A look into the Seneca Nation of Indians


The Seneca Indians were the largest of the six tribes that made up the Iroquois League.  They inhabited lands that now make up Western New York, as well as Northern Pennsylvania.  They were known by their neighbors as O-non-dowa-gah or “The Great Hill people” in reference to the hilly lands on which they lived.  With towns in the valleys of the Genesee and Allegheny rivers, land was fertile and the Seneca relied primarily on agriculture.  They primarily grew corn, beans, and squash that they called Deohako, or The Three Sisters.  As was the case with various other indigenous peoples, the woman worked the fields and tended to the children and the homes as men hunted and fished to supplement crops during the summer and provide a steady food source during the cold winters of the northeast.  Unlike other native peoples, however, Seneca woman had a more prominent role in running the clans that the tribe was divided into.  Women were the sole owners of land and homes, and took up roles as “clan mothers” where they organized and coordinated work by their clan.  However prominent these roles were however, real administrative power fell to the male chiefs who kept the power of diplomacy and war making out of the hands of the woman.
The Seneca had a number of festivals and celebrations throughout the year.  Most of these centered on agriculture and celebrated different stages in growing their crops.  The Planting Festival celebrated the sewing of a new crop each spring while the Green Corn Festival heralded in the ripening of the first fruits during the summer, and the Harvest Festival celebrated the last harvest of the fall and thanked the spirits for the generosity of the growing season and offered a prayer that the next one would be just as bountiful.  These celebrations lasted for days and were filled with games, feasts, speeches, and dancing.  Non-agriculture based festivals included the New Year’s jubilee which commenced on the 5th day after the first new moon of February and lasted for 7 days.  This festival represented starting anew and the wiping of the slate.  Major emphasis was placed on confessing and forgiving wrongs and putting quarrels and mistrust aside.  On the fifth day of the New Year’s Festival, the Seneca sacrificed a white dog to The Great Spirit.  This was the only instance where sacrificed was practiced since it was usually considered to be contrary to their religion.
Europeans often viewed the Seneca Indians as being unromantic since mothers or grandmothers arranged a good number of their marriages.   Weddings were simple; songs were sung and the friends and family of the couple gathered so bear witness.  After the ceremony was over, it was traditional for all in attendance to offer the groom some bit of advice, but no such tradition existed for the bride.  At funerals, bodies were laid to rest with bows, arrows and javelins laid beside them.  Sometimes, and especially for the matriarchs of clans, families kept the bones and mourned over them for years.


Colonial Experience

A great effect of the colonial presence on the Seneca tribe was the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, of which the Seneca tribe was a powerful member. The league was formed because the tribes wished to stand against the invasion. This league was a council of village chiefs, made up of the 8 Seneca chiefs that were chosen by each village’s clan mothers as the Seneca people had a matriarchal set up of families. Each chief had one vote and decisions were to be made by a unanimous vote only. And the villages could act independently but had to obey the decisions of the Iroquois Great Council. Thus a federal government, of sorts, was born. It was also stronger than other confederacies at the time, which was partially due to their practicing of rituals when choosing leaders and had colonial representatives participate when having negotiations. Sadly, this was not properly conveyed by settlers who interacted with them once they had gone back to their settlement. They would say that the tribes had no written law so there was no law at all. This, while not true as they clearly had an effective system of law, was to convey the idea of the tribe being savages and uncivilized. The league was mostly used to fight other tribes and the allied French settlements of those tribes, specifically the French settlement on the St. Lawrence, for the Seneca. This fighting was important though because it was an attempt for the Seneca and the other tribe to keep their culture that included their economic standings and ability to control certain lands for hunting beavers for pelt trading.  After the American Revolution, where the Seneca fought on the side of the British, they signed a treaty to remain on reservation territory in New York. This was a dramatic change to their society and culture having to be forced onto a small reservation where before they controlled many acres of land, as well has hurting the distinctness of the tribe. Because before there Seneca were separated from the other tribe by land and customs but as all the tribe were force onto the same land the distinct differences of them became blurred and eventually they became somewhat autonomous. It also led to the breakdown of their traditional legal system and form of government. The Code of Indian Offenses accelerated this further as it did much to make many of their social activities illegal including some of the religious ceremonies that they held to be sacred. On top of this the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had members of the tribe serve as police, judges and jailers to enforce the laws that prevented them to remain true to their traditions and heritage. All off these actions contributed to the degradation and corrosion of the tradition government process that the Seneca people had in the past to the point of almost complete destruction. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was passed and allowed tribes to form their own forms of constitutionalized government but the BIA influenced many. There were three predominate archetypes of government to form traditional, autonomous constitutional, and dependent constitutional, going from most like the traditional government of the past to the federal dependent government. While this is an attempt to allow return to the tribe’s traditions, it has been a long time of colonial influence and a general mistrust of tribal government had taken place.


Current Developments and Issues

Today, the Seneca Nation of Indians has over 8,000 enrolled members with most residing on rural territories and a few in residential areas. Historically, the Seneca Indians relied heavily on three major crops as a means of a livelihood (corn, beans, and squash). In the more recent years, the Seneca Nation has pursued other economic developments such as a world-class gaming casino, tobacco industry, entertainment acts, and a convenience store chain.
The Seneca culture and values still thrive today during annual festivities to showcase the Seneca arts, songs, and dances. Although their traditions continue to endure, the number of fluent speaking Seneca Indians is steadily declining and the language is now being considered at-risk. In a pursuit to reverse these numbers, the Seneca Nation has put in place a language program to help revive the language among new generations. Lacrosse, a traditional Seneca sport, is also still supported and encouraged through a number of community programs for children.
Although the Seneca Nation is today awash in money and, therefore, economic power, they didn’t always endure such formidable times. Some 60 years ago government officials had condemned a Seneca village in Philadelphia in order to construct a dam to control floodwaters. The villagers refused and the Army corps of engineers burned down the houses, the schools, and the churches to build the Kinzua hydropower dam. For two decades the Seneca Nation fought the plan in Washington but with no economic presence, they were unsuccessful in being heard.  With their current annual savings toping over 600 million dollars, the Seneca Nation is currently battling the actions of the US government some 60 years ago and ensuring policies to hinder a recurrence of such an incident in future times.
Due to their large annual income, some people have a wary view of the Seneca Nation because of their wealth generated from casinos and tobacco. One Seneca leader hopes to steer the Seneca Nation investments toward more “traditional ways” and plans to buy-out the Kinzua plant that overtook his people’s lands. With their large amount of money, though, they are putting it to good use to ensure better lives of their people through health-care aid and college scholarships.


Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2015, from https://sni.org/culture/

Seneca Nation's New Chief Seeks To 'Change Course' (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/08/18/139746162/seneca-nations-new-chief-seeks-to-change-course