Birth of a Nation
In the early North American landscape, numerous Indian nations populated the continent, each evolving according to the circumstances of their local environment. Success was based on maximizing opportunity - producing high agricultural yields; deftly hunting game; overpowering neighboring, rival nations; absorbing vanquished foes and forming alliances to strengthen a nation's stature.
The Seneca Nation of Indians, known among their fellow Indians as the Onondowahgah, were among several nations in what is now New York State and Southern Ontario that typified the successful evolution over time to gain primacy among their neighbors - friend and foe alike.
Composed of eight clans - Turtle, Bear, Wolf, Beaver, Snipe, Heron, Deer and Hawk - the Seneca are said to have been released by the Creator from beneath a mountain and prospered as the People of the Great Hill. Because of the location of their initial settlements in relation to the four other member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee(Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk), the Seneca came to be known as the Keepers of the Western Door. Any foreign emissaries wishing to gain access to the member nations of the Confederacy had to first pass through either the Senecas or the Mohawks (Keepers of the Eastern Door).
Numerically, the Seneca were the largest of the Iroquois member nations at the inception of the Confederacy 500 years ago, and they grew even larger and stronger from the mid-1600s through the early 1700s through conquests, adoptions and assimilations of smaller groups of Indians. Within the clans of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Seneca's numbered half the fighting force. Whenever the Sacred Tree of Peace (the Iroquois constitution) was threatened by an obstinate, warring nation, the Seneca's were the first to defend the Great Confederacy.
The early history of the Seneca Indians was one of great achievements (forming an important strategic alliance with the other members of the Confederacy), almost constant warfare with neighboring rival nations (principally the Huron), increasing pressure from European settlers and, ultimately, the fateful decision to side militarily with the British during the American Revolution.
As with the heralded, great Indian nations of North America, the Seneca were distinguished by charismatic, colorful, outspoken leaders who inspired members of the nation through oratory, bravery and mysticism. Their names are now inextricably linked with the Nation's rich and storied history: Red Jacket (Sa-go-ye-wat-ha), Destroy Town (On-on-da-kai), Handsome Lake (Sganyadai:yo), Cornplanter (Kaiiontwa'ko?), Blacksnake (or Governor Blacksnake) and Ely Parker (Do-ne-ho-ga-wa, brevet brigadier general and military secretary to General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War).
Today, the Seneca Nation of Indians has a total enrollment of over 7,800 members and holds title to five reservations in New York - Cattaraugus, Allegany, Oil Spring, Niagara and Buffalo. Included on the Allegany Reservation is the City of Salamanca, known as the "only city in the world entirely on an Indian reservation."
Unlike many other Indian nations, the Seneca Nation owns their territories. Most other Indian territories are held in trust for each nation by the U.S. government.
The Seneca Nation of Indians elective form of government came into formal existence in 1848, when a new constitution was adopted. The majority of Seneca's chose to abandon the traditional chieftain system of government and to accept the elective form still in use today.
The constitution of the Seneca Nation of Indians provides for an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. The executive branch consists of the President, Treasurer, and Clerk, who are elected every two years, with positions rotating between members of the Allegany and Cattaraugus Territories.
The legislative branch is comprised of a 16 member Tribal Council, with 8 members from Allegany and 8 members from Cattaraugus serving staggered four-year terms.
The judicial branch includes Peacemaker, Appellate, and Surrogate Courts, whose justices are elected by the members of the Nation. Seneca Nation members were made citizens of the United States as recently as 1924, and were then allowed to vote in public elections.