The Skä•noñh — Great Law of Peace Center at 6680 Onondaga Lake Parkway in Syracuse, New York on Onondaga nation ancestral lands. The purple flag is that of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, of which the Onondaga nation is a part. | Photo courtesy of the Skä•noñh — Great Law of Peace Center.

Philip Arnold, Sandy Bigtree and the Academic Collaborative at the Skä•noñh Center

Anna Henderson
17 min readDec 11, 2020


The story of the creation of an Indigenous decolonial institution

If you drive along the Onondaga Lake Parkway North of present-day Syracuse, New York, you will pass a small, dark brown building marked only with a purple flag, that of the Haudenosaunee. It is here that the Skä•noñh — Great Law of Peace Center which serves as heritage center for the five nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, operates upon the shores of New York’s Onondaga Lake. As it was Onondaga Lake where the Great Peacemaker brought together the five nations — the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca — and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was born, it is the perfect location for the center.

Yet this perfect location, is imperfect, the Center is on the other side of the Onondaga Lake Parkway from the Onondaga Lake. So, a four-lane highway, sits between the Skä•noñh center and the lake that is central to the story of the Indigenous peoples of central New York. This compromise reflects the tenuous existence of the Skä•noñh Center, which has resulted only from a lengthy process of collaboration and resistance over the course of many years.

The Skä•noñh Center is one of an increasing number of Indigenous cultural centers and museums in the United States and around the world. These places are “among those projects that can create a space for recovering traditional knowledge and countering dominant ideologies,”¹ in other words, the Skä•noñh Center is an institution engaged in a project of decolonial knowledge making. Telling the story of how the Skä•noñh Center came to be, and the people who were integral to that process, allows us to see the ways in which collaboration can become a site for the creation of decolonial institutions of the 21st century.

The History of the Present-day Skä•noñh Center

Before the Skä•noñh center was founded, the site was home to a museum known as the Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois, a replica of the 1656 French mission to Onondaga Nation, which ended after only two years². The Doctrine of Discovery, written by the Pope in 1493 states that any land that was not occupied by Christian people was available for ownership by any Christians who arrived on the land. This Doctrine was used as justification for this mission, and countless others across the Americas.

In 1933, the French Fort, as it was then called, was built on the current site to serve as a museum and historic replica of the 1600’s mission³. However, as Rhoda Sikes, former president of the Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake told the Syracuse New Times in 2002, the architect for the 1933 replica “wasn’t overly concerned with authenticity to the original”⁴. Instead, the fort was in the style of the Western United States, including ramparts, and other inaccuracies and anachronisms. As Sandy Bigtree, a member of the original planning committee and a current member of the Educational Collaborative for the Skä•noñh Center describes, the 1933 replica was a “reproduction of a 19th century fort to promote the cowboy and Indian theme” wherein “kids would come and learn the wrong history” of colonization in the area. The museum thus became part of the hegemonic narrative of colonization and the Indigenous peoples of the Central New York area.

The masculine colonial authority is understood as the benevolent protector of the Native, who arrived on the land to save the feminine and childlike savages through the word of Christ

Museums have long been the part of an on-going colonial project of knowledge making, wherein the stories and histories that are taught focus on the “imperial vision or gaze” that distorts views of Indigenous people, “reducing Indigenous notions of humanity, family or gender relations, to name a few, to social constructions of what colonists and their descendants consider to be “authentically” Native”⁵. The French Fort was no different, telling a story of peaceful relationships between the Onondaga Nation and the colonizer. It depicted the Indigenous peoples as savages who were saved by the arrival of the Jesuits, accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, and then peacefully handed over 600 square miles of land⁶.

This narrative is not only colonial, but it also shows how the colonial imagination is gendered in particular ways. The masculine colonial authority presented in this case by Jesuit priests is understood as the benevolent protector of the Native⁷, who arrived on the land to save the savages through the word of Christ. In the western narrative, the colonizer is constructed as masculine, the cowboy, who is entitled to the land and the people upon it and Indigenous people are implicitly feminine and childlike in need of saving.

