Seneca Nation of New York

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Seneca Nation of Indians
Capital Irving, New York
Jimerson Town, New York
Largest city Salamanca, NY
Official languages Seneca language (national)
English (national)
Government Republic
 •  President Maurice A. John, Sr.
 •  Treasurer Todd Gates
 •  Clerk Pauline John
 •  2010 estimate 8,000
Currency United States dollar
Time zone EST
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officer present an award to Art John, Director of Emergency Response for the Seneca Nation of Indians, 2009

The Seneca Nation of New York, also known as the Seneca Nation of Indians (Salamanca), is a federally recognized tribe of Seneca people in New York.[1] The tribe has two alternating capitals: one in Irving, New York on the Cattaraugus Reservation, and the other in Jimerson Town near Salamanca on the Allegany Indian Reservation.[2] It is one of two federally recognized Seneca tribes in New York. The other is the much smaller Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, which broke off from the Seneca Nation in 1857.

Seneca people also make up part of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, located in Oklahoma. They are descendants of Iroquois and Mingo who had migrated from New York to Ohio before the American Revolutionary War, and were relocated from there to Indian Territory in the nineteenth century.


The tribe was established in 1848 by a Constitutional Convention of Seneca people residing on the Allegany and Cattaragus Territories in present-day New York. The Seneca Nation of Indians Constitution established a tri-partite governing structure based on general elections of 16 Councilors, three Executives (President, Treasurer, Clerk), and Court justices (Surrogates and Peacemakers). These elections are held every two years, concurrent with Election Day in the rest of the United States. The leadership rotates between the two reservations each election, and no officer can serve consecutive terms because of this. There are no other term limits, and elected officers can serve numerous nonconsecutive terms.[3]

This republican form of government stands in contrast to that of the federally recognized Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians. It has retained the traditional native government of hereditary chiefs chosen by clan mothers. These leaders were deposed in the 1848 convention of the Seneca Nation of New York.


In the 21st century, the Seneca government is reported to be primarily under one-party rule, with the Seneca Party having control of the political process. In 2011, the Seneca Party was reported by The Buffalo News as having bribed people for votes and bussed voters in from out of state during elections.[4] There are numerous factions and disputes within the Seneca Party. Tensions increased during the presidency of attorney Robert Odawi Porter in 2011-2012. Supporters of Porter have been at odds with supporters of the John family, an old-line, politically powerful family in Seneca circles.

In November 2011, the John family led a vote to depose Porter by stripping him of most of his powers and give the title of chief executive officer to Michael "Spike" John. He is the cousin of Maurice "Moe" John, who served as Seneca president from 2006 to 2008, and ran unsuccessfully for Seneca President against Porter in 2010.[4] Diane Kennedy, Tribal Clerk and a Porter ally, invalidated this vote under conflict of interest statutes. In an October 2012 Council Session, a close friend of Kennedy said that Porter wrote the invalidation letter for Kennedy to sign.[4] The action for de facto impeachment was taken after John supporters said politically motivated charges were made against Susan Abrams, a John ally.[4]

The 2012 elections were marked by a split in the Seneca Party and one of the most wide-open (and bitterly contested) Seneca elections in several years: five candidates competed for the post of president, including two endorsed by the two major factions in the Seneca Party.[5] Barry E. Snyder, Sr., a John ally who had previously served several other terms as President (including the one immediately before Porter), was re-elected to the post in 2012.

On November 4, 2014, with 66% of the vote, Maurice "Moe" John of the Seneca Party was elected to serve as President of the Seneca Nation of Indians. John faced council member Darlene Miller, who ran on the One Nation Party ticket. She accused the Seneca Party of having a long history of corruption. The Seneca Party had a landslide victory in the 2014 Elections; its candidates Todd Gates was elected Treasurer, and Pauline "Snap" John was elected Clerk. Elected to the Council were Ross L. John, Sr., Llona LeRoy, outgoing President Barry Snyder, John Adlai Williams, Jr., all of the Cattaraugus Territory. Tina Abrams, Rickey Armstrong, William "Billy" Canella and Stephen Gordon were elected to the Council from the Allegany Territory.[citation needed]

Economic development[edit]

The tribe owns and operates the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, located in Buffalo.[6] Other gaming and resort properties include the Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca and Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls.[2]

The Seneca Nation also owns Seneca Gaming and Entertainment, a chain of small video slots and bingo facilities with locations in Irving, Salamanca, and on the Oil Spring Reservation in Cuba.

