The Seneca Nation is one of the original Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. This union was created to bring peace to the Haudenosaunee, or “People of the Longhouse,” as they call themselves. Comprised of chiefs from the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, it operated under an unwritten code of conduct known as the Great Law of Peace. This union was later expanded to include the Tuscarora, becoming the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Haudenosaunee tribes’ contiguous lands originally stretched across what is now known as New York state, similar to the shape of a longhouse. The Seneca controlled trade and traffic at the western edge of the Iroquois territory, which is why they are referred to as “Keepers of the Western Door.” The Mohawks, who lived near the Hudson River, are called “Keepers of the Eastern Door.”
Like the other Iroquois tribes, the Seneca historically lived in longhouses, which were long, narrow bark-covered dwellings that housed several families from the same clan. Traditional Seneca culture is defined by the clan system. There are eight clans among the Seneca, divided into animals: Bear, Beaver, Turtle, and Wolf; and the birds: Deer, Hawk, Heron, and Snipe. Clan membership is matrilineal – it is passed on to children through their mothers.
The Seneca would hunt, fish, farm and gather their food. Staples of the Seneca crop and diet were corn, beans, and squash, which are referred to as the Three Sisters and considered to be special gifts from the Creator. Everything that the Seneca historically used in their daily life came from the land or nature, including clothing, tools, cooking utensils, crafts and other materials.
Keeping the Legacy Alive
The Seneca have lived in and cared for the forests, valleys, and shorelines of what is now Western New York, since before recorded history. The riches of this land and these waters are revered among the Seneca, as is their obligation to pass along this legacy. Today the Seneca Nation has over 7,600 enrolled members and holds title to three main territories in Western New York, specifically, the Cattaraugus, Allegany, and Oil Spring territories.
The Seneca Nation continues to support its own people and surrounding communities with a variety of cultural, educational and economic efforts. Through the enterprises of the Nation, revenues are generated that provide necessary services and programs to all tribal members, especially its youth and elder population.
Seneca culture and values remain strong and intact. The vibrancy of their rich heritage is evident in the cultural events, dance, music, arts, crafts and foods that visitors are invited to experience.
For more information on the Seneca Nation of Indians, please visit the official government website at www.sni.org.