Seneca Stories

Brief Political and Cultural History of the Seneca
by Thomas Kasprzak


The word “Seneca” likely derives from the Mahican a’sinni, “a stone” or “rock,” and -ika or -iga, “place of” which are in turn translations of On.ñ´iute’, the Iroquois name for “it is a standing or projecting stone.” The “stone” probably refers to the site of an Oneida village, but the Dutch used the Mahican term generally to identify not only the Oneida, but also the Onondaga and the Cayuga, all of whom were closely linked with the Seneca (Curtin, 45). The Europeans eventually used the other tribes’ true names as they learned them, but the name for the Seneca remained. Whatever the derivation of the term, their identity seems tied to their location, since the name for themselves can be translated “the people of the great hill.” At one time their territory stretched from the upper Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers in the south to Lake Ontario in the north. Lake Erie and Seneca Lake marked their respective western and eastern borders. With their Iroquois League allies, the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk to the east, the Seneca were the “keepers of the western door” of the longhouse (Wallace, 21). The long wooden structure, interspersed with fireplaces that a pair of families shared, was the primary domicile of the Iroquois for much of their history, but also stood metaphorically for the League.

That the Iroquois thus viewed their alliance, which made them some of the most powerful Indians in what is now the Northeast region of the United States, as a longhouse speaks to that structure’s cultural significance. In contrast to the temporary shelters that Indian men used for seasonal hunting and fishing expeditions, the town’s longhouses, which were largely the domain of the women, provided more permanent homes for the colder winter months. In fact, the Seneca (as well as the rest of Iroquoia) were a matrilineal society. Every family that resided in a longhouse shared the same ohwachira, “a lineage traced through the female line” (Richter, 20), that was a part of their still larger clan, which might have been Bear, Turtle, etc. Men most often married outside their clan, in part to avoid incest, and upon marriage they were expected to relocate to their wives’ longhouses. However, the business of hunting, trade, and war often forced the men away from their homes for full seasons at a time, while the women remained behind to care for the town’s collective agriculture. Constant separation led to numerous divorces, but these splits did not undermine the strength of the towns, since amicable resolutions were often reached (Wallace, 30).

The autonomy of each of the Nation’s towns, which was maintained in large part by the communal social structure of the longhouses, contributed to the makeup of the Iroquois League. Also called the Great League of Peace and Power, the League was established (perhaps sometime in the fifteenth century) mostly to protect the individual interests of each of the Five Nations by preserving the peace between them; a Sixth, the Tuscarora, joined in the eighteenth century. Thus, the League was not meant to have a centralized government that would dictate foreign policy. Indeed, individual nations occasionally participated on opposite sides of the conflicts involving European nations during the period of colonization. For the most part, though, the Iroquois as a whole attempted to remain neutral in these conflicts, using the threat of shifting the precarious balance between the French and British if any aggression occurred. Nevertheless, these attempts at neutrality were not always maintained. Economic and territorial rivalries brought them into conflict with the French, who invaded the Seneca country in 1687 (Richter, 156), causing many of that nation to relocate among the Cayuga and elsewhere. The American War for Independence proved even more devastating. Many Iroquois sided with the British in hopes of halting American expansion, which contributed to the Continental Army’s decision to attack the Seneca settlements along the Allegheny in 1779. The Seneca, already decimated by disease and poverty, were forced to migrate to Cattaraugus, near the eventual site of the reservation from which these archived legends were collected (Wallace, 168).

The culture of the Seneca was consequently experiencing significant changes in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In addition to poverty and the dramatic relocations caused by wars, the preponderance of the alcohol trade, in which Indians as well as Europeans participated, had begun to dissolve the community of the longhouse. Families were increasingly moving into individual homes. However, many of the traditions remained, in part because of Handsome Lake, whose spiritual visions in the last decade of the eighteenth century inspired his advocacy of social unity and invectives against witchery and alcohol (253).Thus revitalized, much of the culture of the Seneca was preserved, allowing for the collection of the following oral legends by nineteenth and early twentieth century ethnographers.


