Women of the Seneca Nation

Women of the Seneca Nation

Presented by Rebecca Bowen, SNI Tribal Archives Department, at the SNI Women’s Conference, August 5, 2011.

The late Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), an activist for Native people and women’s rights, but best known as the first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, once said: “There are a whole lot of historical factors that have played a part in our being where we are today, and I think that to even to begin to understand our contemporary issues and contemporary problems, you have to understand a little bit about that history.”

When talking about Seneca women you have to begin at the beginning and, as we all know, in the beginning was creation. I am sure many of you are familiar with Sky Woman’s fall, or push, from the Sky World. With the assistance of great birds she safely landed on the turtle’s back where she gave birth to a daughter who in turn died giving birth to twin sons, Good Mind and Evil Mind. When the daughter was buried her body brought forth the sacred tobacco plant and the Three Sisters – the corn, beans, and squash.

Now fast forward to the establishment of the Great Law of Peace when the first person to accept the message of peace was a woman. Some refer to her as the Mother of Nations or the Peace Queen. Said to be a virgin, she resided in an ancient town known as The Stronghold that served as a refuge from war by giving aid and comfort to warriors, no matter their nationality, seeking relief from battle. During their stay these foes in battle were separated only by a buckskin curtain, but upon parting, the enemies, having shared the hospitality of the Peace Queen, could never renew their hostilities without her consent. In gratitude for her exemplary life style and being the first to accept the message of the Great Peace, the Peace Maker gave her the name Jigonsahseh, meaning “New Face”. Jigonsahseh’s actions as the Great Peace Woman solidified a prominent role for women under the Great Law.

According to Article 44 of the Great Law: “The lineal descent of the people of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered the progenitors of the Nation. They shall own the land and the soil. Men and women shall follow the status of the mother.” The Great Law goes on to grant women the power to hold their own councils, to raise up and depose chiefs, and to make or stop a war.

The matrilineal kinship pattern afforded the women much power and authority. Even marriage followed the matrilocal pattern in that the newly married couple took up residence with the female partner’s family.

Traditional Ho di nõh sõni’ society was egalitarian and communitarian. The roles of women and men were complementary allowing for community stability and mutual satisfaction. As a community-based society, women and men worked for the benefit of the entire community. The women tended to the home and gardens which sustained the people. The men built the villages, cleared the fields and protected the people from harm. The concept of “it takes a village…” began with us.

By the time Tonawanda Seneca Caroline Parker (Wolf Clan, 1824-1892) was informally bestowed with the title of Jigonsahseh in 1853, the women at Cattaraugus and Allegany had already been summarily disenfranchised by the 1848 Seneca Nation Constitution. That constitution had dissolved the old government by chiefs and clan mothers and ushered in the new form of government. However, the Tonawanda Senecas had elected to maintain the traditional government by chiefs and clan mothers. Caroline was the only daughter of a distinguished Tonawanda family whose family line included the prophet Handsome Lake and Red Jacket.

Among her siblings were brothers General Ely Parker and Nicholson H. Parker. Ely wrote the terms of Southern surrender that ended the Civil War and became the first American Indian to serve as U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Nicholson came to settle at Cattaraugus with his wife, Martha, the niece of missionaries Asher and Laura Wright. He was an interpreter, census taker, and was even elected to a two-month term as Clerk of the Seneca Nation. Caroline was well educated in the white world, but equally educated in the Seneca world. When she married Tuscarora chief John Mountpleasant she carried the title of Jigonsahseh back to where The Stronghold was believed to have stood. Her grandmother had served as Jigonsahseh in the 18th century and Caroline recalled her grandmother’s home that had ten fires for guests and where no one ever went hungry. Caroline’s home was equally open and hospitable to everyone – no matter their nationality. Upon her death in 1892, the local newspapers noted that her home at Tuscarora “has been visited by thousands of prominent Americans and by tourists from Europe and other countries.”

