Oh, close your eyes and you wake up / Face stuck to a vinyl settee / Oh, the line was starting to break up / What was that you were going to say? / 


cayuga street

bre skye

Bre Skye, Hey, No Fair (2020). Digital image. Courtesy of the artist. Image description: in a claw machine full of colourful toys, a stuffed pink llama hangs over the prize chute. The llama is stuck by its ear on the metal claw and is unable to fall. The photograph has a strong posterised effect.Bre Skye, Hey, No Fair (2020). Digital image. Courtesy of the artist.

A Cayuga lost in Cayuga lands, on Cayuga Street. Before you get excited, I’m just looking for the Wegmans to putter around in for the fourth time this week.

It would make me sound all healthy if I said grocery store walks were my graduate school solace, but I’m not, and they aren’t. It’s just that, in this town, the essential pedestrian state is to be missing at least three buses at any given time. And each of those three buses is the only bus. I don’t take further questions on this.

After ten minutes wandering northward, I sense Meadow Street must be nearer. I finally see all the big crosswalks where I practice my daily apologetic sprints toward the Chili’s, the Chipotle, and the claw machines at Walmart that eat my $10 bills and spit out armfuls of plushies that are already all beaten up from people’s previous attempts to win them. One time I walked out with maybe seven big toys, and my cab driver wouldn’t stop laughing the entire way home.

I’ve never been one to find comfort in losing everything to chain plaza strips. But here, they’re some of the only places that feel exact. They’re at least real with me about what’s troubled, what’s exploitative about them.

I could never get my bearings in this town. And I never knew whether that was on purpose.

only place around here with street lighting | why don’t i ever use the bathroom before i come

It is commonplace for United States municipalities to independently use (often anglicised) iterations of Indigenous nation names, place-names, and cultural concepts to label towns, streets, parks, waterways, and the like on unceded, non-reservation lands. Many state names appropriated an anglicised version of close-by place-names or regional concepts originally created by Indigenous peoples: “Connecticut” derives from the Mohegan-Pequot language, “Minnesota” from Dakota language, and so forth. The context of this phenomenon has a great range of history, purpose, and consequence; no one story about geographic place is the same. Many Indigenous communities continue to fight for the reclamation of traditional place-names that have faced erasure or invisibility: Bde Maka Ska, a lake on Dakota land, is finally secure in publicly maintaining its traditional name after years of Indigenous-led advocacy and legal conflict in Minneapolis. This reclamation was critical on the intercommunity level and publicly well-known, as the colonial moniker assigned to Bde Maka Ska since the 19th century took after prominent anti-abolitionist and enslaver John C. Calhoun.

get strawberry | jihsǫ:dahk | never mind, they’re Driscoll’s
do i have a 10? | shouldn’t—

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but what’s a piece of my nothing anyway

My people are all over this city. Well, not many of us, like. The city still hasn’t given us much back. Just the name. And not Gayogo̱hó:nǫˀ—almost nobody knows that one.

Our name being on places really gets people in this town thinking they know something.

Even when settler entities invoke the Indigenous territories they immediately stand upon, the very use of Indigenous language-derived names can raise issues: such problems can include Indigenous words being used with incorrect spelling or grammar, words being extracted without permission and misapplied in politically consequential ways, or invoking traumatic response in being used by a settler state that persists in its anti-Indigenous genocidal practices. It can be difficult to track which of the countless US places and spaces being named with Indigenous influence on unceded land were assigned in direct collaboration with Indigenous communities whose homelands they stand on. Many of them may have instead been influenced by non-Indigenous historical societies or short-term city planning research, which often privileges using familiar regional concepts to name streets and sections. In some curious cases, use of Indigenous names on unceded lands may not carry an immediate connection to whose traditional territory the place stands on. For instance, though Mohawk territory exists within present-day New York State, Ontario, and Quebec, there are countless Mohawk “Streets,” “Drives,” “Trails,” and “Circles” in non-Eastern Woodlands places such as Texas and California. In understanding that all Indigenous peoples are subject to a genocidal structure of invisibility, we can simultaneously acknowledge that the name “Mohawk” itself retains a relatively large presence within the non-Native public imaginary (an entirely separate issue from an actual understanding of who Kanien’kehá:ka are). The name exists in a space shared by other names such as Seneca, Cherokee, Navajo, and Lakota. Due to a combination of stereotype, settler literary spectacle, and widespread monolithic views of North American Indigenous peoples, these more-visible names are often used on signage without appropriate precedent or context as a historicising, broad tribute to “Native Americans,” implied posthumous.

cake? | but i hate sweet things | cake. | maybe it’ll lure out a me that would be better at this

You know that lifelong, toiling work we all gotta do? Coping and developing intentionality in our relationship to place and space? Work that all diasporic peoples are thrown into even if we don’t want it? You’ve got some people plagiarising that, right off the big green signs. Taking it as their own road sign that they know everything they need to know now.