The Oral Legends and Seneca Culture:


In order to discuss the Seneca oral legend, it is appropriate to first distinguish it from the Seneca myth. The cosmogonic myths depict the creation of the world before the existence of humans. They describe a world above the dome of the sky, from which the creators of humankind fell. To support these progenitors, the turtle created the known world on his back, where the Iroquois eventually flourished thanks to the intervention of these aforementioned deities. (Cusick). In contrast to these fundamental beliefs of existence are the legends, or “k|k´||,” which relate the deeds of heroes long after the creation of humankind. It is impossible to assign specific dates to the legends given the tendency of oral tales to develop over time. The following versions of the three stories were in fact collected long after the Seneca created them, the earliest representations being Jeremiah Curtin’s ethnographic studies at the Cattaraugus reservation in the 1880's. J.N.B. Hewitt later edited Curtin’s field notes and included his own collections of the tales in his 1910 ethnographic report to the Smithsonian Institution, on which “The Story of the Ohohwa People” and “The Legend of the Genonsgwa” are based. Arthur Parker’s “The Origin of Stories,” called “The Story of the Hahskwahot” by Curtin and Hewitt, was recorded at Cattaraugus in the first decade of the twentieth century, and published in 1923.

Nevertheless, the following legends exhibit the characteristics of the Seneca culture as it existed before the relocation to Cattaraugus, and so whatever development the tales have undergone over subsequent generations has not obscured the traditions that produced them. It would consequently be more appropriate to attribute authorship of the tales to the collective culture (as well as the storytellers) throughout the history of the Seneca, even though the true “authors” of Curtin’s versions were people like Truman Halftown, John Armstrong, and Chief Priest Henry Stevens (Curtin, 50), whereas Tahadondeh, Bill Snyder, and others contributed to Parker’s editions (Parker, xx). “The Story of the Hahskwahot,” for instance, depicts the world of the Seneca before their being forced to move to areas like Cattaraugus. Gaqka, the young hero of the legend, learns the art of storytelling from an anthropomorphic cliff, evidently the Hahskwahot, or “place of the standing stone.” The characterizations surely would have resonated for a people whose identity was variously tied to a “great hill” and “projecting rock,” and so it is conceivable that the story would have been originally told at the foot of the source of the legends themselves.

“The Legend of the Genonsgqwa,” or “Stone Coats” (a term which is etymologically connected to the “Ice Clad” people of myth) similarly represents an important cultural element of the Seneca, this time in terms of their relations with other nations. The story tells of the Creator’s intervention against the formidable Stone Coats, and his subsequent demand that those warriors he had helped make peace with the neighboring peoples. While it is tempting to characterize the story as an account of the formation of the Iroquois League itself, more specific depictions of the League existed and usually referred to Hiawatha, its reputed founder, by name. Also, one chief in “The Legend of Genonsgwa” expresses his support of the peace with the other nations based on their common “reddish color,” which could be an implicit contrast to the European settlers. Thus the legend could also be a call for unity against the continuing encroachment of European colonization, which began to occur most dramatically long after the League had been founded. The “reddish color” line might also be a later addition to the story, since it occurs outside the refrain that calls for peace throughout the rest of the tale. Regardless of the inability to pinpoint the legend historically, though, the methods of negotiation are consistent with Seneca practice during the time of the League of Peace and Power, both concepts being thought of as spiritual in nature (Richter, 30).

“The Story of the Ohohwa People” is the story that perhaps best bears historical placement, since it seems to depict a society far removed from the communal existence of its previous generations. Unlike the longhouses of “The Legend of the Genonsgwa,” the residence of the Ohohwa man is a solitary, single-family home. The man is abusive to his wife, and uses a dream as a pretext for abandoning her, all of which were behaviors that were condemned by Handsome Lake near the end of the eighteenth century (Wallace, 284). (Dreams had figured prominently in Seneca tradition; they were previously regarded as omens that, if not followed, could bring a curse upon the individual who had them). The difficulty that the man experiences in his encounter with the evil spirits could represent the proponents of Handsome Lake’s religion warning the Seneca against the social evils of domestic abuse and false portents in dreams. Again, all of these speculations that situate the legends historically are not without their problems, given the inability to accurately date the tales. At the very least the legends could be later storytellers’ representations of these periods, since the influences of the cultural phenomena are evident.