Contact with Europeans was the beginning of an unprecedented cultural exchange. The entire fabric of our Ho di nõh sõniˀ society was impacted. The Euro-Americans waged an insidious campaign to institute their western world ways, one that was both Eurocentric and androcentric. These biases explain why there is little written or recorded about Native women. Euro-American males refused to deal with Native women as individuals or as vital members of a society in which they held positions of leadership. In the eyes of Euro-American men Native women were anonymous figures to be viewed as slaves, beasts of burden, living lives of drudgery.

In 1762 it was at the request of Seneca women that Kanadeohoda, a chief, met with Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs. When Johnson asked that the women not attend the council Kanadeohoda responded that “it was always the custom for them to be present at such occasions being of much estimation amongst us, in that we proceed from them and they provide our warriors with provisions when they go abroad…” In 1788, Domine Pater, a Seneca-Cayuga orator, said, “Our ancestors considered it a great offence to reject the counsels of their women, particularly [that] of female governesses…” – the clan mothers.

The decision-making role of Ho di nõh sõniˀ women was still the status quo during the latter years of our treaty-making era. Although it was the leading men who sat in these treaty negotiations, it was the council of women that was consulted at the end of the day. So in 1838 it was only natural that when the people became greatly distressed that all our remaining lands would be conveyed to land speculators under the terms of the Buffalo Creek treaty there was plenty of finger-pointing. The Buffalo Creek treaty was ripe with “fraud, perjury, and bribery” and everybody knew it. A nasty brew of anger over lost land, dislocation, annuities, poverty, disease, and alcohol boiled over.

In a general Council convened at Cattaraugus in January of 1845, the chiefs and head men of the Nation “declare[d], that our political usages, customs, organizations and constitution be,…altered and amended, so that no sale or disposition of the whole or any part of our lands…shall be valid…unless the same be made in full and open Council of the Chiefs and Warriors of the Nation, and by the express assent of two-thirds of all the Chiefs, and two-thirds of the whole residue of the male population of the Nation, of the age of twenty-one years, and upwards…” The women were excluded.

Statistically, in 1845 Seneca females at Buffalo Creek, Cattaraugus and Allegany accounted for 52% of the population.

Three years later, in the fall of 1848, Seneca women from Cattaraugus sent a memorial to Philip E. Thomas, a Quaker philanthropist, friend and confidante to the Seneca and for whom the Thomas Indian School would one day be named. The women wrote, “We wish you to inform the Secretary of War that we women have an equal right to our Annuities with the men, and with the Chiefs.” The memorial continued, “And we would desire to add, that we have already suffered greatly from the proceedings of the chiefs, through whose instrumentality our poverty has been increasing upon us, and we wish to entreat that we may never again hereafter be exposed to be deprived by them of our rights…” It was signed by Betsy Snow with x’s for Julia Ann Snow, Jane Scott, Gaanhoh, Polly Johnson, and Martha Phillips.

In a second memorial forwarded to U.S. President Zachary Taylor, the women pleaded: “lest it should be thought that Indian women have tongues that never tire, we only add, that it is the earnest prayer of the undersigned, in their own behalf, and in behalf of a large majority of the mothers, wives and daughters of the Seneca Nation, that the recognition of the new government may be permitted to stand, and that we may be paid our Annuities…”

There is no record of what the views or debates held by the women were beyond the discussion of annuities. But we do know these memorials became one more piece of evidence against the chiefs. Indeed, less than two months later the new government was formed and a constitutional charter was adopted at a convention held at Cattaraugus on December 4. That charter acknowledged the women only once. Section 6 reads “The power of making Treaties shall be vested in the Council, but no Treaty shall be binding upon the Nation, until the same shall be submitted to the people, and approved by three-fourths of all the legal voters, and also by three-fourths of all the mothers in the Nation.” And who were the legal voters in 1848? They were the men.

Records show that attempts to return the government to the chiefs continued into the 1870’s, but there is no record of any debate as to the rights of Seneca women during these years. And I cannot help but think that for all intents and purposes the women felt they still maintained a certain level of authority. After all, they were still the progenitors of the Nation. Men and women still followed the line of the mothers. Women could still own land and they were still responsible for the home. This was more than could be said of women in general in America at that time.

