Tonawanda Band of Seneca

Last updated
Tonawanda Seneca Nation
Total population
Enrolled members
Regions with significant populations
New York
About 700
English, Seneca
Christianity, traditional religion
Related ethnic groups
Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora

The Tonawanda Seneca Nation (previously known as the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians) is a federally recognized tribe in the State of New York. They have maintained the traditional form of government led by sachems (hereditary Seneca chiefs) selected by clan mothers. The Seneca are one of the original Five Nations (later six) of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. Their people speak the Seneca language, an Iroquoian language.


The Tonawanda Seneca Nation is one of two federally recognized Seneca tribes in Western New York; the other is the Seneca Nation of Indians. The latter approved a republican constitution in 1848, electing a council and executive officials to govern their lands of the Allegany, Cattaraugus and Oil Springs reservations.

The Tonawanda Band opted out of participating in the republic (in part due to hostilities stemming from the Buffalo Creek sale), leading to the band's formation nine years later. In 1857, the Tonawanda Band signed a treaty with the United States and was recognized as a tribe independent of the Seneca Nation of New York. The new treaty with the US allowed the Tonawanda Band to buy back lands from the Ogden Land Company, which had been sold out without their permission in the Treaties of Buffalo Creek. The Tonawanda retrieved the horns of authority and other artifacts from the other Seneca tribes and re-established a continuation of the traditional Seneca government that existed prior to 1848. They have a matrilineal kinship system; hereditary chiefs are selected through the maternal line by clan mothers.

In addition, some Seneca relocated to Indian Territory in the early 19th century; their descendants now form part of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation in present-day Oklahoma. The Cayuga people are another of the six Iroquois nations. In the 21st century, the majority of Seneca people live in Western New York. A small number live in Canada at the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation within Ontario; they are also descendants of the Keepers of the Western Door.


Jesse Cornplanter, the last descendant of Cornplanter, making a ceremonial mask, Tonawanda Community House, 1940 Jesse Cornplanter, descendant of Cornplanter, the famous Seneca chief, making a ceremonial mask, Tonawanda Community Hou - NARA - 519161.tif
Jesse Cornplanter, the last descendant of Cornplanter, making a ceremonial mask, Tonawanda Community House, 1940

On 15 January 1838, the United States government entered into the Treaty of Buffalo Creek, with nine Indian nations of New York, including the Seneca. The treaty was part of the United States Indian Removal program, by which they forced Native American peoples from eastern states to move west of the Mississippi River to reservation lands in the less-desired and therefore less-settled Kansas Territory (now the state of Kansas and parts of Colorado). This govern removal also displaced the indigenous peoples of those areas. The US wanted the Seneca and other New York tribes to move there to free up desirable lands for the European-American colonists’ to take over and settle. Under the treaty, the US acknowledged that the Ogden Land Company was going to buy the four remaining Seneca reservations in New York, the proceeds funding the nation's removal to Kansas Territory. [1]

The US modified the 1838 treaty with the Treaty with the Seneca of 1842. The new treaty reflected that the Ogden Land Company had purchased only two reservations, including the Tonawanda Reservation. The Seneca retained the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations. [2] At this time, the Seneca of the Tonawanda Reservation protested they had not been consulted on either treaty, nor had their chiefs signed either treaty. They refused to leave their reservation.

In 1848, the Seneca Indians of the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations held a constitutional convention. They adopted a new form of constitution and government, including tribal popular election of chiefs. Traditionally, hereditary chiefs were selected by clan mothers and ruled for life (unless one displeased his clan mother.) [3]

The Tonawanda Band did not want to make such changes, and thus seceded from the main Seneca nation in New York. They reorganized and re-established their traditional government with a council of chiefs representing each of their eight clans. In 1857, under the "Treaty with the Seneca, Tonawanda Band", the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians secured federal recognition as an independent Indian nation. [4] With their share of proceeds from the earlier land sale, they bought back most of the Tonawanda Reservation.

Under their traditional government, hereditary chiefs typically served for life. They governed by a consensus of leaders of the clans, which formed the basis of the band. The Seneca and all the Iroquois peoples had a matrilineal kinship system, in which descent and property were passed through the maternal line. Children were considered born into the mother's clan and took their status from her people.

"The Tonawanda Band consists of eight 'clans': the Snipe, the Heron, the Hawk, the Deer, the Wolf, the Beaver, the Bear, and the Turtle. Each clan appoints a clan mother, who in turn appoints an individual to serve as Chief [from hereditary maternal lines]. The clan mother retains the power to remove a Chief and, in consultation with members of the clan, provides recommendations to the Chief on matters of tribal government. The clan mothers cannot disregard the views of the clan, nor can the Chiefs disregard the recommendations of the clan mothers." [3]

See also

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  1. "Treaty of Buffalo Creek", 15 January 1838, 7 Stat. 550.
  2. "Treaty with the Seneca of 1842", Oklahoma State Library, accessed 22 Mar 2010
  3. 1 2 PETER L. POODRY, DAVID C. PETERS, SUSAN LAFROMBOISE, JOHN A. REDEYE, and STONEHORSE LONE GOEMAN, Petitioners-Appellants, v. TONAWANDA BAND OF SENECA INDIANS; BERNARD PARKER, a/k/a Ganogehdaho; KERVIN JONATHAN, a/k/a Skongataigo; EMERSON WEBSTER, a/k/a Gauhnahgoi; DARREN JIMERSON, a/k/a Sohjeahnohous; HARLEY GORDON, a/k/a Gah-En-Keh; JAMES LOGAN; and DARWIN HILL,, 1995, accessed 22 Mar 2010
  4. "Treaty with the Seneca, Tonawanda Band", Oklahoma State Library, accessed 22 Mar 2010