“I think the Cayuga Indians used to be here.”

I bring attention to the likes of Texan “Mohawk Streets” (not to imply that Kanien’kehá:ka and other Native people don’t traverse, build families, and develop relations away from our homelands—we do!) to highlight the multitudes of consequence from public place-naming deriving from the names of Indigenous peoples and vocabulary. Many of these names are strongly advocated for by the communities that created them, and have capacity to elicit feelings of pride, recognition, and being “home” for Natives and non-Natives alike, though this experience takes on differing complexities for the former. In many US regions, residents even feel kinship on the basis of knowing the pronunciation and meanings of municipal features that retain their traditional names. In Western New York, names like Tonawanda and Scajaquada (both from the Seneca language) are popular examples of this sort of camaraderie, and can even feel like a success for cultural sovereignty as the Seneca Nation carries a prominent, self-determining presence within the Western New York public imaginary. However, when names derived from Indigenous communities are used far out of regional context, or are not accompanied by a municipal culture that doesn’t otherwise advocate for recognition or Indigenous sovereignty, these potential benefits can disperse. If a non-reservation town uses frequent Indigenous references in its place-names but has failed to be a safe place where Indigenous communities can currently build, live, gather, and organise, these tribute labels may seem performative, or even contribute to a settler culture that fails to critically confront genocidal history and views Indigenous peoples through a gaze of extinction.

get onion | other onion | get asparagus | you didn’t use your last one before it | you waster

I’ve been told by non-Natives on more than one occasion that they feel the Haudenosaunee “energy” around here. Not on account of those of us who are here, doing things, but because, apparently, of the green city and county signs above roaring traffic. I always feel like asking… got any energy to spare?

I always thought it was funny that I was the only Gayogo̱hó:nǫˀ living in an apartment complex called Cayuga Place. It was so funny, that I never told anyone.

Even when Indigenous “naming” representation occurs with appropriate context and community collaboration, the applicable capacities of original Indigenous place-names are still often missed by the broader public. The State of New York is notable for its use of Haudenosaunee nation names as well as place-names, some of which have never strayed far from their original names given by our nations. The town of Cheektowaga is an anglicised version of the Seneca name Jóíkdowá’geh, or “crabapples there.”1 Geneseo also kept close to its Seneca-given name, Jo’néhsi:yo’ (“good sand there”).2 The Indigenous-place names of towns such as Cheektowaga and Geneseo prioritise community features and a regional knowledge about the land, rather than commemorating a singular individual as many place-names in the United States tend toward. The combination of different place-naming cultures, however, can give way to wry humour enjoyed by Haudenosaunee language-learners: the Mohawk-given name for the New York capital of Albany is Skahnéhtati, or “beyond the pines.” Another major Upstate city, located roughly 20 miles away, is given the English name “Schenectady.”

get spinach | lemon juice | too late for fish | why do i only come here so late

I say to people that I came here to study on my homelands. Ooh, say more about that. Okay. “I’ve sought to examine what it’s like to conduct research here. It’s been interesting to navigate. It’s been special to have the opportunity to reclaim.”

I don’t like how this place makes me talk about us. Explain us.

My intentions were true, but I didn’t fathom what this return would look like. Didn’t know how much healing this place still needed, the land underneath the university still sore from what Sullivan pulled and burned.

I returned to furtive stares and gulps when land acknowledgment is in the air. Returned to slinking through halls in hopes that nobody finds me and asks about the five things I didn’t do because I was too busy being at the store. Returned to getting invited to things only so I can be their street sign except indoors.

Haudenosaunee place-names hold space for multiple forms of knowledge. These names can constitute significations of regional navigation, accessing important flora and fauna, and identifying where critical community engagements should take place. In other circumstances, places are named for old stories or other aspects of our ontological tradition. Between the six languages of the Haudenosaunee, the names of a given place are sometimes not the same, nor do they necessarily translate to the same meaning. Each community may ascribe a different name that invokes its geographic or ontological positionality relative to a specific homeland, notable traversed space, or another concept that is exclusive to or emphasised by that nation.

get hair cream | that last one didn’t work | you waster

Returned to beauty. My relatives fighting hard to hold tradition, to bring our language home. A family that saved me my first year. Mentors who could see me ripping at my husk, who would have done anything to protect me.

Returned to the great swamp I never got to see. I swear, swamps must get the most metaphoric hate out of all the landscapes. Sometimes I would rather be wading through those noisy, mucky waters than do school here. Swamps spawn food, generate movement.

