Meet Native America: Barry E. Snyder, Sr., President of the Seneca Nation of Indians
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Barry E. Snyder, Sr., president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, member of the Hawk Clan.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
It is my primary responsibility as president of the Seneca Nation to uphold the Seneca Nation Constitution, protect our sovereignty, and respect and live the traditions and culture of our people.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Seneca Nation?
My passion for improving the quality of life for the Seneca people stems from growing up on the Seneca Territory raised by my grandmother, who always instilled in me a sense of pride in being a member of the Seneca Nation, a strong sense of culture and history of where the nation started, and that it was my calling to provide strong leadership for our people. My dedication to the Seneca people and the collective improvement of the nation has been central to the many offices I have held within the nation’s government for 50 years: tribal councillor, treasurer, chairperson of the Tribal Council, chairperson of the Economic Development Committee, and five terms as president.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
One of my goals as an elected leader is to impart the vast experiences I have learned over my lifetime of service to the nation. I, too, at one time was a student of our former leaders—Bill and Cornelius Seneca—who instilled in me that the rights of our people come first. I took that advice to heart as I began my political journey to help grow our people’s strength and presence.
This mentoring follows the pillars of the Great Law—peace, equity, justice, and a good mind that places the welfare of our people before our own. Our two prophets, Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker, brought a message of peace to the early warring tribes. Those who joined in the Iroquois Confederacy—the League of Peace and Power—were the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Mohawks. Once we ceased fighting, we rapidly became one of the strongest forces in 17th and 18th century northeastern North America.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
All our people are descendants of past leaders.
Where is your nation located?
The Seneca Nation of Indians is located in the western region of New York State. Our five tribal/sovereign territories are in Cattaraugus (Irving), Allegany (Salamanca), Oil Spring, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls. The total land holdings equal 56,000 acres.
Where was your nation originally from?
The Senecas migrated across what is now New York State, making their home at Ganondagon (Victor, New York) more than 300 years ago. From Ganondagon, the Seneca people moved farther west to the area that is now Western New York where we are known as Keepers of the Western Door to protect the people from intruders approaching the western border of Seneca Territory.
What is a significant point in history from your Native community that you would like to share?
Having faced social injustice since the first white people came to our land, the Native American community has the longest history of discrimination in America. There are countless ways in which the U.S. showed their disregard and contempt for the Native residents of our country, but perhaps one of the most significant and consistent ways is through the taking of Native American land. The construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegany Territory of the Seneca in the 1960s has held a powerful symbolic position in the lives of Senecas and Native Americans everywhere.
More than 600 Seneca families were forced from 10,000 acres of our ancestral land along Ohi:yo—the Allegany River—by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The Senecas' homes were burned and the relocated families were left broken-hearted and lost. Treaties that we held sacred were broken. To say that the removal period was a dark and difficult time for our people is an understatement. It was especially hard on our elders, those who were tied to the land in a mutually respectful and spiritual way.
Tribes and Native American organizations from all over the country supported the Senecas. The leaders of a dozen of the largest tribes met with senators and members of the House of Representatives to let them know that the breaking of the Senecas' treaties would strengthen their determination to defend their lands.
The Kinzua Dam’s construction is a symbol for stolen lands and broken treaties. This history of Kinzua gives us, Senecas, the determination by which we conduct our daily lives. As we move into the future, we must never forget the past.
Approximately how many members are in your community?
The Seneca Nation is the largest of the Iroquois Confederacy tribes with approximately 8,200 enrolled members.
What are the criteria to become a member of the Seneca?
The Seneca Nation is a matriarchal society. If the mother is an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation her offspring are entitled to be enrolled as members of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
In the Seneca language we are known as O-non-dowa-gah (pronounced: Oh-n'own-dough-wahgah), or Great Hill People. Seneca is an Iroquoian language of the Northeast Woodlands, spoken by about 100 people.
