Seneca (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Senecatmp2032_thumbwere the largest, most powerful,and westernmost of the five original tribes of the Iroquois League. Their self-designation was Onotowaka, "Great Hill People." The name Iroquois ("real adders") comes from the French adaptation of the Algonquian name for these people. Their self-designation was Kanonsionni, "League of the United (Extended) Households." Iroquois today refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee, "People of the Longhouse." See also Cayuga.

Location The Seneca homeland stretched north to south from Lake Ontario to the upper Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers and west to east from Lake Erie to Seneca Lake, but especially from Lake Canandaigua to the Genesee River. At the height of their power, the Iroquois controlled land from the Hudson to the Illinois Rivers and the Ottawa to the Tennessee Rivers. In the 1990s, most Senecas continue to live in upstate New York near their traditional land. Some live in Ontario, Canada, and northeastern Oklahoma.

Population There were perhaps 15,000-20,000 members of the Iroquois League around 1500 and about 5,000 Senecas in the mid-seventeenth century. In the mid-1990s, there were approximately 8,000 members of the Seneca Nation of Indians in the United States, including members of the Tonawanda Band; 2,500 Seneca-Cayugas; and some 1,000 Seneca in Canada. There were about 70,000 Iroquois Indians living in the United States and Canada in the mid-1990s.

Language The Seneca spoke a Northern Iroquois dialect.

Historical Information

History The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1450 and 1600. It originally consisted of five tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca; the Tuscarora joined in the early eighteenth century. The league’s purpose was to end centuries of debilitating intertribal war and work for the common good. Both Deganawida and Hiawatha may have been actual or mythological people.

There were two Seneca groups in the sixteenth century and perhaps as early as the founding of the league, each of which had its own large village. The people first encountered Jesuit missionaries shortly before the latter established a mission in Seneca country in 1668. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the people became heavily involved in the fur trade. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized this period.

In the course of their expansion to get more furs, especially beaver, the Iroquois, often led by the Seneca, wiped out tribes such as the Huron and Erie and fought many generally pro-French Algonquian tribes, such as the Algonquin, Ottawa, Miami, and Potawatomi. The Iroquois also fought and defeated the Iroquoian Susquehanna (or Conestoga) Indians during the early to mid-seventeenth century. Their power effectively blocked European westward expansion.

Although they were good at playing the European powers off against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French. The western Seneca (Chenussios) remained pro-French, however, even in the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s uprising of 1763.

The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the balance of power in the region. Despite the long-standing British alliance, some Indians joined anti-British rebellions as a defensive gesture. The confederacy split its allegiance in the Revolutionary War, with most Seneca siding with the British. This split resulted in the council fire’s being extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years.

Despite the leadership of Cornplanter and others, however, the Seneca suffered depredations throughout the war, and by war’s end their villages had been permanently destroyed. When the 1783 Treaty of Paris divided Indian land between Britain and the United States, British Canadian officials established the Six Nations Reserve for their loyal allies, to which many Seneca repaired.

Seneca lands were formally defined in the 1794 Canandaigua or Pickering Treaty. Most Seneca lands (except for 310 square miles) were sold in 1797. This action was the genesis of the Buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, Allegheny, Cattaraugus, and several other small reservations, most of which were soon sold. Chief Cornplanter also received a land grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania around that time, in consideration of services rendered during the war. After the war, both Cornplanter and the Pine Tree Chief Red Jacket recognized the sovereignty of the United States. Cornplanter favored alliance with the new government, whereas Red Jacket urged his people to continue to live as traditionally as possible.

The Iroquois council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, the reservations as well as relations with the United States and Canada assumed more significance than intraconfederacy matters. In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga. Some Seneca who had settled with the Cayuga at Buffalo Creek traveled to Ohio and were removed from there to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in the early 1830s.

The Seneca Handsome Lake (half-brother of Cornplanter) founded the Longhouse religion in 1799 (see "Religion"). In 1838, the U.S. Seneca lost of their remaining land in a fraudulent procedure. Four years later, a new treaty replaced the fraudulent one. However, it still included the sale of the Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda Reservations.

In 1848, an internal dispute over the payment of annuities led to the formal creation of the Seneca Nation of Indians (Allegany and Cattaraugus) and the adoption of a U.S.-style constitution and government. With this action the people effectively withdrew from the Iroquois Confederacy and separated from the Tonawanda Reservation as well. In 1857, the Tonawanda Seneca won a long-standing fight to retain their reservation; part of it was bought back with the money that was originally intended to be used for their removal to Kansas. In the mid-nineteenth century, illegal land leases led to the formation of several non-native towns on the Allegany reservation, the largest being Salamanca.

