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New Native American museum to highlight Great Law of Peace

What used to be the Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois Museum on Onondaga Lake will be transformed into a new kind of museum in the next year. The new Great Law of Peace Educational Center will tell the story of upstate New York's Native Americans, from their point of view.

Museums have often been a tough fit with Native American cultures. "Traditional historical organizations have dealt in the past with a predominately written history," says Onondaga Historical Association Executive Director Greg Tripoli.   

He notes the tradition and history of the Haudeneaseene isn't written, but spoken. So this new center will fill a void when it comes to understanding the first people who lived in this part of upstate New York. The Haudenosaunee is also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.

"This is the first time that the nation, the confederacy, has been able to express their history in their own words in the way they have chronicled that history, which is basically an oral history," said Tripoli.

Syracuse University religion professor Philip Arnold will be the founding director of the center.

"We're treading on interesting collaboration here that's never been done in Onondaga County between the Onondaga Nation, the OHA [Onondaga Historical Association] and the county and the educational institutions, and it's unique. We'll have to make sure we do it the right way," said Arnold.

Arnold expects the new center won't look like your traditional museum, and at this point he's thinking the story can be told through sports, food and art among other things. That's why planners aren't rushing into anything. "I hope we can have events, maybe some talks or artistic events, that can be rolling out in 2013.  But we intend to take 2013 to plan the facility, opening in 2014," said Arnold.

At the core of it all, will be the Great Law of Peace, the oral constitution that governed the Haudenosaunee for more than 1,000 years. The impact of the Great Law has been profound through the years - influencing everything from the development of democracy, to women's rights.

Arnold hopes to tell the Great Law of Peace story through the Haudenosaunee themselves in its oral tradition. Noting that the law still is used to govern the Onondaga Nation (one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee) to this day, he says it can still be a guide for the future.

"Rather than a rights and privilege society, which we currently inhabit, the Onondagas think of themselves as a duties and responsibilities to their own traditions and to the natural world," he says. "I think if we have a little more of that in our society it could take us a long way."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.