Published on November 4, 2012 by Amy
The Seneca were the largest of the 5 tribes which comprised the Iroquois League or the Five Nations. Along with the Seneca, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) League includes the Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Cayuga. Later the Tuscarora, or “shirt wearing people” became the 6th Nation to join the confederacy, fleeing from British occupied North Carolina. Today, nearly 10,000 Seneca live on reservations in Western New York; the Cattargaurus, Allegany, and Tonawanda reservations, with some also settled in Oklahoma, and Ontario, Canada; they ore the only Nation to own a U.S. city, Salamanca, which is situated on land owned by the Allegany Indian reservation.
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At the time of the formation of the Iroquois League, the five tribes occupied territory from the East to the West, the Seneca being the “keepers of the western door”. The official language of the Seneca is Ogwehoweh, in which their name translates to O-non-dowa-gah, or “great hill people.”; from which their creation myth said they had originated.
The historical Seneca tribe occupied territory from the Genesee River to Canandaigua Lake in Western New York, living in long houses on the riverside. The sedentary tribe’s villages were well fortified with wooden stake fences, just one of their many industrious undertakings. They relied heavily on agriculture for food, growing the three sisters: corn, squash, and beans, which they referred to as deohako, “the life supporters”; in addition to raising crops, the Seneca men would hunt in the Fall, and fish in the Spring.
The Seneca were also great conquerors, highly skilled at warfare, and having been given guns by the Dutch colonists, were fierce adversaries to any other tribe who tried to resist their takeover. One of the distinctive features of the Iroquois warriors’ appearance was their hair, which they kept shaved in “Mohawk” fashion, and their heavily tattooed bodies. Iroquois warriors were also believed to have participated in ritual cannibalism, and were also know to torture their prisoners.
Ironically, Iroquois politics were the most sophisticated in all of the North-American Native cultures; the Seneca, with the exception of one tribe (The Tonawanda), having adopted a democratic form of government after years of questionable leadership by Chiefs who had come into their positions out of lineage rather than virtue. The Seneca women were in charge of elections, and decided who was to become tribal leader, Leaders usually held their posts for life, but could be removed if they became corrupt or proved to be incompetent; the Seneca political system also included a constitution, which is believed to have been the model for the American constitution.
One of the Seneca’s most important leaders was a man named “Red Jacket”; he was a great orator, and left us with many memorable quotes such as “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. The sun also shines on the wicked.”, and “It is another’s fault if he be ungrateful; .”but it is mine if I do not give.” Red Jacket was a strong defender of the Seneca heritage, opposed to assimilation by the whites, especially with the missionaries who tried to impose Christianity on the Seneca. Despite his opposition to cultural assimilation, Red Jacket did want to live in peace with the whites, and even fought alongside the British during the American Revolutionary war.
Red jacket was so named because he was given a red coat by one of the British officers he had served with. Because of his great skills as a speaker, Red Jacket served as official spokesman for the Iroquois League, and was instrumental in negotiation between them and the Americans after the war ended. This earned him the Seneca name Sagoyewatha meaning “He who keeps them awake.” Red Jacket died of cholera on the Buffalo Creek reservation; a monument erected in his honor now stands in Buffalo, New York.
Another Seneca tribe you will see mentioned are the Ohio Seneca. Although they did speak Ogwehoweh, they are not part of the Iroquois League, the reason being their joining the Algonquin Indian tribes, even going as far as fighting alongside them against some of the New York Iroquois, who had been persecuting them, trying to take over their villages.
The Ohio Seneca were just a few of the many tribes who had been oppressed by the Iroquois, most had not been so lucky, having been taken over, and integrated into Iroquois society; a clever way of ensuring that the remnants of the tribes they had conquered would not rise up against them. Even though they would adopt new members into their fold, they would only offer partial membership, enforcing a cultural chain of command which would keep the newly integrated tribe members from feeling entirely comfortable. The Iroquois offered membership to several tribes including the Lenape, and the mighty Algonquin.
These are just highlights in the rich and fascinating history of the Seneca and Iroquois, perhaps one of the most complex and sophisticated Native cultures to have ever lived on the North-American continent. Their politics, engineering skills, and proficiency at warfare will ensure that stories will be told for ages to come, and their heritage will never be lost. let us end this page with a few words from Red Jacket:
“Know that we are eager to share our gifts, in the name of love.
Kindness is a language the deaf can hear and the dumb can understand.”