The French Fort gained significant popularity in the region and by the 1970 had become a living history museum. However, in 1988 the Fort, which was in need of repairs, was torn down and rebuilt to be a more accurate representation of what Fort Sainte Marie de Gannentaha, as it was known during the French settlement, would have looked like in the 1650s. Funded jointly by Onondaga County and the Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake, as well as other private and corporate donors, the new museum opened in 1991. This new museum had a 19 person staff who worked as first-person living history interpreters, demonstrating the role of men and women on the Jesuit site. It is this renovation, more so than the previous iterations of the museum, that solidified the local importance of the Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois Museum to Central New York. Yet, the museum still told a colonial, hegemonic history that “portrayed the Jesuit missionaries in a particularly good light”⁸.

The Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois reconstruction in 2012. | Photo: Jac Meyers, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to budget cuts by the Onondaga County government, the museum was closed in 2002, much to the chagrin of many locals. A 2002 article from the Syracuse New Times points to the historic and cultural loss to the area with the closure of the museum, quoting from Robert Geraci, then Onondaga County Park commissioner, “Sainte Marie is only one piece of a bigger story that can be taught in and around the environs of Onondaga Lake…there’s five centuries of history around the lake, starting with [the 17th century]”⁹. There is, of course, much more than 500 years of history for the Onondaga Nation, but that history was irrelevant to the narrative of the Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois museum.

Following the 2002 budget cuts, the museum was reopened and run for almost a decade on a volunteer basis. However, in 2011 the site was once again closed as the Onondaga County government sought to repurpose the second level of the museum as office space for the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District, where it remains today. While discussing this process is not within the scope of this essay, there was considerable frustration for some non-Native community members and volunteers at Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois about the abrupt closure of the site and lack of communication regarding reopening processes, which never occurred. Many Haudenosaunee people, however, were happy that the center had closed¹⁰.

After the 2011 closure, the site sat, housing only the offices and a few exhibits on the ground floor. It was then that Philip Arnold become involved with the site. In a letter to the editor of the Syracuse Post Standard published on March 16, 2012, Arnold, an Associate Professor at Syracuse University, wrote:

It is time to begin a process of healing [from colonial conquest], by partnering with the Onondaga Nation. Ideas have been exchanged for decades around building a cultural educational center at the lake. The federal, state, county and city governments and local colleges and other educational institutions could be guided by the Onondaga Nation in an unprecedented collaboration.

The Gage Center in Fayetteville New York. | Photo: “Matilda Joslyn Gage Marker” by mrsmecomber is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It was this letter to the editor that planted the seed for what would become the Skä•noñh Center. Dr. Sally Wagner, the founder and Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation¹¹ and a women’s studies scholar, then set up a meeting between Gregg Tripoli, Executive Director of the Onondaga Historical Center (OHA) and Arnold. In the upstairs library of the Gage Center, the conversation about what would become the Skä•noñh Center began.

Arnold along with Sandy Bigtree and representatives from Onondaga Nation, Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse University, the State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry, Onondaga Community College, LeMoyne College, The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and Empire State College formed the planning committee for this new museum. This Academic Collaborative, as it is called, worked together to plan and develop the Skä•noñh Center to tell the history of central New York through the Haudenosaunee perspective. As Arnold described “Sandy and I certainly, and we convinced many others, we developed a Two Row Wampum method”. A Two Row Wampum method is a reference to the Gä•sweñta’ Treaty made between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Dutch settlers in the early 1610s. This agreement established that the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch would live together, each of their own ways, as two rows running the length of a wampum belt, the Haudenosaunee practice of recording history wherein “the speaker puts the words of the agreement into the wampum as the strings or belts are woven together. Each speaker thereafter uses the wampum to remember the initial agreement and the history that has happened to date”¹².

Replica of a Two Row Wampum belt on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. | Photo: “Guswenta ‘Two Row’ Wampum Belt (Replica)” by keycmndr (aka CyberShutterbug) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is this type of collaboration that Bowechop and Erickson write about in “Forging Indigenous Methodologies on Cape Flattery” about the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Washington State, collaboration meant not the Native person as an object of study, but “joint intellectual work or coalition building, while acknowledging the need to guard against the ongoing potential for hegemonic practices to undermine”¹³. The development of the center required that the members of the planning committee work actively work against the colonial structures and narratives of the site and its history.

