Saturday, October 28, 2017

History Department Writing Center Opening This Week

Sick of staring at the blinking cursor on your computer screen? Don't know where to start with paper revisions? The History Department will be offering free tutoring help starting this Monday. If you're in a history class and you need help with editing a paper, developing a thesis, using primary sources, or even just coming up with a workable topic, then the Geneseo History Writing Center is for you!

History major Isabel Owen is our tutor. You can book times to meet with her here: She has openings on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lake of Betrayal: Documentary Screening and Q&A

Lake of Betrayal, a national public television documentary which explores the history of Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania and its impact on the Seneca Indians whose lands were taken for the reservoir and floodplain, will be given a theatrical screening on Wednesday, November 15, at 7pm in the Geneseo Riviera Theatre. The documentary film is being broadcast on PBS stations nationwide this November for Native American Heritage Month.

Paul Lamont, the film’s director, says “Lake of Betrayal looks at how Kinzua Dam so drastically affected the Senecas’ way of life, and it examines the hidden agenda and political debts behind the United States government’s abrogation of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 which had guaranteed the Seneca Nation the free use and enjoyment of its lands, forever.”

The Senecas lost more than 10,000 acres, one-third of their treaty-protected land on the Allegany Territory and all of the adjacent Cornplanter Tract which had been given by the State of Pennsylvania to Chief Cornplanter and his descendent, most inundated by the Allegheny Reservoir after construction of Kinzua Dam was completed in 1965.  The project forced the removal of more than 130 Seneca families from their homes and their properties and resulted in the destruction of many communities and towns along the upper Allegheny River.

Lamont says he first learned about the history of Kinzua Dam in 1990 while he was working on the national PBS documentary Honorable Nations and that the 50th-year remembrances in 2014 presented an opportune time to look at bringing this story to a national audience. 

Lake of Betrayal is set against a backdrop of the post-WWII federal policy known as Indian termination which attempted to assimilate all Native Americans into mainstream society.  Between 1945 and 1960, more than 100 tribes were terminated and members of terminated tribes were stripped of their federal recognition as Native Americans and forced to give up everything that identified them as anything other than full U.S. citizens.

“The Seneca were also slated for termination,” says the film’s producer, Scott Sackett. “In their settlement agreement with the U.S. government for Kinzua Dam, there was a rider clause that required they be terminated by 1967.”  He says, “Lake of Betrayal takes a long view of how the Seneca people responded to and overcame this tragedy 50 years ago, and it also raises pressing questions about mainstream America’s beliefs and attitudes about Native Americans that are relevant today.”

Lamont adds that not only is the film timely, it was important to capture the stories of those who can recall life before the dam was built.  “Seneca elders speak of Kinzua through a raw mixture of anger and tears,” he says, “and with each generation, the memory fades a little more as countless younger Seneca feel little or no connection to the profound sense of loss that their elders felt.” 

Sackett says, “We wanted to preserve this defining moment in Seneca history, as told by those who experienced it, before their stories were lost.”  Sackett recalled the response one young Seneca had after seeing Lake of Betrayal at a recent screening on the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Territory.  “He told Paul and me that he had heard about Kinzua Dam but the elders rarely spoke of it and it really didn’t mean much to him; he said he couldn’t really relate until he saw our film.  Tears began to well up and he just thanked us saying now he understands.”

“The tragedy of Kinzua is not simply that the United States broke its promise to the Seneca Nation,” says Lamont, “but that there is a genuine concern that without vigilance, something like his could happen again to threaten Seneca sovereignty.”  

Following the screening there will be an audience discussion with the filmmakers. This screening, sponsored by SUNY Geneseo, is free and open to the public. 

Lake of Betrayal Official Trailer from Paul Lamont on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

History Alums in the News

Graduates of SUNY Geneseo's History Department take with them the skills and knowledge they need to achieve some interesting things in life. Here's a round-up of just some of the things our alums have been doing recently.

