Monthly Archives: June 2010

History as voodoo

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation has started a potentially interesting new project examining some of the historical markers in Central New York. They have a Google map of markers started, and a list of good questions to ask about any markers you might encounter.

The study of history is supposed to enlarge one’s consciousness of reality, linking the past (and future) with the present. With the acquisition of more solid local knowledge, the mind’s eye can glance from 1981 to 1846 to 2072 in an instant. But in practice, creating historical memorials seems to often be more about limiting and controlling thoughts about this historical “space” we all live in.

Last week I was once again over by Cayuga Lake. Although the sour tang of the historical air there isn’t new to me, I got a fresh whiff of it when I started to notice how numerous and how well-kept the historical markers are over there. Especially as you get down near Aurora, there seems to be one on every other corner. I’ve never seen any other part of the state (except maybe in the Capital district) where they are so lovingly repainted and mowed around. People in Cayuga County want you to see their markers.

The other thing you notice is that not only are the “No Sovereign Nation – No Reservation” lawn signs as ubiquitous as ever, but they’re shiny and new. Even the well-to-do lakeside summer camp owners have them, something that always strikes me as particularly weird. The Cayugas are the only New York native nation who don’t have a reservation of their own, and they’re hardly rolling in serious dough (not like the Oneidas with Turning Stone), but I’ve always felt the palpable difference in the air when you’re in Cayuga country vs. Oneida country in terms of how disturbed the citizenry is about tax-free cigarettes and native land purchases.

The historical markers, I’m convinced, are there for the conservation of the present, not of the past. I call them “voodoo markers.” With protective magic, they glorify European and white American achievements, and help dispel the smoky miasma of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign which hit Cayuga country especially hard. (My favorite one is the marker on Route 90 that says “INDIAN MOUNDS” but then goes on only to speak of the Jesuits.) The campaign was both a tactical military expedition and a deliberate land grab — and “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” The land is still being fought over in some vague, half-forgotten way. Therefore, the markers have to be kept legible and numerous.

But honestly I can’t be too critical of Cayuga residents, because these markers can be pretty convenient after all. For example, Fairmount doesn’t have very many old buildings left. The oldest building, the former Whelan’s Funeral Home at Fairmount Corners, was once only narrowly saved from demolition (for a gas station) in the late ’60s. (It’s up for sale again.) The property sports an older historical marker which implies that the building was the home of James Geddes. This is probably incorrect, as his house was actually across the street.

So why don’t I care a whole lot? Because in a world where old buildings get knocked down, even a misleading historical marker grants a certain enhanced value to a property. It becomes its own sort of “voodoo marker,” offering a magical, deceptive protection. And it’s a deception that I’m inclined to give tacit approval of. I suppose the same magical protections can be extended by other kinds of historical markers, such as books about historical subjects. I guess we’re all a little guilty.