Interpreting The Big Tree: Negotiating Native American, Euro-American and Ecological Narratives

Authors: David Robertson*, SUNY Geneseo, Stephen Tulowiecki, SUNY Geneseo
Topics: Historical Geography, Cultural Geography
Keywords: tree, historical ecology, Native American, Seneca, oak
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: 8224, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Research in the sciences and the humanities has shown that trees have the capacity to tell a variety of stories about nature, culture and human-environment relationships. Particularly insightful is ecological and cultural information conveyed by large and long-lived trees; those that have survived numerous human generations and become notable features of the landscape. The Big Tree is one such tree. The stories the tree tells, however, have proven challenging to negotiate because they have contested meaning, and dramatically different outcomes, for the people they represent. The “Big Tree” was a landmark oak (diameter: 2.6 m) that stood on the banks of the Genesee River in western New York. Onetime cultural center of the Seneca Nation, this part of the Genesee Valley is renowned for its large landmark oaks, some of which we know to be ecological legacies of a Seneca-maintained oak savanna. The tree, however, is also a symbol of pioneer Euro-American settlement. Moreover, it is the namesake of The Big Tree Treaty (1797), which relinquished the rights of the Seneca Nation to most of their homeland in western New York. The Big Tree was destroyed by flood in 1857, but a section of its trunk was salvaged and the Livingston County Museum in Geneseo, New York has initiated plans to formally display and interpret the tree’s historic remains. This paper documents the challenges faced in interpreting the tree’s ecological and cultural significance as a land use legacy of both Native American and Euro-American settlement, and in negotiating stakeholder interests.

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