Culture and Self-Determination Provide Strength to Heal
Old New York State Route 17, on the Allegany Territory of Seneca Nation of Indians in western New York, has been abandoned by the state for a half century.
Even so, a few cars bump along it on a recent August evening. A heron stands watchfully a few hundred yards away in the Allegheny River. In the distance, trucks cross the I-86 Bridge, high above the water.
The scene is serene, but what one can’t see is sobering: Submerged in the river is land that once was a farming valley, home to several hundred members of the Nation until they were forcibly relocated several miles away to much smaller plots in the mid-1960s.
The impetus for their removal was the U.S. government’s construction of the Kinzua Dam upriver in Warren County, Pennsylvania. Flooding caused by the dam destroyed 10,000 acres of the 31,000-acre Allegany Territory—and has led to generations of loss and emotional, psychological, physical, and environmental trauma.
At the same time, this nation of about 8,000 people—half of whom live on the Nation’s two residential territories, Allegany and Cattaraugus—has staked a claim to a future that offers health and stability to all its members.
Unlike most other federally recognized tribes whose lands are held in trust by the United States, Seneca Nation owns its land. The Seneca have a strong sense of independence. They also are determined to heal—as best they can—from the long-lasting effects of Kinzua Dam and other systematic attempts to strip them of their land rights, language, families, and culture.
Today, the Seneca people are infusing their cultural strength and resilience into everything they do: from health clinics and early learning centers to fish hatcheries and Seneca Language road signs, from recreation centers and a credit union to career services and drug and alcohol recovery programs.
The Nation has invested $180 million in local businesses, capital improvement projects, and infrastructure projects. Doing so has helped the Nation become more economically self-sufficient.
As a people, says Seneca Nation President Todd Gates, “We want to control our own destiny.”
Teaching assistant Sara Droney plans to plant the berries, called shes’a:h ojísdöda’shä’, because they are mentioned in the Ganönyök, the Seneca thanksgiving address the school’s students repeat every day.
Soon, the 3- to 6-year-olds will be able to point to the plant in real life and taste its fruits, too.
“When they can use Seneca (language) in a practical way, it opens up their brains,” Droney says.
The Seneca Nation of Indians sees its language and traditional foods as tools of well-being. It is working to push them back to the center of Seneca life after generations of erasure.
Through the middle of the 20th century, many Seneca children were forced to attend Indian boarding schools—such as the Thomas Indian School on the Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory. Some were taken to the schools by the U.S. government. Others were sent by their impoverished families. There, they were punished for speaking their language and separated from their families, cultural practices, and traditional diets.
As a result, today fewer than half of a percent of the Nation’s population—a few dozen people—speak Seneca as their first language, though many understand bits and pieces.
Immersing young children in the Seneca language connects them to their history and culture, says Faithkeepers teacher Autumn Crouse. “I want my students to have a strong sense of identity. I want them to be proud of who they are. It’s the reverse of boarding schools. We’re trying to undo what was done.”
To train more adults to speak and teach the language, the Nation last year launched a three-year adult immersion program with 11 students, using a teaching method that involves hours of drills a day. Students receive a stipend, enabling them to attend five days a week year-round. Ten to 12 more students start this school year.
As native-language speakers have dwindled, so too have Seneca food traditions that were, even 50 years ago, based in farming, hunting, and gathering. The results have been significant and alarming.
According to Seneca Nation Health System data, more than one in five Seneca children is overweight or obese, and diabetes afflicts one in four members, compared with only 6 percent of the U.S. population. There has been progress, however. Through special diabetes programming, the Nation has been able to reduce the incidence of diabetes from epidemic proportions to its current level.
This year, Food Is Our Medicine planted 27 acres of the crop, a traditional staple that has less sugar than the yellow corn more commonly eaten in the U.S. A processing facility will open this year. The Nation’s leaders envision eventually opening a co-op that sells white corn flour, local produce, member-made baked goods, and, one day, locally raised elk and buffalo.
“Healthy food is our medicine,” says Seneca member Lucille White, director of the Nation’s Department of Community Planning and Development. “It’s what we need to get ourselves back on track and living healthier.”
Traumatic experiences go back four generations in Suzanne John Blacksnake’s family.
Her parents, three of her four grandparents, and several of her great grandparents—all members of Seneca Nation of Indians in western New York—were forced to attend Indian boarding schools. The 19th- and 20th-century institutions, aimed at assimilating native children, stripped them of their language and culture and separated them from their families. And when Blacksnake was a child, she and her parents were among those removed from their homes to make way for flooding caused by construction of the Kinzua Dam in the mid-1960s.
Now, Blacksnake and others in the Nation are on a mission to address what they call “multigenerational trauma.” They say centuries of cultural erasure, loss of land and imposed family breakdown have had widespread effects on the Seneca people, including disproportionately high rates of dropout, incarceration, drug and alcohol addiction, depression and family violence. To get at the roots of these problems, the Nation is targeting efforts at the very young and those struggling with addiction.