Do we academy people really think we can make more than a swamp? That we can nourish more?

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In the Seneca language, the word describing Buffalo, New York, is Dó:šyo:wë:h3—“between the basswoods.”4 This name invokes a tree species prominent in the Eastern Woodlands (and regions beyond), one that gives way to a commonly utilised and traded timber. In the Cayuga language, the City of Buffalo is referred to as Gyodró:wę:, or “where there is a split fork.”5 The Seneca and Cayuga languages hold a linguistic closeness, just as there is a physical closeness between them as the westernmost and second-westernmost Haudenosaunee nations—the Cayuga Nation is known as the “younger brother” under the protection of the Seneca Nation. Both concepts of the Buffalo area invoke some notion of geographic betweenness. However, Dó:šyo:wë:h selects its focus on flora, while Gyodró:wę: seems to invoke Erie waterways.

broke even | ugh

I guess I would rather have it here than not. I would never want them to change the county name, the street name, or even the name of my overpriced apartment. Okay, maybe the last one. Send a dump truck to collect this housing market. It’s certainly no swamp.

Like, we better have Cayuga Street. Of course! But there are moments that I don’t want that sign there if the rest of us can’t be here, or be healthy and paid here. It’s a little different when I’m around people who know—people who know there needs to be worlds more, know what it’s like to furiously dream of worlds more, maybe even worlds where this institution is the least important thing about this place.

I never sweat this sort of thing back home at the Western Door. The Western New Yorker’s number-one hobby is cooking up hot takes on the Seneca Gaming Corporation. Sure, that’s not okay—except it is, because it at least means they have to reckon with Six Nations people. Present tense. What we’re doing, not what we “were.” Even when they hate, I know that they know we aren’t an awkward grumbling before the pizza party.

When my family drives through the city that surrounds Tgahnawęhtaˀ, bickering over what to eat, passing “Cayuga Drive” is nothing at worst. At best: flashes of table-banging laughter on the other side of the river, spinning out of our dimension on a tree swing, feeling like I’ll die of being unfashionable if I don’t get this too-expensive piece at the powwow vendor table right now because I’m never going to see it again.

It’s not like I’ve never felt that here. When I’m on my way to school from breaks, on the Greyhound bus that runs on chip crumbs and coughs, I always turn on my GPS after Geneva. I like to know when I have a chance at seeing the white deer. The first time I saw two together through the greasy window, I’d never been so happy. That’s how I know things can still be okay.

Haudenosaunee place-names have collaborative and conversational capacities toward one another. As a confederacy many centuries old, the Six Nations are in constant relation with one another. It is common for Haudenosaunee to speak or be familiar with more than one language, and for us to live on one another’s homelands for reasons ranging from intercommunity kinship to protection after displacement. Different words between languages to describe the same place may therefore carry intercommunity teachings, or inform of important things that have happened in a specific place for a specific group of people.

“i’d like to turn this in” | god the register fanfare noise is underwhelming | “thanks”
first time i said something to someone today
there’s that machine again | no lyfts out | might as well since i’m waiting

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that could have been lunch tomorrow
but i just want to know if
i was meant to win or lose today

We gave every part of this place a name. Every one of its big dips. They were supposed to help you understand where you were. I should know them. I shouldn’t have to say any of this.

The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign of 1779, ordered by President George Washington, organised genocidal actions by the United States against the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (particularly directed against the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga nations) during the American Revolutionary War. Over 40 villages across present-day Upstate New York were destroyed, and food infrastructures were burned. The deaths and physical displacement of multiple Haudenosaunee communities from their homelands also led to the displacement of Indigenous language and place-names.

So strange that we can find it in our throats to say, damn it, I’m lost on Cayuga Street.

1   Andrea J. Cooke, Nadine Pierce, Renee Seneca, Kim Bomberry, et. al., Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:nö’ ësayësdë’ (It will teach you the language of the People of the Great Hills) (Seneca Nation of Indians: Seneca Language Department, 2006), 39.

2    Ibid., 39.

3   Haudenosaunee languages as both written and spoken have more than one preferred system of spelling and form dependent on the teacher, community, or user; my choices in conveying Seneca, Cayuga, or Mohawk vocabulary do not assert a singular correct form.

4   Andrea J. Cooke et. al., Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:nö’ ësayësdë’ (It will teach you the language of the People of the Great Hills), 39.

5   Frances Froman, Alfred Keye, Carrie Joan Dyck, Lottie Keye, English-Cayuga/Cayuga-English Dictionary (Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 41.

︎ ︎ ©Plates 2021
︎ ︎ ©Plates 2021