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Seneca Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Senecas for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our Seneca language and culture pages for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Seneca pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages. Photographs are the property of the sources we have credited.





    Seneca Tribe


       Seneca lady                Seneca dancer

How do you pronounce the word "Seneca"? What does it mean?
Seneca is pronounced "SEH-neh-kah." It comes from the name of one of their villages, Osininka. In their own language, the Senecas call themselves Onandowaga, which means "people of the mountain."

Where do the Seneca Indians live?
The Senecas originally lived in New York state. Here is a map of Seneca and other Iroquois territory in New York. Many Seneca people still live in New York today, but others were forced to migrate to Oklahoma or Canada.

Are the Seneca Iroquois people?

       Iroquois flag
Yes, the Seneca nation was one of the original members of the Iroquois League, or Kanonsionni in their own language ("league of clans.") The other member nations were the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Onondaga. Later a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the confederacy. Today these long-term allies refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee ("people of the longhouse") or Six Nations.

How is the Seneca Indian nation organized?
The Seneca nation had a tribal council chosen by the Seneca clan mothers (matriarchs, or female leaders.) But the Senecas were also subject to the decisions made by the Iroquois Great Council. Eight Seneca chiefs represented their tribe's interests in the Iroquois Council. This is similar to American states which each have their own government, but are all subject to the US government. In fact, the Iroquois Confederacy was one of the examples of representative democracy used as a model by America's founding fathers.

Today there are three Seneca bands in New York, each with its own reservation. A reservation is land that belongs to an Indian tribe and is under their control. Each Seneca tribe has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. But the Senecas are also US citizens and must obey American law. There is also a combined Seneca-Cayuga tribe in Oklahoma, and some Seneca people live on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada, which they share with members of the other Iroquois nations.

What language do the Senecas speak?
Most Seneca people speak English today, but some elders also speak their native Seneca language. Seneca is a complex language with many sounds that are unlike the sounds in English. If you'd like to know a few easy Seneca words, "sgno'" (pronounced similar to sgay-noh) is a friendly greeting, and "niyaw" (pronounced similar to nee-yah-wenh) means 'thank you.' You can hear Seneca being spoken here and read a Seneca picture glossary here.

Today Seneca is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Seneca Indian people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Seneca culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here is the home page of the Seneca Nation of New York, where you can find information about the Seneca Indians past and present.

How do Seneca Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?

  Cornhusk dolls
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Seneca children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have corn husk dolls, toys, and games, such as one game where kids tried to throw a dart through a moving hoop. Lacrosse was also a popular sport among Seneca boys as it was among adult men. Like many Native Americans, Seneca Indian mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradle board carriers. on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted.

What were men and women's roles in the Seneca Indian tribe?
Seneca men were in charge of hunting, trading, and war. Seneca women were in charge of farming, property, and family. These different roles were also reflected in Seneca government. Seneca clans were always ruled by women, who made the land and resource decisions for each clan. But the chiefs, who made military decisions and trade agreements, were always men. Only men represented the Seneca Nation at the Iroquois Great Council, but only women voted to determine who the Seneca representatives would be. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Seneca homes like in the past?

          Iroquois longhouse sketch
The Seneca Indians lived in villages of longhouses, which were large wood-frame buildings covered with sheets of elm bark. Seneca homes could be a hundred feet long, and an entire clan lived in each one--up to 60 people! Here are some pictures of Iroquois longhouses like the ones Seneca Indians used, and a drawing of what a long house looked like on the inside. Today, longhouses are only used for ceremonial purposes. The Senecas live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Seneca clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
  
Seneca headdress

  
   Seneca clothes
Seneca men wore breechcloths with leggings. Seneca women wore wraparound skirts with shorter leggings. Men did not originally wear shirts in Seneca culture, but women often wore a long tunic called a kilt or overdress. The Senecas usually wore moccasins on their feet. In colonial times, the Seneca tribe adapted European costume like cloth shirts and blouses, decorating them with beadwork and ribbon applique. Here is a webpage about traditional Iroquois dress, and here are some photographs and links about American Indian clothes in general.