The Two Row Wampum is a living treaty and establishes that the people of Haudenosaunee nations respect the ways of others and discuss solutions to issues collectively, allowing everyone to live in peace. Thus, by using adhering to this method for the Skä•noñh Center, academics and Indigenous people worked in tandem with one another to coordinate the messaging of the museum.

The Academic Collaborative and the Development of the Skä•noñh Center

Sandy Bigtree is a citizen of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. For the first three decades of her life, Sandy performed throughout central New York, including as the lead singer of the Sandy Bigtree Band in the 1970s. In 1978, she was approached by the Onondaga Nation who asked if she could help bring non-Native people to Onondaga to help raise awareness of the Haudenosaunee contributions to the world. Bigtree was unaware of this of the contributions of the Haudenosaunee to Western democracy and the women’s movement prior to er engagement with the Onondaga nation. She is not alone in this, as the influence of the Haudenosaunee on the creation of American democracy has been largely untold¹⁴.

Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper and a Chief of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs, in 2015 wearing an Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Jacket. More information regarding the importance of lacrosse for the Onondaga can be found here. | Photo: by Aaron Sortal courtesy of the Daily Orange

In 1983, while working in Boulder, Colorado for the American Indian Law Support Center at the Native American Rights Fund, Bigtree met Philip Arnold, a student at University of Colorado-Boulder studying religion. They married in 1984 and set off to the University of London, where Phil was received his master’s degree in the Institute of Archaeology and Latin American Studies Department. Upon arrival at the airport in London, the couple noticed the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team in the lobby. They had traveled to England, on their Onondaga nation passports, to play against England for the first time in 99 years. For Arnold and Bigtree, this encounter at Gatwick Airport, verified they were on the right track in doing this work.

Eventually, the couple and their two children retuned to Syracuse where Arnold is an Associate Professor and Chair of Religion at Syracuse University. Both served as founding members of the planning committee for the Center, Arnold served as the Director, and both remain part of the Academic Collaborative. This collaboration with the Onondaga Nation between Arnold, Bigtree and the other members of the committee are what created the Skä•noñh Center of today.

Sand Bigtree (left) and Philip Arnold (right) at the Skä·noñh Center in 2019. | Photo by Hannah Ly courtesy of the Daily Orange

At the start of the project, the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA), who manage the site, believed that the newly repurposed fort should tell both sides of the story of colonization, that of the Jesuit settlers and of the Haudenosaunee. In addition, the OHA pushed for the center to be named the Iroquois Heritage Center. Iroquois is the name given to the Haudenosaunee by settlers; it is not an Indigenous name. Arnold says that the collaborative pushed back against these ideas which “allowed the Onondaga nation’s values to become prominent,” without the collaborative, the center would have reflected the Onondaga county government’s telling of history, which is a Western narrative. The collaborative’s agenda was to form a center that was based on, and embedded in, the Peacemaker’s message of the Great Law of Peace and traditional values.

The collaborative’s agenda was to form a center that was based on, and embedded in, the Peacemaker’s message of the Great Law of Peace and traditional values.

While the center is a Haudenosaunee Heritage Center, because the Onondaga are the firekeepers, or the so-called capital, of the confederacy, and the center is on Onondaga land, the academic collaborative worked specifically with leadership from that nation to ensure that the center was on message and reflective of Haudenosaunee values. The exhibits in the museum include The Creation Story, The Peacemaker’s Journey and the Great Law of Peace, and Thanksgiving Address, the value of Wampum, Haudenosaunee influence, Treaties, Colonialism through the Doctrines of Discovery, Sullivan-Clinton scorched-earth Campaign, Boarding Schools, and the Contributions of the Haudenosaunee. Each exhibit provokes the visitor to reflect, think and unlearn.

Video about the Continuance & Contributions exhibit via the Ska’nonh Center webiste

Especially important, is how the exhibits highlight the role of women in Haudenosaunee culture. In particular, the Creation Story which emphasizes the relationship of care between Sky Woman and the creatures of Earth and, the last exhibit, titled Continuance and Contribution, discusses, among other stories, the role of Haudenosaunee women in the American women’s rights movement. These exhibits thus disrupt the masculinized colonial agenda that had been told by the French Fort and the white-washed history of the suffrage movement.

