"Anytime we have a gathering, we have a testimony. We have tears. There is still some pain and it's inter-generational pain."
That's the message Dr. Randy A. John, curator of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, brought to a full Warren County Courthouse main courtroom on Tuesday night in a presentation that followed the annual meeting of the Warren County Historical Society.
John gave a presentation entitled "Kinzua Dam: The Displacement of the Elderly and the Effects."
He told the story through interviews that he conducted with Seneca elders in the 1980s as part of his doctoral dissertation.
Approximately 600 Native Americans over 100 families were dislocated as part of the process of installing the Kinzua Dam, which amounts to between one-third and 40 percent of the Seneca Nation, according to John.
"Every time the Seneca side of the story is toldit's still very emotional to us," he said, adding that he said he prefers to use the term dislocation rather than relocation because "it was forced."
Even though the fourth generation since the dislocation is approaching, John said that an annual memorial, Remember the Removal, is held every year and designed as a place "for a former community that was closed (to) have meaningful healing. Healing is difficult for some. Many of the elders that are still around today were dislocated as teenagers. It's a painful experience, but real."
All of the elders that he interviewed in 1982 as a result of his dissertation work have since died. "To me, it's a very personal story. This experience was a lot like soul searching for me," he said. "Historically, the Seneca have always experienced cultural and social change."
Kinzua Dam was not the first instance of dislocation. He walked the audience through a brief history of the Nation that includes a host of re-location episodes.
But the dam was different.
"We were powerless to stop this," he said. Citing an author who has written extensively on the subject, John explained that the younger generations would be able to adapt more easily but that the older people will struggle. "It's the art of their life," he said, acknowledging that the livelihood of the Seneca Nation has always been connected to the river.
He said that one elder told him, "I used to say the government had a gun to my head." After dislocation, the people "had to adapt to a capitalist way of life," said John.
Before the dam, John said, 50 percent of the people hauled their own water and chopped their own wood. "This changed over night," he said. "We were poor people. We didn't have a casino back then. We might have been given new housesbut not new jobs."
John told stories from the elders of families installing wood stoves in their new homes to reverse a forced change in their life. "It just wasn't them. The majority of the people I interviewed, 67 percent, they (were) traumatized."
But John did not just focus on the plight of the Native Americans.
Approximately 10 individuals who were uprooted from those non-Indian communities were in attendance and several spoke of their frustration and anger as a result of dislocation.
"I think the story should be told that non-Indians suffered as well," he said. Noting that Corydon and Kinzua were two non-Indian communities eliminated as a result of construction, "what I say about the Senecas, I assume I'm saying to a similar degree" regarding those communities.