The Senecas didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Men wore traditional Iroquois headdresses, which were feathered caps with a different insignia for each tribe. (The Seneca headdress has one eagle feather standing straight on top of it.) Seneca women sometimes wore special beaded tiaras. In times of war, Seneca men often shaved their heads except for a scalplock or a crest down the center of their head--the style known as a roach, or a "Mohawk." Sometimes they would augment this hairstyle with splayed feathers or artificial roaches made of brightly dyed porcupine and deer hair. Here are some pictures of these different kinds of Native American headdresses. Seneca women only cut their hair when they were in mourning. Otherwise they wore it long and loose or plaited into a long braid. Men sometimes decorated their faces and bodies with tribal tattoo designs, but Seneca women generally didn't paint or tattoo themselves.

Today, some Seneca people still wear moccasins or a beaded shirt, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Seneca transportation like in the days before cars? Did the Senecas paddle canoes?
   
Iroquois snowshoes
Sometimes--the Seneca Indians did use elm-bark or dugout canoes for fishing trips, but usually preferred to travel by land. Originally the Seneca tribe used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) In wintertime, the Senecas used laced snowshoes and sleds to travel through the snow.

What was Seneca food like in the days before supermarkets?

    Iroquois farmers
The Seneca Indians were farming people. Seneca women planted crops of corn, beans, and squash and harvested wild berries and herbs. Seneca men hunted deer and elk and fished in the rivers and the shores of Lake Ontario. Seneca Indian foods included cornbread, soups, and stews, which they cooked on stone hearths. Here is a website with more information about Indian farms.

What were Seneca weapons and tools like in the past?

         Seneca war club
Seneca hunters used bows and arrows. Seneca fishermen used spears and fishing poles. Seneca warriors used their bows and arrows or fought with clubs, spears and shields. Here is a website with Native weapon pictures and information. Other Seneca artifacts included stone adzes (hand axes for woodworking), flint knives for skinning animals, and wooden hoes for farming. The Senecas and other Iroquois were skilled woodworkers, steaming wood so that it could be bent to make curved tools. Some Iroquois artisans still make lacrosse sticks this way today.

What are Seneca arts and crafts like?

    Bead and quill work 
The Seneca Indians were known for their false face masks, which are considered such a sacred art form that outsiders are still not permitted to view many of these masks. Native American beadwork and the more demanding porcupine quillwork are more common Seneca crafts. The Senecas also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads. Wampum beads were traded as a kind of currency, but they were more culturally important as an art material. The designs and pictures on wampum belts often told a story or represented a person's family.

What was Seneca music like?

 Iroquois Water Drum 
The two most important Seneca instruments are drums and flutes. Iroquois drums were often filled with water to give them a distinctive sound different from the drums of other tribes. Most Seneca music is very rhythmic and consists mostly of drumming and lively singing. Flutes were used to woo women in the Seneca tribe. A young Seneca man would play beautiful flute music outside his girlfriend's longhouse at night to show her he was thinking about her.

What other Native Americans did the Seneca tribe interact with?
The most important neighbors of the Seneca tribe were the other Iroquois nations: the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Before the Iroquois Confederacy existed the Senecas sometimes fought with the other Iroquois tribes, but once the alliance was formed they were loyal to each other. The Iroquois were fierce warriors who fought with most of the other eastern tribes, particularly the Wabanaki tribes, the Algonquin and Ojibway, and the Mohican bands. The Senecas also engaged in trade with their neighbors, exchanging corn and woodcrafts for furs and quahog shells.

What kinds of stories do the Senecas tell?
There are lots of traditional Seneca legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Seneca Indian culture. Here is a Seneca story about a race between Bear and Turtle. Here's a website where you can read more about Seneca myths.

What about Seneca religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about Iroquois religion or this site about Native belief in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
One book about the Seneca tribe for younger readers is The Seneca, which has many photographs about traditional and contemporary Seneca life. Lacrosse: The National Game of the Iroquois is a lively look at the origins of this traditional sport and Iroquois culture in general, tracing the lives three generations of Iroquois lacrosse players. Legends of the Iroquois is a good collection of traditional Six Nations stories, retold by a Mohawk author. Wampum Belts of the Iroquois is an interesting look at the symbolism and significance of the different wampum belt designs used by the Seneca and other Iroquois peoples. Or If You Lived With The Iroquois provides a good look at daily life in the Iroquois tribes in the old days. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended American Indian books in general.

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2013.

Thanks for your interest in the Seneca Indian people and their language!

Learn More About The Senecas

Seneca Native American Tribe
An overview of the Seneca Indian tribe, their language and history.

Seneca Dictionary
Short vocabulary of Seneca Indian words.

Seneca Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Seneca tribe past and present.

Iroquois Confederacy
Information and links about the Iroquois League.



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