Justin Vossler ('11)
 When he graduated from Geneseo in 2011, Justin Vossler took his present job teaching ninth- and 12th-grade social studies at Moravia High School. In 2015, he earned a Master's degree in history education from SUNY Cortland. He put all of that historical knowledge to good use in a five-episode streak on TV game show Jeopardy this July, earning more than $110,000.

Justin was able to secure daily victories through his knowledge in categories from "European Geography" to "Historical Insults." Fittingly, his winning streak came to an end when Justin was bested by another history teacher.

Audrey Watkins-Fox ('11)
Audrey Watkins-Fox first tasted game-show victory back in 2015, when she won more than $30,000 on Jeopardy. She added to that winning tally thanks to a recent appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?; Audrey walked away from her September appearance with $50,000. She helped bank that much cash with correct answers about U.S. presidential history.

Audrey currently lives in Schenectady, where she works as a standardized test scorer.

Regina Carra ('15)
Regina Carra has been busy since her graduation from Geneseo. While working on dual Master's degrees from Queens College, CUNY—one in history and one in library information science—she recently received a Citi Center for Culture Queens Library Fellowship.

As part of that fellowship, Regina worked on an exhibit showcasing the history of the Floating Hospital, an institution which had provided medical care to generations of New Yorkers. More than 100,000 historical artefacts relating to the Floating Hospital's history are currently being conserved. The project was profiled in the New York Times.

Photograph and poster from the archives of the Floating Hospital.

Oberg's Native America Textbook out in Second Edition

Crow delegation to Washington, D.C. in the early 20th century. Image used for the cover of Oberg's "Native America: A History, Second Edtion."

Professor Michael Leroy Oberg’s revised textbook, “Native America: A History, Second Edition,” hit college bookstore shelves just in time for the new academic year. Oberg, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of history at Geneseo, says that the new edition includes expanded discussions on the law and native history since World War II.

Oberg features twelve native communities in the book which helps demonstrate the diversity of native peoples and their experiences.

“Some of the tribes on the Northern Plains, for example, were as significant a force in shaping North American history as the English, French, Spanish, and the Dutch were,” Oberg says. The Comanche, who resided on the southern plains “destroyed, in many ways, the Spanish empire in the American Southwest in the 17th century, raiding Spanish areas as if they were a stockyard where they could get horses, slaves, and all kinds of things,” says Oberg.

In researching the latest scholarly literature for the new edition, Oberg says he was excited to see that younger scholars are now looking at native grounds that people like the Potawatomis in the upper Midwest, the Ojibwas in the western Great Lakes and Canada, and the Iroquois in the northeast, really held—and influenced—the balance of power. “They weren’t just reacting to the colonizing powers—in some cases, they were also driving the narrative,” Oberg explains. “They were creating and shaping history as much as the founding fathers.”

Oberg also includes material on Coast Salish peoples, in today’s Washington State, who add to the geographic diversity of the text, but also because of their unrelenting challenges to defend and retain their rights in courts of law. “For about the past 50 years, the Coast Salish have been at the center of a lot of significant legal battles, including fishing rights, the Red Power movement, and tribal criminal jurisdiction.”

“I think it’s essential to an understanding of American History that the law is written to protect and promote certain interests,” Oberg says, “and those interests are generally not the interests of Native American people. The law and the court system have been a fairly effective and devastating agent of colonialism throughout American history.”

Also new for the second edition, is the linking of the textbook to Oberg’s website and blog, which department colleague, Yvonne Seale, an assistant professor of medieval history, helped him create.
“I keep up on the events of the communities that I teach, so if something happens, I blog about it and ideally, teachers or students can get current context on to what they’re studying,” says Oberg. The website,, also provides resources such as primary source documents, bibliographic essays, and exam and discussion questions—one-stop shopping for students and teachers alike.

