I had planned today to visit the reservation of the Tonawanda Band of Senecas, about thirty miles west of Rochester, with my friend, the historian Larry Hauptman. But if you read my post yesterday, you know that I am currently carless in Rochester, which is roughly equivalent to being eyeless in Gaza. (I will resist the temptation for a further irrelevant political comment.) So I had to settle for dinner with Larry.
Larry is a remarkable historian, who had dedicated his extraordinarily productive scholarly career to the study of American Indians, especially the Iroquois. He told me yesterday that growing up in Bensonhurst, with an acute sense of how small ethnic groups endure and tightly hold on to their identities, was preparation for his immersion in the Iroquois. Like all good historians, Larry strives for objectivity, fairly evaluating the historical evidence, and placing no one on pedestals, but he would rightly spurn the milquetoast claim of impartiality. Larry is a passionate defender of the Iroquois. He learned long ago that merely reading about Indians in archives was not enough, and he sought out Indians as informants, colleagues, and friends
He is currently writing a history of how the Tonawanda Band, with odds very much against them, managed to regain their reservation in 1856, after losing it in the fraudulent 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek. They carefully and cleverly used outsiders further their cause. Rochester lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan, whose 1851 League of the Iroquois, generally considered the founding work of American anthropology, was primarily based on his studies of the Tonawandas. He was granted access to their rites and ceremonies with the hope that his work would aid their effort to regain their land, and it did, one of the earliest instances of native people deliberately trying to benefit from the anthropological transaction.
The crisis of the 1830s and 1840s led to a permanent split among New York State’s Senecas. The larger group, on the southern tier reservations of Alleghany and Cattaraugus, in 1848, opted to create the Seneca Nation of Indians, with an elected government. The Tonawanda band stayed apart and retained the system of hereditary chiefs. To this day their sachems are made and unmade by clan mothers.
The Tonawanda reservation is considerably smaller, in size and population, than the reservations in the Southern Tier, and is also more conservative, traditional and quieter. (It is the center of the Handsome Lake religion in New York State.) It is Seneca Nation of Indians that have built the big casinos in Niagara Falls and Buffalo. The Tonawanda Band has no gaming, and little industry or agriculture. As with people in other parts of western New York, they often go where the jobs are, which these days is generally someplace else. But of course, they endure, pass on their traditions, and look to the future.
Larry was going to introduce me to Ramona Charles, a clan mother, and for many decades the superintendent of the Tonawanda Indian Community House. He told me that when she was a young girl, she would visit her uncle’s house, now her current residence, to meet his schoolmate and teammate from the Carlisle Indian School, Jim Thorpe, and listen to them reminisce about the old days. I hope to meet her one day.