In the ensuing years, women are heard in the Council – if not their own voices, then through the voices of men. In one interesting Council note, on June 9, 1890, Allegany Councillor Alfred Logan made a motion to furnish meals to the women attending Council that day. He could not even get a second to his motion. Statistically, in 1890 females at Allegany and Cattaraugus accounted for 49% of the Seneca Nation of Indians’ population.

A Female Benevolent Society was formed at Allegany in May of 1880. Better known as a sewing society, the officers were President Jane Jimeson who several months later became Jane John, Vice President Effie Jimeson, Treasurer Jane Shongo, and Secretary B.A. Blinkey. They had two rules: officers of the Society would hold their office for a term of one year and “the treasurer could not dispose of any money for any purpose without the consent of the Society.” The secretary always recorded the residence where the Society met and, interestingly, the male head of household was always listed. So records show that among the homes they met at where the homes of Elliot John, Thomas Pierce, Bennett Shongo, Albert Jimeson, Willie Hoag, David Jimeson, Adolphus Blinkey, and Phillip Fatty. Within a year of formation, the names of men in attendance at these meetings are being listed and several times they are listed under the heading “working men.” Among the males listed is B.A. Blinkey, the Society’s secretary, and at several meetings there are more males in attendance than females. Records show that in March of 1887 the men are collecting money and at one meeting they collect 10 cents. A few months later they have $18.32 in the treasury. The money is used to purchase calico, lining, “stuffing,” thread, and needles for quilting. They are soon holding fundraisers. In July of that same year they receive $8.50 for two quilts, $5.94 for “eatables”, and $1.00 from the sale of hay.

The first record of Seneca women seeking the right to vote in Nation elections occurred at the Regular Session of Council December 4, 1935 at the Allegany court house in Jimersontown. According to Council minutes, George Patterson made a motion to consider the suffrage petition that one local newspaper claimed two-thirds of the women of the Nation had signed. The motion passed and Council appointed Adlai Williams, Jonathan Johnson, and Jonas Crouse to a committee to amend the Constitution.

At the Special Session of December 21 at Cattaraugus the committee on women’s suffrage made its report to the Council. The Council minutes read: “Report of Committee – To the Council of the Seneca Nation of Indians. The committee appointed to consider and report an amendment to section 10 of the amended Constitution of the Seneca Nation of Indians adopted in 1898. For the purpose of extending and giving the adult women of said Nation [the right] to vote for the officers of said Nation thereby, report that they recommend that Section 10 of said constitution be amended to read as follows: Every Indian of the Seneca Nation of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, residing upon either of the reservations of the Seneca Nation, whose names appear on the last preceding roll used for the payment of annuities to the said Indians, and who shall not have been convicted of a felony shall be competent to vote at all elections and meetings of the electors of the Nation and shall be eligible to any office in the gift of the people of the Nation. The right of any Indians belonging to the Seneca Nation to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Respectfully submitted – Adlai Williams, Jonathan Johnson, Jonas Crouse, Committee. Dated Dec. 12, 1935.” Ulysses Printup made a motion to accept and approve the report of the suffrage committee. The motion was defeated.

There is no further mention of the right to vote for Seneca women for approximately fifteen years, but there is mention in December of 1939 of Cattaraugus Councillor Warren Kennedy filing a petition in behalf of the Seneca Indian Women’s Club of the Cattaraugus Reservation. Councillor Jacob Jimerson explained that their views were the same as Council’s in regards to “preserving the rights of our people in general…” Geneva Mohawk, Salina Kennedy, and Libbie Kennedy spoke about the taking of marl by non-Senecas and woodcutting. Council appointed Councillors Dean Gardner and Lavan Eels to work with the Women’s Club. They both declined, but Theo Gordon and Nelson Scott accepted.

