to uncover the details of how their ancestors survived in the immediate aftermath of Ganondagan. “The project is really about resilience, enduring bad times,” he says. “That same sort of situation keeps coming up, and they want to know how their ancestors dealt with it.”

After seven years of digging, a room in the basement of McGraw Hall is filled with more than 100 banker’s boxes of artifacts from the site—everything from soil and charcoal samples to animal bones, glass beads, iron nails, and much more. The task now is to thoroughly catalog and analyze the material.

The information they’ll glean is the kind of detail only archaeology can provide—the crops grown by the community, what they hunted and when, the kind of wood they burned, the specific architecture of the dwellings. “There’s a lot of tangible, relatable history that can come out of it for Native communities, information about how their ancestors lived,” Jordan says.

“The project is really about resilience, enduring bad times. That same sort of situation keeps coming up, and they want to know how their ancestors dealt with it.”

Radical Collaboration in Archaeology

The involvement of Native collaborators in the White Springs project, and all archaeological projects Jordan is involved with, is essential, he says. He has tried to move away from what he calls the old-style archaeology, “the white-guy-decides-where-to-dig type of archaeology,” he explains. While he has always leaned toward collaborative work, he credits the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) for setting the right tone at Cornell.

“That the work you do impacts living Native communities, and needs to address that fact and obtain their consent, their cooperation, working side by side—all of that is really part of the AIISP ethos. And that’s been really a wonderful thing. I’m very grateful that it exists at Cornell,” he says.

With funding and support from AIISP, Jordan was able to offer scholarships to indigenous students to attend the dig at White Springs and a paid position for a Native graduate student. During one summer, Jordan says there were more Native than non-Native people working at the site.

“It was a very interesting dynamic,” Jordan says. “You really get a sense of the significance and importance of the work, so you don’t get so irked by the weather, or the fact that your shovel’s not sharp enough or whatever else.”

In keeping with the spirit of the project, the resulting book will be a collaborative effort with multiple authors. “And instead of just having authors write individual chapters, we’re going to make the writing itself more collaborative,” Jordan says. “We’ll have principal authors, but we’re going to give people the opportunity to interject and interrupt within the text, so that it reflects more of a conversation.”

Telling the Story of Destruction and Neglect of Native History

Uncovering a neglected history poses a tantalizing challenge, Jordan says. “The archaeology of this area is very fragmented. Trying to put together all of these disparate pieces, it’s a puzzle of sorts,” he explains. “It’s a matter of chasing things down and making some of the connections that people haven’t made before. I think that’s really a great deal of fun.”

It can also be frustrating, he admits. Jordan has been trying to track down, for example, a pair of 10,000-year old spear points that were allegedly found on the Cornell campus. A photograph of the spear points appears in a 1957 book, with a caption giving a vague description of where they were found. Jordan has been tracing correspondences to try to resurrect the story of the points, but there are gaps and inaccuracies, and it now seems neither the points nor their original location can be found. “I started to realize that it was never going to come together,” he says. “The story is that there’s no story.”

In cases like this one, Jordan is finding that telling about the destruction and neglect of Native history has to be presented alongside the history itself. He has made this aspect of his research a part of his outreach efforts. He’s given more than 15 public presentations, mostly local, about the archaeology of the Finger Lakes—what we know, what we can’t know, and what has been destroyed.

“There is a fair amount of documentation about earlier Ithaca residents destroying Native burial sites and taking stuff to their homes,” Jordan says. “We have a bit of a paper trail here and there, but the artifacts are gone. What we can do is document the destruction.”

Lost History of the Cayugas in Tompkins County, New York

Jordan has taken on another puzzle-like project that focuses more specifically on Tompkins County and the region’s Cayuga heritage. He is searching for, collating, and documenting the known Cayuga place names within the county. This project is a collaboration with organizers of the 2017 Tompkins County Bicentennial commemoration, which will include a book of essays to which Jordan is contributing.

Much of the Cayuga people’s history in Tompkins County has been lost—mainly because of destruction but also because Cayugas largely resettled in other areas after the 1779 Sullivan Expedition. Ordered by George Washington, American troops led by John Sullivan ravaged Native villages and communities in Upstate New York as retaliation for siding with the British in the Revolutionary War. Some Cayugas moved back into the Ithaca area once the American forces retreated. Cayuga investment in the region, Jordan says, is still strong. Many place names, however, have likely been lost over generations.

Jordan is mining historical sources—written accounts by early travelers, missionaries, anthropologists, and antiquarians—to recover and collate all known place names. He hopes to bring his list to the Cayuga people—some who have resettled recently at the north end of Cayuga Lake and others who live near Buffalo, New York and in Ontario, Canada—to see if they can help fill in gaps.     

“I want to get these names into a source that people will look at and that will make them think both about the world here that’s really been lost and the Native community that’s still here and invested,” Jordan says. “It’s a project that fits into my overall goal of wanting to improve the knowledge that’s available to the general public about the Native history of this region, as well as its legacy in the present.”