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
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
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.
War and Politics
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
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.
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
"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."