The Earth Songs of the Seneca Nation

What Is the Seneca Nation?

Bill Crouse, Sr., and Andrew A. Cashner

Bill Crouse (in green) prepares to compete in the Marvin “Joe” Curry Memorial Veterans Pow-Wow on the Allegany Territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians (photograph by Andrew Cashner, Salamanca, NY, July 2022)


This project focuses on a particular type of traditional song and dance of the Onöndowa’ga:’ or Seneca Nation. Bill Crouse is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians and lives in Salamanca, New York, on the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Territory. Though much of what we present here will be similar to song and dance practices of Seneca people elsewhere, Bill’s expertise is specific to the practices on his own territory.

The Onöndowa’ga:’ People: A Living Community with Deep Roots

The Seneca Nation is a living community of people, indigenous to northeastern North America, who share kinship, culture, language, and history (Hauptman 1999; Hauptman 2019; Hauptman 2014). Seneca people continue to live in their ancestral homelands as well as many other places. For at least a thousand years before Euro-American settler-colonialists invaded, Senecas were the caretakers of more than six million acres of land: its approximate bounds stretched from Lake Ontario on the north to the Allegany River in the south, and from the Niagara River and Lake Erie on the west to Seneca Lake on the east (Richter 1992; Fenton 1998).

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy

When Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century, the Seneca Nation was one member of a longstanding confederacy of indigenous nations who called themselves Hodínöhšö:ni:h (They Extend the Longhouse). Following the teachings of the Peacemaker, they governed themselves through a representative democracy, which today is the oldest continuously operating democratic government in the world (Mohawk 2005).

These nations lived in longhouses, with multiple families arranged along a row of fires. Peacemaker taught them to see themselves as all living in one longhouse stretching across the territory claimed today by New York State: the Senecas were the Keepers of the Western Door for the confederacy, which also included, moving west to east, the Cayugas, the Onondagas (keepers of the central fire), the Oneidas, and the Mohawks (keepers of the eastern door). The Tuscaroras were added in the eighteenth century (Tehanetorens [Ray Fadden] 2000; Hertzberg 1966).

Names and Identities

Those tribal names are still used today, but they were imposed by Euro-American based on their mishearings and distortions. In their own language Seneca people call themselves Onöndowa’ga:’ (people of the great hill). The Seneca word for the Six Nations Confederacy is Hodínöhšö:ni:h, which means they extend the longhouse. Because there are six related but distinct languages in the confederacy, each with its own variation on the term, many writers today use the Anglicized spelling Haudenosaunee.

Seneca people differ on whether they prefer to be called Native American, Indian or American Indian, or First Nation. In any case, most people prefer using their tribal or national name (in this case Onöndowa’ga:’/Seneca and Haudenosaunee/Iroquois). The Seneca language does not have a term for Native Americans as a race or category of people; instead a Seneca person is an ögwé’o:weh, a real person (Bardeau 2010; Chafe 2015).

Tribal Governments since Colonization

Through the colonialist policies of Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, Euro-American settlers stole most of the historic Seneca land-base through forced treaties and fraudulent land deals. The US and Canadian governments forced many Seneca people to emigrate, and instituted their own governments that fragmented the Seneca nation. Nevertheless today more than two thousand Seneca people still live on their ancestral territory, and more than eight thousand more live elsewhere across North America. Today there are four distinct political entities that represent Seneca people living on several territories:

  1. the Seneca Nation of Indians, three primary territories (Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Oil Spring) within southwestern New York State (US); government headquarters in Salamanca, NY; 8,000 enrolled members (figure 1)
  2. the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, one territory within western New York State; headquarters, Basom, NY; about 1,200 enrolled members
  3. the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma (US), one territory with headquarters in Grove, OK; about 5,000 members (including Cayugas)
  4. Six Nations of the Grand River, one territory in Ontario (Canada) shared with the other Haudenosaunee nations; headquarters in Ohsweken, ON

Figure 1. Present territories of the Seneca Nation of Indians (Map by Seneca Nation Geographic Information Services)

The Tonawanda Band of Senecas maintain their traditional form of government by male chiefs, appointed by clan mothers, and send representatives to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy councils at Onondaga. The Seneca Nation of Indians was founded after a revolution in 1848 in which the people rejected the traditional government by chiefs and adopted a representative democracy (Hauptman 2019).

Belonging to the Seneca Nation

Beyond the administrative reality of the tribal governments, though, Seneca people have a broader sense of belonging to a Seneca Nation that includes all Seneca people, as well as an affiliation to the other five Haudenosaunee nations. This attitude is rooted in the belief that indigenous peoples have the right, affirmed by the United Nations, to determine their own identity, independent of the history of colonization (United Nations 2007).

This broader sense of identity is also important because the United States did not negotiate its federal treaties with the tribal governments listed above but with the Seneca Nation as part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 was an agreement between the United States under President George Washington and The Six Nations, including The Seneka Nation (Nëhdöwes [Randy A. John] 2018). This treaty is still the only legally valid treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the United States: unlike later treaties, this one alone was ratified by both the consensus of the Haudenosaunee Council and a two-thirds majority of the US Senate, as required in the US Constitution (Hauptman 1999; Deloria, Jr. 1985). That treaty provided all the territory now in New York west of the Genesee River to the Seneca Nation. Pretending the Seneca Nation no longer exists is one way for the US government to dodge its historic treaty obligations.

Seneca identity is not determined by blood quantum or family legend, but by community standards of establishing genealogical kinship based on the maternal line. A person is a member of the Seneca Nation if they are an enrolled member of a tribal government that represents the Seneca people. The United States and Canada grant dual citizenship to members of the Seneca polities within their borders, but not all Seneca people consider themselves to be citizens of those colonial nations.