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. There were perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 members of the Iroquois League around 1500 and about 5,000 Seneca in the mid-17th century. The Seneca spoke a Northern Iroquois dialect.
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 the 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. Medicine groups such as the false face society, 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 19th century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake.
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.
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. 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 10 days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.
From the early 16th 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 about 1300. Some villages were palisaded.
Iroquois peoples built elm-bark longhouses, 50 to 100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the 12th century on. They held around two or three 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.
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 18th century on.
The 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. 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. 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 the winter and wood-frame backpacks to carry heavy loads such as fresh meat.
Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and tunics in cool weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in the summer. Robes were made of light or heavy 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 the winter, fur hoods.
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. 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 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.
The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. According to legend, Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1000 and 1150. It originally consisted of five tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca; the Tuscarora joined in the early 18th century. The league's purpose was to end centuries of debilitating intertribal war and work for the common good.
There were two Seneca groups in the 16th 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 17th and 18th 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 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-17th century. Their power effectively blocked European westward expansion.
Although they were good at playing the European powers against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars, and they 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 Rebellion 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 Natives 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 (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. In 1838, the U.S. Senecas lost most 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. In the mid-19th 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 bylaws, 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.
Today in the Seneca Nation, the language remains intact, as do traditional political and social (clan) structures, 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 ceremonies are observed at all reservations, and, of those that are, there are occasionally 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 retains various traditional ceremonies.
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 confrontations.
Barry M. Pritzker
Hicks, John D. The Federal Union: A History of the United States to 1865. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1937; Moquin, Wayne. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973; Pritzker, Barry M. Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.