Moving Forward

The Skä•noñh Center officially opened its doors on November 21st, 2015 with an opening celebration that featured Native American dance, food, and arts and crafts. Since then, the planning committee has grown into a much larger project, of which the center remains part, but is not the entirety. This project is known as the Indigenous Values Initiative (IVI). The IVI has allowed the collaborators, headed by Arnold as President, to move away from the management and fiscal control of the Onondaga Historical Association and begin to have a broader focus. Their mission statement reads that they are “dedicated to articulating, disseminating and promoting values expressed by the leadership of the Onondaga Nation” through educational programs, such as conferences and classes. They work to help the Central New York community to heal from “colonization, missionization, genocide, and assimilation” and to support the efforts of the Haudenosaunee to educate on their influence on American democracy and women’s rights.

An exhibit at the Skä•noñh Center | Photo courtesy of The Skä•noñh — Great Law of Peace Center

At Skä•noñh, Arnold encourages complete control of the center by the Onondaga Nation, or at the least a more direct collaboration between the county and the nation, though this is politically and economically complicated. The greater that the Onondaga Nation controls the narrative of the center, the more decolonial the institution will be.

Collaboration as an Anti-Colonial Feminist Methodology

What do we learn from Sandy, Philip, and the Academic Collaborative at the Skä•noñh Center? We learn about the importance of intentional collaboration. Collaboration has been theorized as an important feminist methodology for resisting systems of oppression. As Benson and Nagar wrote in 2006, “Collaboration is a complex and powerful tool that can be developed — through constant and multiple self-critiques by intellectuals and activists in and beyond academia and NGOs — to forge alliances and re(de)fine methodologies that seek to reconstitute the norms, structures and content of feminist knowledges and political agendas in anti-hierarchical ways”¹⁵. Though Benson and Nagar are focusing specifically on oral histories, their argument holds for considering how collaboration functioned in the development of the Skä•noñh Center where it was expressly articulated as a strategy and based not on Western traditions but those of Indigenous people. All of these knowledges did not begin in feminist studies, they are indigenous practices that have been rediscovered and repurposed by the feminist academy. Collaboration is not exclusively anti-colonial or exclusively feminist but is inextricably tied to the liberatory projects of both movements.

Simply by existing and telling Haudenosaunee stories as they are meant to be told, the Skä•noñh Center is resisting settler colonialism and disrupting gendered colonial narratives.

The primary aim of a settler colonial society is to erase. To erase the people, nations, lands, values, cultures, knowledges of anyone who is part of a non-dominant group. Settler colonialism is not merely an event but a structure. Even though the French settlers were only on Onondaga territory for two years, they were the catalyst for a far larger system of oppression that has continued. Their fort, Fort Sainte Marie de Gannentaha, Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois, The French Fort, and whatever iteration it is in, has been a site for the continued erasure of Native peoples and history from the very beginning. Simply by existing and telling Haudenosaunee stories as they are meant to be told, the Skä•noñh Center is resisting settler colonialism and disrupting gendered colonial narratives. Without the Academic Collaborative and their work, this likely would not have been possible. It is collaboratives such as these which are “based on shared resources, repositioned indigenous and academic authorities, and relations of genuine respect” that are able to decolonize institutions and histories and make Indigenous knowledges and histories prominent¹⁶.

French Jesuit Priests lived along Onondaga Lake for two years in the 17th century with explicit aim of spreading their gospel. The Onondaga Nation have lived on the land since time immemorial. They have resisted conquest, missionization, colonization and efforts to erase them and their history. Against the overt evils of settler colonialism, the covert dangers of inaccurate museums, and a four-lane highway on the shores of a sacred lake, the Onondaga people remain, and they have a story to tell. The Skä•noñh Center is a feminist decolonial institution that helps them tell it.

Special thanks to Sandy Bigtree, Dr. Philip Arnold and Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner for their patience, wisdom and guidance on this project. Thank you also to Sarah Shute, Director of the Skä·noñh Center, for the photographs.


