Reclaiming Traditional Seneca Culture

  • Students from the Faithkeeper Language Nest School learn the Seneca language and traditions. There are fewer than 40 Seneca speakers left. Photo: Courtesy of Faithkeepers School

October 9, 2015

Editor's Note: This story was reported in 2003. Since then, the Faithkeeper School has gone through a few changes, including a period of time as an adult learning center. Today the focus is teaching pre-school students the same Seneca language and values. Heather Rozler, an educational consulatant for the school, says they now have 17 children enrolled, ages 2 to 6. The school has expanded to include more teachers and a farm. 

"The biggest challenge we have is finding the funding for the projects we want to do," Rozler says.

 She says Sandy Dowdy's husband Dar—a voice in the story below—has passed away. But Sandy Dowdy is still involved at the school, as the resident grandmother, or akso:d. She gives the language to the teachers, who are also receiving Montessori training. When this story first aired there were about 200 Seneca speakers; Rozler says there are now fewer than 40 people who can still speak the Seneca language.

*     *     *

Hundreds of Seneca Indians lost their homes in the 1960s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam in northwestern Pennsylvania. The dam’s reservoir flooded their land, which was at the heart of Seneca culture. Now a new generation of Senecas is trying to preserve their way of life at a school focused on the Seneca language.

It's a sunny day in Salamanca, New York. Young Seneca students lurch and lunge in a game of keep away. Although they look like any group of kids at recess, they share a big responsibility.

"My Indian name is Gayanose,” says one of the students. “My English name is Brooke Crouse-Kennedy. I'm here because I'm trying to be one of the ones to preserve our culture and just learn."

Brooke and 12 other students are here at the Faithkeepers School to learn the Seneca language and the teachings of the Longhouse religion. The health of these cultural benchmarks waned after the Kinzua Reservoir flooded one-third of the Allegany Reservation and scattered tribal families. The school now rests on the upper reaches of the reservation—a narrow strip of land that follows the Allegheny River from Pennsylvania to New York.

This morning, longtime teacher Sandy Dowdy works with very young students. In 1998, she and her husband Dar rallied the community and started the school. At the time, they were two of only 200 Senecas who could still speak their language.

"We cover just the ceremonial part and the giving thanks part in the morning and then in the afternoon, we study things,” Dowdy says. “We look into erosion and pollution and all of those things that we can do to protect those things we just gave thanks for."

Thanking Yoedzade—the earth—and its creator for the bounty of nature is the building block for learning the Seneca language and ceremonies at Faithkeepers School. These lessons also have a real life application in the school's small gardens. The early Senecas depended on agriculture to survive. Fruits and vegetables were so important to the tribe's existence that they appear in many of their stories and ceremonies.

Senecas continued to farm until their fertile bottom land was flooded by the Kinzua reservoir. Many Senecas on the Allegany Reservation believe their culture was nearly lost when the Kinzua Dam was built. The Senecas and others strongly protested this project, arguing the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 guaranteed that Seneca land would remain untouched by the United States government. But their arguments were rejected in courts and the U.S. Congress.

"The politics change over 200 years,” says Tyler Heron, an elder and Seneca historian. “We weren't the threat. We weren't the political power any more. The threat, I guess, was the river itself to Pittsburgh—the flooding. It was the threat to the economy."

Major floods along the lower Allegheny River prompted the federal government to act. To make way for the dam, 600 Senecas were moved from their homes along the riverbanks. In 1964, contractors burned and bulldozed Seneca houses, trees and public buildings. Churches and cemeteries were moved. Heron, who was 17 at the time, says life as he knew it changed dramatically.

"Even the ecology of the river itself has changed,” Heron says. “My wife, for instance, used to make her extra money as a teenager by catching soft-shelled crabs and selling them to the bait companies. But I don't think there's a soft-shelled crab in the river anymore."

Aquatic plants were lost as well. The reservoir also inundated hardwoods used for carving ceremonial masks and many medicinal plants. Heron, whose grandchildren attend the Faithkeepers School, says these children are learning to identify the remaining plants. They're learning to speak the language, lead the ceremonies and carry on for a community that lost its ancestral home along the Allegheny.

"Our existence is dependent on us—dependent on us only," he says. "And how do we keep our identity? Well, language. It starts right here."