Keeper of the Western Door

Photo Lot 86-58, Copy of James N. Edy photograph of Chiefs of the Six Nations explaining their wampum belts, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The Seneca are the largest of six Native American nations - Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, comprising the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Historically, the Seneca occupied territory throughout central and western New York. As the westernmost of the Six Nations, the Seneca are known as the" Keeper of the Western Door," and Onondaga, or "Great Hill People." Following the American Revolution much of their land west of the Genessee River was sold to the United States under the Treaty of Big Tree. By 1848, the remaining Seneca in New York formed an elected government, the Seneca Nations of Indians, which today has over 8,000 members. Two other federally recognized Seneca tribes also remain. The Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, who split from the Seneca Nation of Indians, reside primarily on the Tonawanda Reservation near Akron, New York, and enroll 1,200 members. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma live near Miami, Oklahoma, and trace their ancestry back to Seneca and Cayuga who migrated from New York before the American Revolution and were removed to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River in the 1830s.

The Seneca linguistic material held at the NAA dates from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s, and includes vocabularies, field notes, stories, legends, songs, religious materials, diaries, interviews, documents on Seneca government and social organization, and sound recordings. Much of this material was collected by John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. Hewitt, a linguist and ethnographer, was born to a Tuscarora mother and learned to speak the Tuscarora language in school. By the late nineteenth century he began working for Erminne A. Smith, an ethnologist for the Bureau of American Ethnology, on a Tuscarora-English dictionary. He continued this project throughout his life, along with continuing other research on Iroquoian and additional Native American languages. Many of the materials collected by Hewitt were also published in the Bureau of American Ethnology's Annual Reports. Other Seneca materials were collected by Jeremiah Curtin, John Peabody Harrington, and William C. Sturtevant. 

Support for preparation and digitization of the collections for online access has been provided by the Arcadia Fund.