Through a tribal-owned holding company, the tribe owns a telecommunications firm, Seneca Telecommunications; a construction management company, SCMC LLC; and a radio station, WGWE. The Porter administration pursued diversification of the Nation's businesses. It promoted founding of new Seneca-owned businesses beyond the Nation's traditional strongholds of gasoline retail and tobacco products. In 2010 the tribe acquired a controlling interest in wireless and telecommunications provider CT COMM, based in Washington, D.C.

The tribe has developed a brand of cigarettes called Native Pride. The tribe also owns a small chain of smoke shops and gas stations under the "Seneca One Stop" brand, but the vast majority of smoke shops on Seneca reservations are independently owned. The refusal of Seneca businesses to pay New York state excise taxes, because their businesses are operated on sovereign land, has given them a price advantage over non-Seneca, to whom the Seneca refuse to grant equal rights on their territory. The issue of such excise taxes has been an irritant to the state government and non-Seneca convenience store operators in the vicinity for several decades.

Seneca Pumped Storage Project at Kinzua Dam[edit]

For decades, the Seneca developed their land primarily for agricultural and related uses. The floodplain along the river was highly fertile. In the 1960s, members of the tribe became increasingly politically active. This was related to asserting sovereignty as part of a general Native American activism in this period and, specifically, to try to defeat proposals by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to take thousands of acres of reservation land as part of construction of Kinzua Dam, a flood control project on the River.

While alternatives existed, the COE proceeded with the project: construction of the dam and associated reservoir caused huge losses for the tribe, taking 10,000 acres of their reservation, nearly one third of their total property and much of it the most fertile farmland.[7] More than 600 families were displaced and relocated. The tribe received a few hundred acres and relocation assistance for these families, as well as the relocation of a burial ground. They consider these to be insufficient compensation for the government's violating a 1794 treaty that guaranteed the tribe control of this reservation. In addition, the project has since caused other flooding on their land and a through road, causing the loss of additional fertile areas.[8]

In the aftermath of the dam's completion, the Seneca people developed a different political dynamic.[9] As the tribe used some compensation monies to support higher education for its members, the 1960s crisis indirectly resulted in a "college-educated generation, some of whom now work in tribal government making major contributions to the nation’s present and future."[10] Other young people have left the reservation to get better jobs in other areas.

In a major action, in 2010 the Nation filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take over operations of the hydropower works, the Seneca Pumped Storage Project at Kinzua Dam.[11][7] Robert Odawi Porter, president of the tribe, said this would not only help the tribe to diversify its economy, but be a means of compensation for environmental and property losses that accompanied flooding of 10,000 acres of tribal areas after the dam was constructed in 1965. The current operator, FirstEnergy of Toledo, Ohio, has a license that expires in 2015. The private sector is estimated to make $13 million in profits annually from the hydropower.[12]

President Porter has noted that, when the federal dam was proposed, tribal leaders were told only that it was needed for flood control, not that a hydroelectric project would be run there.[11] The dam generates "up to 450 megawatts of electricity every year for the Pittsburgh area."[13] In August 2011, the tribe received a preliminary permit from FERC to study "the feasibility of the additional hydropower operations and [it] grants them priority status in filing for the full permit."[14] The Nation was required to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to obtain documents relevant to adding new generation infrastructure to its dam.[12]

In November 2013, FERC approved FirstEnergy's sale of 11 hydro plants, including that at Kinzua Dam, which is the biggest project, to a unit of independent developer LS Power Group. This did not affect any transfers of operating licenses, which FERC noted were pending separate approvals.[15]