In Canada, the Seneca, referred to along with the Onondaga and Cayuga as the "lower tribes," tended to retain more of their traditional beliefs than did the "upper" Iroquois tribes. Many subsequently adopted the Handsome Lake religion. Slowly, the general influence of non-natives increased, as tribal councils, consensus decision making, and other aspects of traditional culture fell by the wayside. Traditional structures were further weakened by the allotment of reservation lands in the 1840s; the requirement under Canadian law, from 1869 on, of patrilineal descent; and the transition of league councils and other political structures to a municipal government. In 1924, the Canadian government terminated confederacy rule entirely, mandating an (all male) elected system of government on the reserve.

In 1869, the Seneca Donehogawa (Ely Parker), a general in the U.S. Army, became the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He stood for peace with the western tribes and fairness in general, shaking up the corrupt "Indian Ring." However, trumped-up charges, of which he was fully exonerated, led to a congressional investigation and ultimately to his resignation in 1871.

The native economy gradually shifted from primarily hunting to farming, dependence on annuities received for the sale of land, and some wage labor. By 1900 there were a number of missionary and state-supported schools on the reservations. Although there were also several churches, relatively few Seneca attended services. Instead, longhouses served as the place where the old ceremonies were maintained and continue to fill that role today. Most Seneca spoke English by that time. With other members of the confederacy, the Seneca resisted the 1924 citizenship act, selective service, and all federal and state intrusions on their sovereignty.

The Seneca in Oklahoma elected a tribal council from the 1870s to 1937. By that time their land base had shrunk, mostly through allotment and outright theft, from about 65,000 acres to 140 acres. At that time they incorporated under state law as the Seneca-Cayuga tribe, adopted a constitution and by-laws, and elected a business committee. The tribe resisted termination in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, despite massive protests, the army flooded over 9,000 acres of the Cornplanter tract and the Allegany Reservation to build the Kinzua Dam. Many important cultural and religious sites were lost. The tribe eventually received over $15 million in damages.

Religion The Seneca recognized an "earth holder" as well as other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces of a spiritual nature. They held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting, ripening (Green Corn ceremony), and harvest. These festivals often included singing, male dancing, game playing, gambling, feasting, and food distribution.

The eight-day new year’s festival may have been most important of all. Held in midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams. A condolence ceremony had quasi-religious components. Medicine groups such as the False Face Society, which wore carved wooden masks, and the Medicine, Dark Dance and Death Feast Societies (the last two controlled by women) also conducted ceremonies, since most illness was thought to be of supernatural origin.

In the early nineteenth century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake. This religion was born during the general religious ferment known as the Second Great Awakening and came directly out of the radical breakdown of Iroquois life. Beginning in 1799, the Seneca Handsome Lake spoke of Jesus and called upon Iroquois to give up alcohol and a host of negative behaviors, such as witchcraft and sexual promiscuity. He also exhorted them to maintain their traditional religious celebrations. A blend of traditional and Christian teachings, the Handsome Lake religion had the effect of facilitating the cultural transition occurring at the time.

Government The Iroquois League comprised 50 hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities. Sachems were men, except where a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The Seneca sent eight sachems to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies.

Debates within the great council were a matter of strict clan, division, and tribal protocols, in a complex system of checks and balances. Politically, individual league members often pursued their own best interests while maintaining an essential solidarity with the other members. The creators of the U.S. government used the Iroquois League as a model of democracy.

Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders (clan chiefs, elders, wise men). Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household. Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.

There were also a number of nonhereditary chiefs ("pine tree" or "merit" chiefs), some of whom had no voting power. This may have been a postcontact phenomenon.

Customs The Seneca recognized a dual division, each composed of eight matrilineal, animal-named clans. The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.

Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage. Great intravillage lacrosse games included heavy gambling. Other games included snowsnake, or sliding a spear along a trench in the snow for distance. Food was shared so that everyone had roughly the same to eat.

Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams. Members of the False Face medicine society wore wooden masks carved from trees and used rattles and tobacco. Shamans also used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness. People committed suicide on occasion for specific reasons (men who lost prestige; women who were abandoned; children who were treated harshly). Murder could be revenged or paid for with sufficient gifts.

Young men’s mothers arranged marriages with a prospective bride’s mother. Divorce was possible but not readily obtained because it was considered a discredit. The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after ten days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.

Dwellings From the early sixteenth century on, scattered Seneca villages were consolidated into two large (100 or more houses) villages (one eastern and one western) and one or two smaller (about 25 houses) ones. Gandagaro, the large eastern village, was also the main tribal village. The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after circa 1300. Some villages were palisaded. Other Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people.

Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when firewood and soil were exhausted.

Iroquois Indians built elm-bark longhouses, 50-100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the twelfth century on. They held around 2 or 3 but as many as 20 families, related maternally (lineage segments), as well as their dogs. There were smoke holes over each two-family fire. Beds were raised platforms; people slept on mats, their feet to the fire, covered by pelts. Upper platforms were used for food and gear storage. Roofs were shingled with elm bark. The people also built some single-family houses.

Diet Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and was used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings. It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.

After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat. Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. Hunting was a source of potential prestige. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished. The people grew peaches, pears, and apples in orchards from the eighteenth century on.

Key Technology Iroquois used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events. Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. These shell disks, strung or woven into belts, were probably a postcontact technological innovation.