Most Seneca speakers are elders, but some young Senecas are working to keep our ancestral language alive. In 1998 the Seneca Faithkeepers School was founded as a five-day-a week school to teach children the Seneca language and tradition. In 2010, K-5 Seneca language teacher Anne Tahamont received recognition for her work with students at Silver Creek School and in language documentation, presenting "Documenting the Seneca Language using a Recursive Bilingual Education Framework" at the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation.
The speakers of the Seneca language would agree that it is in danger of becoming extinct. Fortunately in 2012, a $200,000 federal grant for the Seneca Language Revitalization Program has further solidified a partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) that will help develop a user-friendly computer catalogue allowing future generations to study and speak the language.
The revitalization program grant, awarded to RIT’s Native American Future Stewards Program, is designed to enhance usability of the Seneca language. The project will develop a user-friendly, web-based dictionary or guide to the Seneca language. Robbie Jimerson, a graduate student in RIT’s computer science program and resident of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation near Buffalo, who is working on the project, commented: "My grandfather has always said that a joke is funnier in Seneca than it is in English.
As of fall 2012, Seneca language learners are partnering with fluent mentors, and the Seneca language newsletter, Gae:wanöhge′!, is available online.
Although Seneca-owned radio station WGWE FM—the call sign is derived from "gwe," a Seneca word roughly translating to "What's up?"—broadcasts primarily in English, it features a Seneca Word of the Day prior to each noon newscast, broadcasts a limited amount of Seneca-language music, and makes occasional use of the Seneca language in its broadcasts in an effort to increase awareness of the Seneca language by the general public.
In 2013, the first public sports event was held in the Seneca language, when middle school students served as announcers for a lacrosse match.
Most recently, Seneca members have been broadcasting local weather forecasts in our native language and posting them on YouTube.
What economic enterprises does the Seneca Nation own?
The Seneca Nation’s economy has grown significantly in the past several decades into a successful engine for economic growth for the nation and surrounding communities. The nation’s businesses have evolved from a bowling alley and campgrounds in the 1970s to bingo, gasoline and tobacco sales, and gaming.
The Seneca Nation has built a billion-dollar gaming business in Western New York, with its Seneca Niagara, Seneca Allegany, and the newly expanded $130 million Seneca Buffalo Creek casinos. In the process, the nation has created thousands of jobs for Senecas and non-Senecas alike, and has become an important business partner for many local companies, supporting numerous additional jobs in the local and regional economy. With 4,400 employees of the Seneca Nation, its enterprise businesses, and the Seneca Gaming Corporation, we are the 10th largest employer in Western New York.
New York’s efforts to curtail Seneca tax-immune sales have impacted our public and private sector economies and, when combined with the potential volatility in the gaming industry, have compelled the nation to look for ways to grow its economy through diversification.
This includes establishing Seneca Holdings, LLC, an investment holding company whose mission is to provide sustainable economic success to the nation and its people; and the Seneca Nation Center for Business Growth, a small-business incubator providing business advisory services and technical training for individuals.
Most recently the Nation announced the establishment of the Seneca Commission for Economic Development (SCED) to grow and diversify the nation’s public and private sector, to protect and advance the nation’s economic sovereignty, to promote job creation, to forge partnerships on and off territory, and to stimulate industrial, commercial, and residential growth in the Seneca Nation territories and throughout Western New York.
The vibrancy of the rich Seneca heritage is evident in the ongoing ceremonies, practices, and cultural events infused with dance, music and song, arts, crafts and traditional foods that honor and celebrate Seneca culture. Major events include:
- The annual Joe Curry Memorial Veterans Pow Wow held in July.
- “Remember the Removal” Day held annually in October to honor those who were removed from their ancestral homeland on the Allegany Territory to make way for building the Kinzua Dam.
- Signing of the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842. This yearly celebration in May recognizes the sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction of the Seneca Nation and the lands that we occupy to this day. Further, the terms of the Buffalo Creek Treaty established the environment for our people to conduct business commerce without any taxing interference from New York State. Despite repeated attempts by the state to undermine this federally protected treaty, our nation remains committed to upholding every detail of the Buffalo Creek Treaty, including no state sales tax on Indian-owned businesses.
