Like many Mennonites whose roots go back to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I am a descendent of Hans Herr.
The 1719 Hans Herr House, built in that year by Christian and Anna Herr, is the oldest surviving house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the oldest original Mennonite meeting house still standing in the Western Hemisphere. I have visited the museum that surrounds this house twice. It helped me imagine my ancestors, their clothing, food, worship, and daily lives.
But as I wrote my story about living on a family farm, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know about the people who lived on the land before my ancestors. Here’s how I began the chapter about the Home Place in my forthcoming memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.
These rhetorical questions about the Native American presence on the land have not yet been answered. But I like the way Director Becky Gochnauer and her team at the Hans Herr Museum are enlarging the lens of history and going back to the land before recorded time. They are working with local native Americans to build a longhouse and tell the story of woodland Indians who lived there long ago.
Here’s how they introduce the project on their website:
“Imagine Pennsylvania before William Penn.”
It’s time for the descendents of Hans Herr to acknowledge some hard truths about the land they have cared for over the generations. I was excited when I learned about this project because I want to be part of the change. I checked in with Director Becky at the museum to see how things are going.
Q: The website says that one of the reasons the project was developed was this one: The Lancaster Longhouse is part of this community’s “effort to make great change” in the way we think and talk about the history of this land. How would you describe progress made toward this noble, and difficult goal?
We strive to tell an honest account of history. We share that this was not a vast wooded wasteland when the Herrs came. It was full of people, nations, and communities, and had been for thousands of year. These groups were strong, growing and expanding. We share that the Europeans thought they were doing good by coming. But the people already living here would see it differently –diseases, alcohol, guns, land-hungry immigrants — spelled the end of their world. There were, of course, many settlers who co-existed with the native communities and were friendly. We share such stories from the Herr, Brenneman and Eberly families.
We make a strong effort to help visitors look at history from a big picture vantage point – and not only from the detail point of view. We ask these questions, “How could the King of England give away something that was not his?” We help the visitor think about some sticky questions that may not be answerable: “How could William Penn pay the native Americans several times for the same piece of land and try so valiantly to be at peace with them while allowing militant squatters to live on the edges of his settlement to keep the NA communities away from his “Holy Experiment”?” We hope to make our visitors think and struggle with some hard questions.
Q: How have people reacted to entering the Longhouse, now that it has been made with the help of many volunteers and Native American advisers?
It is exciting to see and hear people’s reactions when they enter the Longhouse. Most are amazed at how large it feels inside, that 50-60 people lived in it, that the women owned it. It is exciting to share the Native American history with those who really don’t know much about it. It is exciting to watch as visitors learn that some of their previous views were not historically accurate: for example, to believe that all Indians lived in teepees or were always at war.
It is exciting that the Longhouse even exists! To be able to see and help a dream become reality is truly an amazing experience.We are always learning new things about the Native American community. These learnings get added to the tours we give. We are working at creating programs for school students looking more in-depth at NA life and activities. We will be hosting a traditional meal followed by a conversation about the role giving thanks plays in Native American life and culture. This happens on October 26 from 12 noon – 2:00pm.We are in the midst of planning for several new Native American classes for 2014; flint napping, pottery, beading, quill work, corn husk crafts.
Q: What have you learned, as a Mennonite and Pennsylvanian, from this project:
While our primary goal is education, it is very hard to separate out the values of justice and brotherly aid from these two intersecting worlds. I have learned that humility comes in many forms. I have learned that loving my neighbor can be very hard and extremely rewarding. I have learned to look in the eyes of others to see their story and feel their pain. I have learned that God loves each one of us, regardless of our heritage.
Q: How can others contribute?
We are still receiving financial donations.We are still receiving donations of items for the Longhouse. A list is found on the website.We are always looking for volunteers to give tours, teach crafts and skills for both the Longhouse and the Herr House.
I have named the Longhouse Project as the recipient of profits from the sale of Blush. I hope it contributes in a small way to making big changes in the way we think about this great, beautiful, and tragic land.
My new beginning? I will be reading a Native American memoir, The Absolute Diary of a Part-time Indian. By Sherman Alexie.
What’s your New Beginning today? Log in here. Only a few more days until I announce a winner.