Hunting equipment included snares, bow and arrow, stone knife, and bentwood pack frame. Fish were caught using traps, nets, bone hooks, and spears. Farming tools were made of stone, bone, wood (spades), and antler. Women wove corn-husk dolls, tobacco trays, mats, and baskets.

Other important material items included elm-bark containers, cordage from inner tree bark and fibers, and levers to move timbers. Men steamed wood or bent green wood to make many items, including lacrosse sticks.

Trade Summer was the main trading season. The people obtained birch-bark products from the Huron.

They imported copper and shells and exported carved wooden and stone pipes. They were extensively involved in the trade in beaver furs from the seventeenth century on.

Notable Arts Men carved wooden masks worn by the Society of Faces in their curing ceremonies. Women decorated clothing with dyed porcupine quills or moose-hair embroidery. The Seneca also made artistic baskets.

Transportation Unstable elm-bark canoes were roughly 25 feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. They used snowshoes in winter and wooden frame backpacks to carry heavy loads such as fresh meat.

Dress Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and a tunic in cooler weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in summer. Robes were made of lighter or heavier skins or pelts, depending on the season. These were often painted. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively. Men often wore their hair in a roach; women wore theirs in a single braid doubled up and fastened with a thong. Some men wore feather caps or, in winter, fur hoods.

War and Weapons Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity. The title of Pine Tree Chief was a historical invention to honor especially brave warriors. Weapons included the bow and arrow, ball-headed club, shield, rod armor, and guns after 1640. All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether or not to fight. During war season, generally the fall, Iroquois war parties ranged up to 1,000 miles or more. Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet: Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Women and children prisoners were regularly adopted. Some captives were eaten.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Allegany Reservation, Cattaraugus County, New York (Seneca Nation of Indians), established in 1794, consists of about 20,000 acres (excluding the area of the Kinzua Dam). The 1990 Indian population was 1,059.

Cattaraugus Reservation, Cattaraugus, Chatauqua, and Erie Counties, New York (Seneca Nation of Indians with Cayuga and Munsee), established in 1794, consists of about 21,600 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 2,051. The Seneca Nation of Indians (Allegany and Cattaraugus) is governed by a constitution with elected officials.

Oil Springs Reservation, Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties, New York (Seneca Nation of Indians), established in 1877, consists of 640 acres (a square mile). There were no residents in 1990.

Tonawanda Reservation, Erie, Genesee, and Niagara Counties, New York (Tonawanda Band), established in 1863, consists of 7,550 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 453. The community is governed by a tribal council of eight chiefs.

Six Nations/Grand River, Ontario, Canada, was established in 1784. It is governed by both an elected and a hereditary council, although only the first is federally recognized.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe is located in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. The reservation consists of about 4,000 acres, about one-quarter of which is tribally owned. Roughly 800 tribal members lived in northeastern Oklahoma in the mid-1990s.

There is also a small (roughly 100 of the original 9,000 acre) parcel of land located in Pennsylvania, near the Allegany Reservation, that belongs to the descendants of Cornplanter.

Economy The tribe received a federal settlement of $35 million in 1990 and a state settlement of $25 million in 1992. Many people work in Rochester and Buffalo. Tribal businesses include minimarts as well as bingo on the Allegany and Cattaraugus Reservations. Its natural resources include timber, sand and gravel, and natural gas. The tribe itself also provides a number of jobs. Many Seneca-Cayugas work in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Some also work in the ranching industry.

Legal Status The Seneca Nation of Indians, the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma are federally recognized tribal entities.

Daily Life The Seneca have recently renegotiated thousands of leases in and around the town of Salamanca, New York, which is located on the Allegany Reservation. The possibility of casino gambling remains controversial. The Seneca Nation Health Department provides quality health care services. The Seneca Nation Education Department provides a number of quality educational programs. Children attend public schools, and the tribe offers scholarships to students interested in higher education.

Traditional political and social (clan) structures remain intact, as does the language, with the exception of Canada’s requirement that band membership be reckoned patrilineally. The people participate in Longhouse and many other celebrations, such as the midwinter, maple, green corn, and harvest ceremonies. Not all are observed at all reservations, and of those that are, there are some local differences. A number of medicine ceremonies also continue to be performed.

There are a museum and library on the Allegany Reservation. The Cattaraugus Reservation features a museum, a library, and a sports arena. The community hosts a fall festival, an Indian fair, and two bazaars. Cayugas and Senecas have yet to resolve issues of Cayuga land ownership on the Cattaraugus Reservation. Few people there speak the native language, but the community does retain various traditional ceremonies.

The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of or a corollary to the traditional seat at Onondaga. Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later twentieth century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims. The

Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of "progressive" and "traditional" factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the Longhouse religion.

Many Iroquois continue to see their relationship with the Canadian and U.S. governments as one between independent nations and allies, as opposed to one marked by paternalism and dependence. Occasionally, the frustrations inherent in this type of situation boil over into serious confrontation.

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