The next year Councillor Nelson Scott filed a petition in behalf of the Cattaraugus Women’s Club. The spokesperson of the Women’s Club, Salina Kennedy, was requested to explain the petition. The women were concerned about the annuities of Seneca children at the Thomas Indian School. Superintendent J.C. Brennan was summoned and asked to clarify the matter. He explained the source of authority to use children’s annuities had been vested in the school by the first trustees. He cited improvements for which the annuities were used and explained an honor system in effect at the school. Brennan stated that all annuities of all children in the institution were used for these purposes. Council requested the Women’s Club conduct further investigation and offer a solution. Two days later a motion made the Council floor to appropriate fifteen dollars to the Women’s Club for expenses in connection with their work. The motion was unanimously defeated. There is no further mention of the Women’s Club.

At a Special Session of Council on August 11, 1951, Morris Jimerson made a motion, seconded by Guy Patterson, that the Council consider the petition of Reva Cooper Barse concerning women’s suffrage. The motion was carried and Barse’s petition was referred to a three-man committee for amending the constitution. There is no further mention of the issue until December 1953 when Reva Barse’s letters are referenced. I can only assume that the failure of Council to properly address the initial petition had resulted in a series of letters from Mrs. Barse to the Council.

During this time the Nation hired an attorney by the name of Edward O’Neill. He immediately identified the need for the Nation to operate a professional office. The person hired became the first SNI employee and was eventually given the title of Deputy Clerk. Her name was Cordelia Abrams from Allegany. Minutes show that several times Council praised her for her cooperation, helpfulness, and the efficient conditions of the office, and even gave her a Christmas bonus of $100.

Two years later, in December of 1955, Councillor Elmer Thompson presented a written petition on behalf of the women of the Cattaraugus Territory regarding the right to vote. He went on to introduce a motion, seconded by Theodore Jackson, that Council entertain the petition of the women of the Seneca Nation who seek the right to vote and hold office. He stated that this movement was similar to one several years earlier at which time a committee had been appointed to make a study of women’s suffrage. The petition was again referred to a Council-appointed Constitutional Amendments Committee.

That winter the Nation sent out a letter with a response card to poll the female members of the Nation as to their desire to secure the right to vote. At a Special Session of Council in March of 1956 President Leo Cooper reported that not quite half of the women had bothered to return the card to express an opinion. Turning the floor over to Elmer Thompson, who happened to be the chairman of the Constitutional Amendments Committee, Thompson read the recommended amendment – the right of a duly enrolled member of the Seneca Nation to vote, but not to hold office, at all elections of the Nation shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.

There was considerable debate. Salina Kennedy spoke briefly in favor of allowing women to vote and hold office because women were as capable as men.

President Cooper stated he had been approached by a number of men on the reservation who had asked him to kill the proposed amendment.

Vernice Pierce stated that another petition to secure the right to vote and hold office was being prepared and she was confident that three-fourths of the women would sign the petition.

A motion by Alton Van Aernam, seconded by Lawrence Kennedy, tabled the issue and the question was not included in a public referendum in May.

But one month later Council seemed ready to consider the petition seeking women’s suffrage. At a June session of Council Theodore Jackson introduced the petition and called on the Chairperson of the Women’s Suffrage Organization to present their speakers. The court house was filled with women there to give moral support. Each speaker would be limited to 5 minutes. She called on Martha Flammang (b. 6/13/1900, maiden name Green). According to the Council minutes, Mrs. Flammang laid the groundwork in a speech which had merit and made some very good points.

Edith Luke stated that the women had no intention of forming a separate political party but only wanted the privilege of taking part in the running of the government.

Vernice Pierce stressed that not since the government of chiefs went out in 1848 had the women had a voice in government and she felt that present times dictated the need for including both sexes.

Edward Gordon made comments in opposition and pointed out that the women had lost their voice in government back in 1848 for good reason. They had appointed the chiefs who sold their lands and lost their homes.

Rovena Abrams stated that their concern was not to better what the men have done but just to be able to take part therein.

Andrew Jackson stated that he highly favored giving the women the right to vote.

Basil Williams favored women’s suffrage to create a better understanding and more interest in our own government and he wished to go on record as being in favor of suffrage. His wife, Rita, was in agreement.