President Porter noted that the dam has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for operators since it started in 1970, but the Seneca have not received any of that money. It also noted that the federal government had licensed the private hydropower project to use the Allegany Reservoir, but no operator had ever obtained property rights from the Seneca Nation for operation of the dam.[16]

Transit service[edit]

In 2013, the Seneca launched a public transit bus service to serve both the Cattaraugus and the western portion of the Allegany reservations; it operates one route, running along NY 438, NY 353, Old Route 17, I-86 and West Perimeter Road between Irving and Highbanks. The service is open to non-Seneca along the route.

Relationship with non-Seneca[edit]

Since the later 20th century, the Seneca have been increasingly active in exercising sovereignty on their reservation and enforcing their property rights. The relationship between the Seneca Nation and the non-native surrounding population has been contentious, both in regard to excise tax advantages and in regard to property rights.

In the 1990s, the Senecas won a prolonged court battle to assume ownership of all land on their reservation, including that owned by private non-Seneca. (This was particularly contentious in Salamanca, where non-native landownership had been tolerated for decades. State and local officials said that this is the only United States city located on Indian reservation land; under the recognized law of the time, the underlying land remained Seneca owned, but "improvements" on that land were not subject to lease and were still privately owned.)[17] The city had been developed under a 99-year federal lease arrangement with the Seneca Nation, as railroad land was developed for workers and their families, and related businesses. This arrangement was confirmed by acts of Congress in 1875, 1890 and 1990.[17]

When that lease expired in 1991, the Seneca Nation demanded that the previous owners sign new leases with the nation not only for the underlying land, but for the improvements as well, or be evicted.[17] Fifteen property owners were evicted from their homes for refusing to sign over their properties.[18]

In a similar case in 2012, the Seneca ordered an eviction of 80 residents of summer cottages at Snyder Beach on the Cattaraugus Reservation. They had previously notified the owner of the land that his leases to non-Seneca were not permissible, but he had done nothing to clear his property. Some of the residents were from families who had rented there for decades. The Seneca described the non-natives as constituting a long-standing "illegal occupation".[18]


The Seneca were the largest of the six Native American nations that comprised the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations. Their democratic government pre-dated the United States Constitution.

In the Iroquois Confederacy, the Seneca were traditionally known as the "Keeper of the Western Door," for they are the westernmost of the Six Nations. In the Seneca language the people are known as O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced: Oh-n'own-dough-wahgah) or "Great Hill People." At the time of the formation of the Iroquois League, the original five nations of the Iroquois League occupied large areas of land in Northeast North America, particularly present-day New York and Pennsylvania, and Southeast Canada. The historical Seneca occupied territory throughout the Finger Lakes area in Central New York, and in the Genesee Valley in Western New York, living in longhouses on the riversides. The villages were well fortified with wooden-stake palisade fences.

These were settled communities in which the people cultivated staple crops known as the Three Sisters: varieties of corn, beans, and squash, which were known as Deohako (pronounced: Jo- hay- ko), "the life supporters." Generally the women cultivated and processed the crops. Seneca men were subsistence hunters and fishers.

The Senecas were highly skilled at warfare, and were considered fierce adversaries by other Native Americans and European colonists. But the Seneca were also renowned for their sophisticated skills at diplomacy and oratory, and their willingness to unite with the other four of the original five nations to form the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations.

In the 21st century, the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York has a total enrolled population of nearly 8,000 citizens. Its territories are generally rural, with several residential areas. Many Seneca citizens live off-territory, and some are located across the country, as well as in other countries. Off-territory residents, who often work in urban areas providing more jobs, comprise nearly 1/2 of the enrolled citizens.

Today the Seneca Nation supports its own people. Its enterprises benefit surrounding communities with a variety of cultural, educational and economic efforts. Its varied enterprises include: world-class casino gaming, hospitality and entertainment, which employ over 3,500 people; a convenience store chain (4 stores), construction management, and diverse holdings in business ventures.