A former school counselor, Blacksnake is working on an ambitious and expansive multi-year plan to boost well-being among Seneca families. Intergenerational trauma will be taken into account in all programs at the Seneca Arts & Learning Center, she says, starting with infants in the early childhood learning center.
In her vision, there would also be daily language training for existing preschool teachers and staff to create a strong connection to Seneca language and culture. Professional development programs would create a pipeline of new early childhood teachers. Clubs and other learning opportunities would interest children in careers from an early age. And health fairs, fitness events, and educational workshops would promote health, wellness and parenting skills among families.
Along similar lines, the Nation’s Seneca Strong program, launched in 2014 to address drug and alcohol abuse, emphasizes healing and forgiveness rather than punitive measures, says director Dawn Colburn.
“Our culture is our biggest strength, and we’re trying to bring that back, including ways of healing ourselves,” Colburn says.
Seneca Strong capitalizes on those who know the community—and the struggles of addiction—best by using a peer outreach and recovery support model that sends guides who are themselves in recovery to the homes of people struggling with addiction.
Since the program started a year ago, Colburn says, guides have reached out to about 300 people. One third have gone to in-patient treatment, and half have used some kind of treatment or services, including counseling, AA meetings, employment support, and cultural programming such as sweat lodges and talking circles. Seneca Strong also incorporates prevention and sobriety programming into traditional rites of passage, outdoor skills camps, and powwows.
Relationships with local police departments aim to channel more Seneca members who struggle with drugs and alcohol into recovery services, rather than county jail, where they are overrepresented. And the Seneca Nation’s judicial branch has plans to start a program that will link drug offenders to a comprehensive set of services coordinated by social workers.
Showing compassion is at the heart of the approach, Colburn says. “It’s not tough love. It’s all just straight up love.”
2017 Culture of Health Prize Winner: Seneca Nation of Indians (New York)
Preserving Earth, Water, and Sky for Future Generations
Sometime in the 100-year history of the Thomas Indian School on Seneca Nation of Indians’ Cattaraugus Territory in western New York, a stream on the edge of the property was diverted underground. The school closed in 1957.
In the years since, the pipes filled with mud until they collapsed, releasing the stream above ground, where it became clogged with downed trees and beaver dams.
Last year, Seneca Nation re-diverted the stream to what they believe, based on survey data, is close to its original path. They planted hemlocks and white birch along its banks and built underwater boxes, creating shade and hideaways for native brook and lake trout. Next year, the Nation will build a trout hatchery nearby, to further promote native species and encourage fishing.
Nature and culture are intertwined for the Seneca. The Nation is divided into eight clans named for the bear, turtle, wolf, beaver, heron, hawk, snipe, and deer, and they give thanks to natural elements including mother earth, water, the forest, the wind, and the sun.
They’ve taken a strong stand on conservation and sustainability in their territories, with the goals of preserving their land, water, and native plants and animals and keeping alive their traditional connection to nature.
“If the environment isn’t healthy, that affects the people, and if the community isn’t living healthy, that affects the environment,” says Seneca member Will Miller, director of conservation.
- Restoring indigenous plants: Seneca Nation in 2013 became the first federally recognized tribe to enact an indigenous plant policy. Since then, all new landscape planting in public spaces on Seneca lands is exclusively comprised of native species such as winterberry, gray dogwood, black chokeberry, bay berry, hazelnut, high bush cranberries, and sugar maple. Owners of private property are encouraged to replace invasive European and Asian plants with native ones.
- Cultivating native animals: The Department of Conservation harvests the eggs of several local river species that are at risk of becoming endangered, including the 2-feet-long hellbender salamander and palm-size Blanding’s turtle, raises them and returns them to the wild, as a way to ensure their survival. The Nation’s conservationists also capture walleye from the Allegheny River for breeding in a fish hatchery built in 2010 using a federal grant. Millions of walleye, which have been a source of food for the Seneca for hundreds of years, are released into the Allegheny River each spring and summer.
- Moving toward energy independence: In March, the Nation began using a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine on its Cattaraugus Territory, and this fall its new 1.9-megawatt solar array on the Allegany Territory will go online. The turbine and array will reduce the Nation’s carbon footprint by about 125 million pounds over 25 years. The Nation is also working on a plan to build a microgrid that would power its community center on the Cattaraugus territory and allow the center’s use as an emergency facility. Anthony Giacobbe, director of Seneca Energy, says more than half of the energy powering Seneca government facilities will come from renewables by next year.
The Nation’s environmental consciousness is rooted in its concept of responsibility to seven generations, says Seneca member Jody Clark, transportation director for the Nation. “Any decision you make has to stand the test of time.”
“If the environment isn’t healthy, that affects the people, and if the community isn’t living healthy, that affects the environment.”