Ultimately, Oberg says that his goal was to make a book that is really useful and that helps awaken students’ interest in and passion for a subject that he’s spent the last 30 years teaching, studying, and writing about.

By Monique Patenaude; originally posted at Geneseo News.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Studying the Grey Area: Getting to Grips with Islamic History

Rachel Ollis is a junior history and art history double major at SUNY Geneseo. After completing an impressive 16 credits worth of classes on the Islamic world, she is currently serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for Professor Megan Brankley Abbas’s HIST 292: Modern Islamic History and plans to write a senior honors thesis on modern Islamic history next year. Rachel is also a member of the Varsity Tennis team. She is originally from Suffern, NY. 

When applying to Geneseo as a seventeen year old, the list of majors intimidated me. While deciding which box to check, I crossed out math and science because I despised chemistry and algebra. However, this still left me with a big decision to make. I knew history was a subject that excited and intrigued me; on top of this, I had excelled in my high school history classes, including AP history. Although I really was not sure what I wanted to do with my life, I declared the major and hoped for the best. Looking back, I realize it was one of the best decisions of my life.

My freshman year at Geneseo consisted of mostly General Education classes, so unfortunately it was not until my sophomore year that I was able to sign up for my first history courses. That fall, I enrolled in the course, HIST 291: History of the Islamic World from 600-1800. Admittedly, signing up for the course was nerve-wracking because I genuinely knew nothing about Islamic history other than the events of 9/11 and the Iran hostage crisis; like most people, I embarrassingly struggled to place most Islamic countries on a map.

A leaf from the "Blue Qur'an". Ca. 900, Tunisia. [Metropolitan
Museum of Art

In this course, we studied factual material like what year Muhammad received revelation but also explored more complex concepts such as sharia law. We delved into the Qur’an in order to understand how Islamic jurists view polygamy, theft, and the mainstream media concept of “jihad.” We used the Qur’an and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as evidence to challenge our own preconceived notions that Islamic/ Sharia law is inherently violent. By digging beyond the common misperceptions in American society, I realized that I cannot simply listen to the media or politicians and assume their words to be true. As a result of this experience, I now attempt to read and research historical and political topics in order to develop an informed opinion rather than let other outlets dictate my opinions and ideas.

After completing HIST 291 in Fall 2016, I enrolled in four additional courses on the Islamic world. Together, these courses have encouraged me to examine historical events from different perspectives. For example, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy and took hostages for 444 days. Most Americans remember this event because of the extensive media coverage and the recent production of the film Argo. However, viewing this event only through American eyes is problematic. When we study and examine the Iran Hostage Crisis through this singular narrative, we forget that, in 1953, the United States government overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran and then allowed for the oppressive Shah to come to power. The American-backed coup does not justify the Iran Hostage Crisis, but remembering this piece of history does introduce a contradictory narrative into our discussions.

A student demonstration in Washington, D.C., during the
Iran Hostage Crisis, 1979. [Library of Congress]

Rather than approaching this event in black and white terms, we studied the grey area, where multiple interpretations and stories exist. These multiple lenses and angles on the Iranian Hostage Crisis allowed me to see the discipline of history as one that has very few universal truths. We are often under the assumption that historians study facts or universal truths; however, I have encountered the opposite through my courses and studies into the Islamic world. As a student who concentrates in Islamic history, I have found that most historical events have an expansive grey area, which requires one to weigh arguments from a multitude of sources and angles.

Grasping these grey areas can be challenging and makes it even more essential that historians consult as many archives and documents as possible; however, these written documents should not be deemed as the truth when attempting to understand grey areas. Those who write history possess personal or political agendas, and this is something academics should note when doing research. When accessing written documents, we need to remember that just because an event or action is not written down does not mean that it did not occur. An example of this can be seen through the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran. Until 2013, there were no files on the CIA overthrow of the government; however, this does not mean that this event did not happen. It is likely that there are also more files on the event that have not yet been released or that some decisions/actions were not put into writing. Lack of written records or unreleased archival records makes it necessary for us to conduct and consult oral history. This style of history enables us to capture and analyze the experiences of the socially marginalized. With no prior experience in oral history, I originally dismissed it because it is not “hard evidence.” Today I realize that not everyone's experiences are found in state archives. As a result, it is crucial that we give voices to the voiceless and internalize them in hopes of challenging state centric Truth narratives.