Seneca language, song, art, dance, and sports are all vital expressions of their culture. The number of fluent Seneca language speakers is diminishing due to the deaths of elders, and the language is considered at-risk. The Nation has established language programs to help protect, preserve and develop a new generation of Seneca-language speakers to keep the language alive.

Lacrosse is a sport played by male and female, young and old. Two new community sports complexes on each territory enable year-round lacrosse leagues and space for community programs, crafts and learning.

A Faithkeepers' School supports and ensures the ongoing practice of traditional teachings, arts, knowledge and the living culture of the Longhouse ways. The vibrancy of the rich Seneca heritage is evident in the ceremonies, practices, and cultural events that are infused with dance, music and song, arts, crafts and traditional foods that honor and celebrate Seneca culture.

Notable Seneca[edit]

  • George Heron, former Nation president, opposed construction of Kinzua Dam
  • Ely S. Parker (1828 - 1895), Aide-de-Camp to General Ulysses S. Grant and drafter of the Civil War surrender documents signed by Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomatox.
  • Isaac Seneca, an early professional football player
  • Chief Cornplanter, (1750-1836) (given name John Abeel) a Seneca war chief and diplomat.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pritzker, 469
  2. ^ a b "New York Casinos." 500 Nations. (retrieved 31 May 2010)
  3. ^ "Government." Seneca Nation of Indians. (retrieved 31 May 2010)
  4. ^ a b c d Herbeck, Dan (November 15, 2011). "Resentments abound in Seneca power struggle", The Buffalo News. Retrieved November 16, 2011.
  5. ^ Herbeck, Dan (October 27, 2012). "A bitter battle to lead Seneca Nation", The Buffalo News. Retrieved October 27, 2012.
  6. ^ "Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino." Seneca Gaming Corporation. (retrieved 31 May 2010)
  7. ^ a b David Kimelberg, "A Chance to Right a Wrong: the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Kinzua Dam", Indian Country Today, 28 January 2011
  8. ^ Editorial Staff, "The Shadow of Kinzua: The Seneca Since World War II", New York History Blog, 26 July 2014
  9. ^ Laurence Hauptman, In the Shadow of Kinzua: The Seneca Since World War II, Syracuse University Press, 2013
  10. ^ Summary: In the Shadow of Kinzua: The Seneca Since World War II, 2013, Syracuse University Press website
  11. ^ a b CAROLYN THOMPSON, "Seneca Indian Nation Seeks Control Of Hydropower Operation At Kinzua Dam", Huffington Post, 30 November 2010, accessed 7 July 2014
  12. ^ a b "Seneca Nation of Indians receives initial Kinzua Hydro permit", The Observer, 13 August 2011, accessed 13 April 2015
  13. ^ Daniel Robison (WBFO), "Seneca Nation fights for control of Kinzua Dam", Innovation Trail, 18 May 2011
  14. ^ James Fink, "Senecas permitted for Kinzua Dam", Buffalo Business Journal, 12 August 2011
  15. ^ "FERC OKs sale of 11 FirstEnergy hydro plants; license transfers pending", Hydro World, 11 November 2013, accessed 13 April 2015
  16. ^ "Seneca Nation Identifies Major Shortcomings of Competition in Fight for Federal Hydro License", Seneca Nation of Indians, 7 March 2013, accessed 13 April 2015
  17. ^ a b c Zito, Selena (June 5, 2011). "Smokes cheap, tensions high", Pittsburgh Tribune (Also titled "Portrait of a Failed American City", Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Retrieved July 28, 2012.)
  18. ^ a b Herbeck, Dan and Kathleen Ronayne (July 28, 2012). "Senecas plan to evict Snyder Beach residents", The Buffalo News. Retrieved July 28, 2012.


Further reading[edit]

  • Joy A. Bilharz, The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation through Two Generations, paperback, 2002
  • Laurence M. Hauptman, In the Shadow of Kinzua: The Seneca Nation of Indians since World War II, Syracuse University Press, 2013

External links[edit]