  1. Bowechop, Janine, Erikson, Patricia Pierce. “Forging Indigenous Methodologies on Cape Flattery: The Makah Museums as a Center of Collaborative Research”. American Indian Quarterly; Winter 2005; 29, ½. ProQuest. Pg. 263
  2. The history here was difficult to find due partially to lack of records and the limited resources available to me, namely those of Syracuse University, however Dr. Sally Wagner, a member of the Academic Collaborative who has worked extensively with Onondaga Nation, wrote to me that the story she has heard from the Onondaga Nation was that “the Jesuits were kicked-out because of an attempted atrocity that got exposed”. Sandy Bigtree concurred, saying that 20 months after the arrival of the Jesuits the Onondaga asked them to leave, but is not sure of the reason. They both state that this is the reason that there has never been, and will never be, a Catholic church on the Onondaga nation.
  3. It is believed that this site is close to, but not exactly, the location of the original mission
  4. Rezsnyak, E. (2002, Oct 30). Saintes preserve us: Lacking county funds to operate Sainte Marie among the Iroquois, a part of our past faces an uncertain future. Syracuse New Times
  5. Bowechop & Erikson, pg. 263
  6. As told to me by Sandy Bigtree
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  9. Rezsnyak, E. (2002)
  10. As told to me by Dr. Sally Wagner
  11. The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation is located in Fayetteville, New York and honors Gage who was “a progressive visionary of women’s rights and human liberation and an often unacknowledged leader” of the women’s suffrage movement. Notably, the foundation has a particular focus on the role of Native women in the American women’s rights movement of the 19th century.
  12. Onondaga Nation, (n.d.). Two Row Wampum — Gä•sweñta’.
  13. Bowechop & Erikson, pg. 265
  14. A more detailed history can be found here: Please note that this article uses Iroquois which is not how the Haudenosaunee refer to themselves.
  15. Benson, Koni and Richa Nagar. “Collaboration as Resistance? Reconsidering the Process, Products, and Possibilities of Feminist Oral History and Ethnography.” Gender, Place, and Culture. 30. 5 (2006): pg. 583
  16. Swan, Daniel C; Jordan, Michael Paul. “Contingent Collaborations: Patterns of Reciprocity in Museum-Community Partnerships”. Journal of Folklore Research; Bloomington Ind. Vol. 52. Iss. 1, (Jan/April 2015): 39–84.


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  2. Arnold, Philip. (16 Mar. 2012). Replace colonial conquest story to being healing.
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  7. CNY History. (n.d.).
  8. Fortier, Sam. (23 September 2019). Onondaga Nation legend Oren Lyons brings lacrosse back to origins. The Daily Orange.
  9. Guiterrez, Matthew. (15 April 2018). For 57 years, this man has crafted wooden lacrosse sticks by hand. The Daily Orange.
  10. Hansen, Terri. (17 Dec. 2018). How the Iroquois Great Law of Peace Shaped U.S. Democracy. PBS.ORG.
  11. Kraynak, Mandy. (20 November 2019). SU professor talks work with Ska-nonh Center — Great Law of Peace Center. The Daily Orange.
  12. Major, J. (2016). THE FRENCH FORT.
  13. Onondaga Nation, (n.d.). Two Row Wampum — Gä•sweñta’.
  14. Onondaga Nation, (n.d.).
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  16. Pratt, Geraldine. “Collaboration as Feminist Strategy.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. 17. 1 (2010): 43–48. (PDF)
  17. Rezsnyak, E. (2002, Oct 30). Saintes preserve us: Lacking county funds to operate sainte marie among the iroquois, a part of our past faces an uncertain future. Syracuse New Times Retrieved from
  18. Sinha, Mrinalin. Reoncfiguring Hierachied; The Ilbert Bill Controversy, 1883–84. The Postcolonial Feminist Reader.
  19. Stern, Gabe. (7 March 2019). Onondaga Nation searches for items lost more than 100 years ago. The Daily Orange.
  20. Swan, Daniel C; Jordan, Michael Paul. “Contingent Collaborations: Patterns of Reciprocity in Museum-Community Partnerships”. Journal of Folklore Research; Bloomington Ind. Vol. 52. Iss. 1, (Jan/April 2015): 39–84.
  21. The Skanonh Great Law of Peace Center. (n.d).



Anna Henderson

Senior Undergraduate student in Anthropology and Women's and Gender Studies at Syracuse University.