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What is the Seneca Tribe?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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The Seneca tribe is the largest Native American nation of the five that form the Iroquois League. Located furthest west of the Iroquois tribes, the Seneca tribe originally settled the area of what is today the state of New York living in longhouses along the Genesee River and near Canandaigua Lake. Ogwehoweh is the tribe’s official language, and the Seneca refer to themselves as the Onondowahgah or “great hill people” because their creation story describes how they were born under South Hill near Canandaigua Lake.

Members of the Seneca tribe work or reside on five New York reservations or near Miami, OK. There is also a significant Seneca population on the Grand River Territory in Brantford, Ontario, where the Native Americans who supported the British during America’s 18th century Revolutionary War were forced to flee after the conflict ended.

Prior to contact with Dutch and British colonists and explorers in the 16th century, the Seneca tribe supported itself by hunting and gathering, fishing and the cultivation of squash, corn and beans, a trio of key crops known as “the three sisters.” The women were typically responsible for gathering and agricultural activities as well as the care of domesticated animals while the men hunted and fished and cleared land for villages. Although women often had sole ownership of their land and could lead clans as “clan mothers,” they had comparatively little influence on the tribal chiefs. The Seneca tribe eventually participated in the fur trade with Europeans, which increased tensions with neighboring Native American nations such as the Huron.

Known as fierce tattooed warriors among their neighbors, the Seneca tribe’s bellicose skills and effectiveness improved after receiving guns from Dutch colonists. Seneca warriors are believed to have led the Iroquois conquest of the Huron and the Andaste among other tribes. The Seneca tribe also became an ally of the British against the French and was thus able to maintain its independence and power well into the 18th century.

Seneca dominance came to an end during the Revolutionary War when the tribe was defeated at Fort Niagara by an army of men sent by George Washington under the command of General Sullivan. As a result, the Seneca were resettled on land that became the tribe’s reservations after 1784.

The tribe’s New York reservations include Allegany, Cattaraugus, Buffalo Creek, Niagara Falls and Oil Springs. Allegany and Cattaraugus are residential reservations while the remaining three are used for the tribe’s commercial pursuits including gaming and gasoline and cigarette sales. The Seneca established a constitution and a government of elected officials in 1848 and the tribe provides health care, early childhood services, education, language classes and a tribal youth council. The Tonawanda Band of Seneca split from the main tribe in the middle of the 19th century and resides near Akron, New York on the Tonawanda reservation. There are additional Seneca who reside near Miami, OK., where they operate a cigarette factory and a casino.

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