Sean Kirst: 'Like our ancestors came out to listen': In the Old First Ward, reigniting native roots (2023)

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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

Sean Kirst

Dean Seneca touched base the other day with a buddy in Texas, a guy named Donny, part of a friendship that began as 6-year-olds in the Old First Ward. The essence of the call – made from the heart of a January winter – involved some annual gateways to spring in Buffalo:

Could they meet up at the Shamrock Run or the St. Patrick’s Parade, both events a big part of their youthful years – and both not much more now than a month away?

Donny wasn't absolutely sure, but he made a point Dean thought about for a long time:

Sean Kirst: 'Like our ancestors came out to listen': In the Old First Ward, reigniting native roots (2)

When his friend spoke of the neighborhood, he called it home.

That resonated with Dean, 55, a longtime Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health scientist who now works as a university professor and consultant. "Thirty years since he left, a family in Texas, more time there than he had here, and that's how he still sees it," Dean said. "For both of us, even now, home is the Old First Ward."

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Dean lives in Otto, in Cattaraugus County, but he dreams of getting a place again where he was raised. He grew up playing youth sports in the ward. As teenagers, he and his buddies walked through the shadows of old mill buildings on their way to see Van Halen or Deep Purple at the old Memorial Auditorium, the arena everyone called “The Aud,” before Dean played basketball at the University at Buffalo, then built his successful career.

The childhood difference for Dean, the separation of which he was aware from the time when he could walk, was simply this: He pushed down the core of who he was. “It wasn’t cool to be an Indian kid in an Irish neighborhood,” he said of how he felt.

His dad, who shared the same first and last name and died last year of cancer, was part of the Seneca Nation. Dean's father endured a childhood spent primarily in Father Baker's orphanage or foster homes, before meeting Dean's mother, Joyce. Through hard work, the couple created their own foothold in life.

Sean Kirst: 'Like our ancestors came out to listen': In the Old First Ward, reigniting native roots (3)

The elder Dean Seneca was an ironworker. The greatest monument to his craft just reached the 50th anniversary of its opening: Dean said his dad was one of the guys who “topped it off” when construction crews finished the Marine Midland Center, now the Seneca One Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Buffalo.

Yet Dean, his father's legacy on his mind, said he is increasingly pleased about a gentle shift in how this childhood community he loves is appreciating a more layered history, beyond even the mills and freighters and immigrants who gave the neighborhood its rich and gritty fabric.

"To embrace the Haudenosaunee heritage," Dean said, "is good for Buffalo."

Part of that Six Nations connection is reinforced every time he stops by the Waterfront Memories and More Heritage Center, a community museum and meeting place supervised by PeggySzczygiel and her close friend Bert Hyde,80, a retired police headquarters cleaning woman.

They have both known “Deano,” as they call him, since he was tiny – Bert’s son Richie is one of his closest friends – and the two curators honor historical facts that mean everything to Dean:

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Walk into the center, and you are greeted by mural-sized images of such Haudenosaunee giants as Cornplanter and Red Jacket. The museum began with scrapbooks and mementoes Bert assembled in her home, and it grew into the treasury of neighborhood knowledge that it is now.

That includes recalling how the Buffalo Creek territory was once the center of both culture and diplomacy for the Six Nations – until the Seneca Nation found itself at risk of losing all its Western New York territory through the “treaty of Buffalo Creek” in 1838, a land deal quickly established as fraudulent.

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Szczygiel patiently assembled much of that information, based on longtime curiosity at why so many neighborhood landmarks carried native names. It began with the humility critical to any great researcher: “I kind of knew what I didn't know,” she said.

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“This is a little peek into the glue that holds this community together,” said Sara Heidinger, chairwoman of the Old First Ward Community Center. “It’s opening our world to everyone else for a

Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, a historian whose grandfather was raised at the Tuscarora Nation, said outrage about that 1830s land takeaway would eventually lead to the Senecas regaining part of what had been their vast Western New York territory – but the losses included the sweeping portion covering much of what is now Buffalo.

That area had critical importance, said Mt. Pleasant, whose ancestors lived at Buffalo Creek. It was a prosperous indigenous center for both fishing and farming, a place where many Haudenosaunee families fled as refugees after American troops burned their lands during the Revolutionary War. For a time, the council fire for the entire confederacy – traditionally at the Onondaga Nation, near Syracuse – burned at Buffalo Creek.

Dean Seneca remembers learning that detailed narrative at the University at Buffalo from the late John Mohawk, a revered native scholar. The revelations were life-changing, Dean said. A kid who had grown up feeling like an outcast – even if he hid it from close friends he still loves – abruptly realized a new truth:

Sean Kirst: 'Like our ancestors came out to listen': In the Old First Ward, reigniting native roots (6)

In the place where he was born, he had the deepest roots of all.

The Seneca Nation built on those historic connections when it established its casino and other services on territory in the Old First Ward. Still, Dean said the full emotional magnitude of that legacy did not hit him until last autumn, when he, Mt. Pleasant and others with strong ties to the Six Nations participated in an event at Red Jacket Riverfront Park that followed traditional Haudenosaunee protocol.

Mt. Pleasant, who offered remarks that day on Buffalo Creek history, described it as a signal that the Western New York Land Conservancy is moving toward understanding Haudenosaunee responsibilities for their ancestral homelands.

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The players saw it as a gift: They had been given a chance, in a global sports spotlight, to respond on behalf of the Indigenous world, Kirst writes.

The conservancy's longtime executive director, Nancy Smith, transitioned a few weeks ago into a role as a senior adviser. Both she and her successor, Jon Kaledin, expressed this point: An organization dedicated to protecting natural landscape integrity ought to have a strong, expanding bond with the region’s indigenous people.

Acting on that commitment, Smith first spoke to Dean while the conservancy mapped out its plan for a 1.5-mile trail known as “The Riverline,” designed for a railroad bed stretching through the Old First Ward into South Buffalo.

Their discussions soon involved a tree-planting grant received by the conservancy from Niagara River Greenway, and the way old maps described one riverbend in what is now Red Jacket Park – named for the legendary Seneca Nation chief, orator and diplomat – as the “place of the basswoods,” a tree of deep meaning for the Haudenosaunee.

Smith reached out to Dean, Mt. Pleasant and others within the Six Nations. The result was a group of basswood saplings planted last year at that bend, and the acknowledgement was a gathering last autumn that Dean organized – including the reading of “the words that come before all else,” the Haudenosaunee thanksgiving address.

Among the native singers taking part was Heath Hill, of the Oneida Nation. He felt the same wave of spirit and emotion that Dean said seemed to roll in from the river and the woods – a palpable realization of just how long it had been since those words were spoken at that spot.

“It was like our ancestors came out to listen,” Hill said.

Sean Kirst: 'Like our ancestors came out to listen': In the Old First Ward, reigniting native roots (8)

Mt. Pleasant saw the tree-planting as a symbol of early environmental recovery in an area scarred by long-gone industries. To Dean, the notion of thanksgiving captured much of what he felt: He remains close to many neighborhood friends he has known since grade school, and he said he loves Hyde and Szczygiel, the museum curators who respond to him with what amounts to family warmth.

Most important, the element he sensed as missing since childhood came back to him that day, along the river. The sound of native songs and drumming reinforced what he believes now about the Old First Ward, more so than at any juncture in his life:

If he moves back, in all ways, it is truly going home.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at



  • Haudenosaunee
  • Six Nations
  • Buffalo Creek
  • Old First Ward
  • Western New York Land Conservancy

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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

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