The Telling of Oral Legends:


However instrumental the collective Seneca culture was in producing the oral legends, the creation and narration of specific tales was the province of the individual storytellers, the Hage´ot|. As is the case with many oral tale-tellers, the Hage´ot| adhered to the structure of the original legends, but also added their own unique interpretations depending on their preferences for characterization, picturesque description, or dramatic exclamation. The individual’s telling of the same tale could even vary from session to session, as audiences were expected to participate. When the Hage´ot| had an audience, he would ask if they wished to hear his tales, to which they replied “H.” The audience had to repeat this throughout the narration, otherwise the tale-teller would ask if there was something wrong with his technique. For an auditor to fall asleep during the session was actually considered an evil omen, and would invite a curse upon the guilty party. If members of the audience were too tired to hear an entire tale, the tale had to be “tied” by the Hage´ot| ‘s recitation of the word, “nsgäha’´” (Parker, xxxiii).

The sessions could begin in a few different ways: people might gather at some prominent place in the town to hear the legends, but the Hage´ot| also apparently traveled to longhouses unannounced. Such spontaneity extended to his various narrations, since the order of his tales was determined by the random choosing of tokens from his bag. For instance, if he selected a bear claw from his pouch, he would relate the corresponding tale from his stock of stories, or “ganondas’hägon ” (50). When his tales were over, the audience usually gave him small gifts, usually of tobacco. (“The Story of the Hahskwahot” depicts the establishment of most of these customs). The sessions were thus usually light-hearted, and were used for enjoyment during the winter nights, which again puts the “k|k´|| ” into contrast with the cosmogonic myths. These myths were often part of the highly ritualized ceremonies of thanksgiving that took place at set times during the year in anticipation of such important events as harvests. However, the “k|k´||” were thought to have a magical potency of their own. Apart from reasons of mere entertainment value, the telling of legends was permitted only in the winter months. Otherwise, the animals could become enchanted, leading to bad harvests and poor hunting. Hage´ot| who violated these customs could expect punishment from the “djog´on ,” or spirits who appeared in the form of birds and insects (xxxi). If the legends represented a time far removed from early creation, they also reminded their audience of the continued ubiquity of spirits in their own world, thus providing entertaining connections to a past that was not then so distant.


Phonetic Key for Words in the Language of the Seneca:



Consonants follow standard English with the following exceptions:


c as “sh” in shall

ç as “th” in wealth

d also a “th” sound as in with

g is hard, as in gig

ñ as ng in ring

q as in “ch” in German ich

r is slightly trilled

t like d, a th sound

dj as in judge

hw as wh in what

tc as ch in church



a as in father

| as in father, but extended

â as in what

ä as in hat

ai as in aisle

au as in ou in out

e as in they

 as in met

i as in pique

0 as in pit

o as in note

u as in rule

ß as in rut


‘ indicates an aspiration or soft emission of breath

’ marks the glottal stop

n marks nasalized vowels






Curtin, Jeremiah and Hewitt, J.N.B. Seneca Fiction, Legends and Myths, published as an accompanying paper to the 32nd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1910, Washington Government Printing Office, 1918


Cusick, David. “David Cusick’s sketches of ancient history of the Six Nations :comprising first-- a tale of the foundation of the Great Island (now North America), the two infants born, and the creation of the universe : second-- a real account of the early settlers of North America, and their dissentions : third-- origin of the kingdom of the Five nations, which was called a Long House : the wars, fierce animals, etc” Sabin’s Books Related to American History, from its discovery to the present time. (Turner & McCollum, Lockport, NY): 1848

Parker, Arhur, Seneca Myths and Folk Tales, (Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo, NY): 1923


Richer, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. (UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC): 1992


Wallace, Anthony F.C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. (Alfred A. Knopf, NY): 1970

EADA Entries:

Seneca Folk Tales