Great-grandmother, a Seneca, earns PhD in transnational studies at UB

Nancy Napierala.

Nancy Napierala, 78, will receive her PhD in American studies this week from the Department of Transnational Studies.

Buffalo’s “sidewalk Senecas” and urban Haudenosaunee culture are focus of her research

Release Date: May 14, 2014 This content is archived.

“You know, on my last day, I felt a little sad as I walked out of Clemens Hall. I found myself thinking, ‘Well, now maybe a master’s in English … ”
Nancy Napierala, 2014 PhD graduate, transnational studies
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- “My age never intervened in anything I accomplished at UB,” says Nancy Napierala, 78, who will receive her PhD in American studies this week from the Department of Transnational Studies.

“The department and my professors have always acknowledged my abilities and contributions, and respected my work,” she says, “and the other students welcomed me as a colleague and a friend.”

A wife and mother of two, grandmother of three and now a great-grandmother, Napierala is a lifelong learner who received a BA in early childhood development from UB in 2000 and an MA in American studies in 2005. She previously studied business at UB in the 1970s, and worked as a bookkeeper and office manager for 38 years.

“Academic pursuit comes naturally to me. Reading, studying, research, that’s what I do. That’s just me. I love it and I’ll miss it,” she says, adding that it has been her good fortune to work under faculty members like the late John Mohawk, Barry White and Oren Lyons, members of the Six Nations who were among the iconic founders of UB’s nationally recognized American studies department (now a program in the Department of Transnational Studies).

“While an undergraduate,” she says, “I learned about the department’s very strong Native American Studies Program and I’ve been very happily involved with it for 13 years.”

Napierala’s research focuses on the lives and experiences of urban Native-Americans in Buffalo during the 20th century, about which little has been written. Her interest was provoked by her own family experiences and illuminated further by an unusual and highly respected fellow Seneca, Pearl White of Buffalo’s West Side.

As a Cattaraugus Seneca Faithkeeper from the age of 17, White’s traditional role was to assist the head women and men of the Longhouse in maintaining Seneca spiritual practice and traditions.

“Longhouse” has several meanings in this context. It is a religion founded more than 200 years ago by the Allegany Seneca, Handsome Lake, and the locus of ceremonies and community gatherings by its members. It is also a collective metaphor for those who practice this spiritual tradition — the Haudenosaunee (pronounced Ho-deh-no-shaw-nee) or “People of the Longhouse” — whose vibrant culture is rooted in a way of life that goes back more than 500 years.

In fact, Haudenosaunee is the term by which members of the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations (including the Seneca), refer to themselves.

Language transmits culture and together they influence our thought processes and perception of reality. So it is significant that after she left the reservation, White served the Longhouse by teaching the Seneca language informally in her city home. Napierala was among her students. As interest grew, White moved her classes to larger facilities, among them UB, where they attracted students in the Native-American Studies Program and from the Buffalo community.

“Pearl was bright, knowledgeable, funny and very wise,” says Napierala, “an engaging and interesting woman with so many stories to tell that she inevitably said, ‘I could write a book!’ My dissertation is her book.”

Titled “Pearl White and the Sidewalk Senecas: Faithkeepers and Twentieth-Century Haudenosaunee Regeneration,” it discusses how, for 62 years, White, in company with other dedicated Haudenosaunee urban dwellers, maintained an active cultural community with close ties to their Longhouse and reservation relatives.

“Whether on the reservation or off,” says Napierala, “Faithkeepers ensure that religious rituals and ceremonies are correctly conducted, give children their Seneca names, serve as cooks and responsible members of the community and literally — in a society with an oral tradition — “keep things right” so cultural practices are remembered and practiced as intended.

“Pearl referred to herself and her urban peers as ‘sidewalk Senecas,’” says Napierala, a term that applied to her own family as well. 

Napierala’s father, Hector Titus, was an Allegany Seneca, born in 1893 near the Seneca Allegany Reservation, who became a sidewalk Seneca in large part because of his traumatic childhood.

Because of his mother’s death and his father’s physical injury, 3-year-old Hector and his 5-year-old brother were removed from their family and enrolled in the Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus Reservation.

It was one of the controversial “Indian schools” established throughout the U.S. in the mid-18th through the early-20th century for the express purpose of forcing the assimilation of Native-Americans. Whatever else they were, school programs amounted to a systematic assault on native language and culture. Native children were not permitted to speak the only language they knew, were given new (non-Indian) names and deprived of their families, communities, culture and traditions. In many cases, the schools also fostered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

“The attempt there was to turn them into ‘white children,’” says Napierala, “but when released, they were rejected by white society. On top of that, they no longer had any knowledge of their own culture or language, and so struggled to relate to their families and communities.” Her father was no exception.  

“These experiences have provoked intergenerational trauma among Native-Americans throughout the United States for many decades,” she says, “and its effects are just now beginning to abate. It must have been a very unhappy time in my father’s life. Like many veterans traumatized by war, he would never speak of his years in the Indian school, not even to his own children.”  

Napierala says her father left the reservation as a young man, moved to the city and thereafter declined to contact his relatives on the reservation. He married, worked as a union house painter and raised five children in Buffalo. Nancy was the youngest.

“A desire to learn more about my father’s life experiences and his background led to my interest in studying Haudenosaunee history and culture,” she says.

Unlike Hector Titus, Pearl White began with a happy reservation childhood, Napierala says.

“But when she moved to Buffalo,” she says, “her life as a mother of nine children reflected the experiences of many native women: domestic abuse, heavy drinking and the death of a 12-year-old son in a juvenile detention facility. She then suffered serious injury, followed by cancer. It was a hard life.”

White not only survived all of this, but lived to be honored, loved and admired by her community as a teacher and living repository of traditional knowledge who served her people with tenacity and good humor.

 “Her dedication and that of others like her helped the Haudenosaunee become stronger and regenerate their numbers and cultural vitality after a long, dark period of demoralization,” says Napierala, whose study documents this process.

White died in 2012 at age 79 but her life, times, wit, rich trove of Haudenosaunee knowledge and narratives of urban life now have been protected and memorialized for posterity by her friend, Nancy Napierala.

That job accomplished, Napierala says she plans to leave academic life — at least for now. “You know,” she says, “on my last day, I felt a little sad as I walked out of Clemens Hall. I found myself thinking, ‘Well, now maybe a master’s in English …’

“But no, no, NO! Not really!” she laughs. “No more! My husband, Dan, is 77 and he’s finally retiring. So now we’re going to do some retirement things,” like celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary this summer with a scenic train excursion to Glacier National Park.

“Dan is an avid gardener and I plan to repair some of the physical damage I incurred as a result of long hours at the computer at the YMCA. I want to improve my math skills with some home study, too. There’s always plenty to do.”

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