Shirin Neshat, "Women of Allah",
1994. [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

By understanding multiple interpretations and stories in history, I have come to the realization that very few events in life are black and white. Studying this grey area provided me with the tools to make change within our community. Now, it may not seem like a big deal to attempt to fix things in tiny Geneseo, but that’s where change starts. Currently, I am interviewing members within our Geneseo community who have a personal stake in the “War on Terror.” By interviewing our community members, I strive to give a voice to stories that often go untold. Along with conducting interviews, I recently presented a lesson on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 9th grade students at Letchworth Central School District.

Sometimes, it feels like, in the undergraduate courses, we merely sit in circles discussing the world’s issues but never do anything about them. Fortunately for me, this has not been my experience. I have had opportunities to collaborate with my professors and fellow classmates on ways to improve Geneseo and then most importantly, we do something about our problems. My personal involvement with these problems has taught me more than any course I have ever taken. The active role I have played has allowed me to become a confident, self- empowered individual. With this experience, I realized that you don’t need to be a politician in Washington to make change, you just have to want to contribute. I see myself continuing to help address problems beyond my years at Geneseo. After graduation, I plan on enrolling in law school with hopes of fulfilling my dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. My law career will not be shaped by the grades I earned in my Islamic history courses but rather by how these courses allowed me stop seeing the world in terms of black and white and start listening to people’s experiences. Studying history has enabled me to become a better person.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

History Department Honors and Awards Luncheon

On Saturday, April 22, the History Department held its annual Honors and Awards Luncheon, in recognition of the academic excellence and civic achievement of our undergraduate students this past year. A number of students were also formally inducted into Phi Alpha Theta, the national honors society for history. Thank you to all the supportive family and friends who attended, particularly those who traveled some distance to be with us!

Attendees filing in to the Luncheon, held in the historic
Riviera Theater in downtown Geneseo.

Professor Jim Williams formally inducts some of the newest
members of the SUNY Geneseo chapter of Phi
Alpha Theta.
Victoria Cooke, recipient of the prize for Best First Year Paper,
and Shreya Srinath, recipient of the prize for Best Analytical Paper.
Eamon Danieu, one of the recipients of the James K.
Somerville Scholarship, pictured with his proud mom.
Prize recipients pictured with Professors Joe Cope and Megan Abbas.
Jenna Lawson, recipient of the DeMarco '30 Memorial Scholarship,
with Isabel Owen, recipient of the Henzel Memorial Scholarship
and the Wachunas Prize.
Derek Kaczorowski, recipient of the Bill Derby Prize, pictured
with Thomas Garrity, recipient of the Beck Prize for
Outstanding Senior History Major and the prize for
Best Senior Experience Paper.

Medieval Banquet: April 21, 2017

Over fifty people attended the SUNY Geneseo Medieval Banquet at the Yard of Ale restaurant on April 21. This event, co-sponsored by the History Department, brought together students, faculty, and community members who contribute to our Medieval Studies minor. Attendees dined on medieval-inspired dishes, were introduced to the love songs of the Middle Ages, and learned how to sing a thirteenth-century round about the coming of spring. It was a wonderful evening, and a testimony to the flourishing nature of medieval studies here at Geneseo.

Many thanks for the generous support of the Office of the Provost and the Departments of English, History, and Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Jess Fenn (English) welcomes the attendees. 

Students Matthew Burley and Noah Chichester prepare to regale
us with song.

Professor Ronald Herzman (English) pictured with some of our
Chamber Singers.