Watson Pierce commented on the women’s inability to carry on public service and take care of a home with equal ability. He believed that the future of the coming generation lay in the type of home life they grow up in. According to Pierce, a woman’s first duty was as a homemaker.

But following much discussion, it was Watson Pierce who made the motion, seconded by Coleman John, that the question on the right of women to vote be placed before the legal voters of the Nation for determination in accordance with the recommendation of the Constitutional Amendments Committee. The motion was carried by a vote of 7 to 3 with 1 abstention. The referendum date would be October 30, 1956.

When the polls closed on October 30th, the proposed amendment had been approved by the male voters at Cattaraugus by a 2:1 margin. But despite a strenuous door-to-door campaign, it failed at Allegany and its overwhelming defeat there killed the proposed amendment by 15 votes. The Buffalo Courier-Express quoted Rovena Abrams, credited with co-leading the suffrage effort at Allegany, as saying, “Our defeat in today’s election has made us more determined to gain the vote. We will continue our movement until we have attained our goal.”

There were other issues to consider. In 1956 the Seneca Nation of Indians began the historic fight to block the construction of the Kinzua Dam and retain all lands at Allegany.

That year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contacted the SNI seeking permission to conduct a field survey at Allegany. On October 20, 1956 Council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing President Leo Cooper “to deny the permission so requested.” However, a conference between the SNI and the Army Corps was held in Buffalo on November 26th of that year and again the Army Corps requested permission to conduct the survey.

It was also an election year and on December 4, 1956, during the first Council session of the new administration, “President Cornelius Seneca introduced a signed petition which has been circulated on the Allegany Reservation. The signers are opposed to the Kinzua Dam project. One petition is signed by the legal voters [men] while the other is signed by mothers of the Tribe.” The mothers of the Nation petition must have been presented by Mrs. Effie Johnson because Council minutes show she requested the original petition be returned to her.

The petition read in part: “We, The undersigned Mothers of The Seneca Nation of Indians, pursuant to Section Five of our National Constitution in which the Treaty making powers vested in the Council of said Seneca Nation of Indians are subject to the approval of at least three-fourths of the legal voters, and the consent of three-fourths of the mothers of the Nation, do hereby respectfully petition the Council…to oppose the acquisition of any lands of said Seneca Nation of Indians by the United States Government…” According to Council minutes for that day, “all spoke in opposition.”

Just this year the original petition signed by 122 Seneca women was returned to the Seneca Nation.

The fight for the vote continued. The proposed amendment was again defeated by 30 votes on May 11, 1959. On October 27, 1962 the amendment was defeated for the third time by just 2 votes at Cattaraugus and 10 votes at Allegany.

In March of 1964 Martha Flammang presented a petition containing 162 signatures to Council. She pledged “to wage an all-out campaign” to win the vote telling Council “I have been turned down before,but turning me down is like picking me up.” The referendum vote was held on May 23, 1964. The men finally said yes. The amendment giving Seneca women the right to vote was approved by a vote of 169 to 99. President George Heron warned the potential all-male candidates in the upcoming November election that the women “outnumber us and they intend to make their votes count.” The women voted in their first general election on November 3, 1964.

Not forgetting the battle was only half won, the women continued their quest for the right to hold elective office. A referendum was held in October 1966. Like the 1956 vote, Cattaraugus approved the amendment and Allegany said no, but by a margin too small to thwart the inevitable. By six votes the amendment passed. A month later Martha Bucktooth became the first Seneca women to hold office when she was elected assessor. Two years later Winifred Kettle became the first woman executive when she was elected clerk. In 1974 Ms. Kettle and Maxine Smith became the first women to serve on Council. With the exception of the offices of President and Chief Marshal, Seneca women have served in every elective capacity of our Nation.

Statistically, today in 2011, women account for 52% of the tribal enrollment just as we did in 1845.

Martha Flammang, who was a nurse, believed the talents of the many capable Seneca women of her era were being wasted by denying them a voice in the tribal government. Today I believe she would be pleased by the results of her efforts and by the accomplishments of our Seneca women, but I also believe she would not be willing to settle for anything less than to witness the election of the first women president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.