- The Veteran’s Day Ceremony held each year to honor all Seneca Nation and Native American veterans who fought alongside our non-Indian brothers and sisters dating back to the Civil War. The event is held at the Seneca Nation Veterans Memorial in Niagara Falls, New York.
- We are proud sponsors of yearly United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) conferences at our casino/resort properties.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
- The Seneca–Iroquois National Museum located on the Allegany Territory in Salamanca, New York, displays the rich and vibrant history of the Seneca Nation.
- The Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls, Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel in Salamanca, and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo, New York are all class III gaming resorts; Seneca Gaming & Entertainment in Irving and Salamanca offers Class II gaming.
- Hunting and fishing licenses are available through Seneca Nation offices for licensed outdoor activities.
- The annual Fall Festival held in September attracts both Senecas and non-Senecas to the Cattaraugus Territory to celebrate our culture, traditions, and food.
How is the Seneca government set up?
The modern-day Seneca Nation of Indians is a true democracy whose constitution was adopted in 1848. The constitution provides for a multibranch system of government comprised of elected Executive, Legislative, and Judicial officials.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
The Elders of the Nation have always been respected and their counsel sought in the tradition of the Seneca from time immemorial, and this has not changed in the modern era.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The Executive Branch leadership includes a president, treasurer and clerk, all elected for two- year terms. The constitution allows leaders to serve multiple, but not consecutive, terms. Leadership also rotates back and forth between residents of the Cattaraugus and Allegany territories every two years. The next scheduled election will take place in November 2014, with the presidency to be filled by an Allegany representative.
The Legislative Branch is led by a 16-member Tribal Council, comprised of an equal number of representatives from the Cattaraugus and Allegany territories. Members are elected for staggered, four-year terms.
The Judiciary Branch is comprised of three separate divisions: the Peacemakers, Surrogates, and appellate courts. The Peacemakers Court is the court of general jurisdiction and is located on each of the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories. The three peacemakers of each court are elected every four years. The Surrogates Court is comprised of one surrogate for each of the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories and exercises jurisdiction over probate matters. The Court of Appeals is comprised of six judges who hear appeals from the Peacemakers and Surrogates courts. The Tribal Council serves as Supreme Court and exercises limited jurisdiction over certain appeals from the Court of Appeals.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
Per the Seneca Constitution, the Tribal Council meets on the second Saturday of each month. Special council sessions can be scheduled at the request of the president.
As a sovereign entity, how does the Seneca Nation with the United States and Canada?
The Seneca Nation deals with the U.S. government on a political basis as one government to another government. The Canandaigua Treaty of Peace (1794) with the United States of America is the foundation document recognizing the sovereign status the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (the Tuscarora joined in the early 1700s). That treaty was entered into pursuant to the terms contained in the U.S. Constitution. Jay's Treaty of 1794 between the U.S. and England contains provisions that acknowledge Indians' right to unfettered passage across the border between the United States and what is now Canada.
PresidentSnyder, chairman of the Seneca Diabetes Foundation (SDF), and Mrs. Snyder with 2013 SDF Scholarship recipients.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe/band/Native community?
Our youth are the future of our nation. They are our next leaders. They are our next business entrepreneurs. They are the next heads of our families—the next generation of mothers and fathers. The nation can’t afford to lose our youth. Now more than ever it is important for us to focus our energy on empowering and supporting parents, helping with coping and parenting skills development, guiding our youth on paths of educational excellence, and supporting their dreams to pursue sports and cultural aspirations.
As leaders of this great nation, we will have failed if we have not provided every Seneca—both young and those going through a life transition—the opportunity to pursue the highest level of education, develop career opportunities, and have the means to care for their families.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
This prayer has been my guiding principle for the 50 years that I have served in public office on behalf of the Seneca people.
This is the beginning of a new day. The Creator has given us this day to use as we will. We can waste it or use it for good, but what we do today is important because we are exchanging a day of our lives for it.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.