By the mid 1960s, Congress had gone dam crazy. Dams had been built all along the Missouri River and elsewhere throughout the country, and many of them were built on treaty land. In 1965, the Kinzua Dam submerged nearly 10,000 acres of Seneca land in New York. It was nearly one-third of their tribal land and the last remaining land in Pennsylvania.
The land grab broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, signed by President George Washington. It reads: “the United States acknowledges all the land within the aforementioned boundaries, to be the property of the Seneca Nation; and the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneca Nation, nor any of the Six Nations, or of their Indian friends residing thereon, and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof; but it shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same.”
On September 16, 2015, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers celebrated 50 years of the Kinzua Dam that changed the lives, culture, and ecology of the Seneca Nation. Rather than celebrate, this is what the Seneca remember:
1.) In order to build the Kinzua Dam, 600 residents were forced to relocate and the remains of Seneca ancestors were bulldozed to make way for the dam.
2.) Seneca homes and forests were burned and then flooded to clear the land. “The overall trauma of forced relocation, the desecration of our grandparent’s graves, the burning of our homes, our longhouses and churches, the loss of our gardens—a lot of people had gardens that were multi-generational—the loss was so traumatic,” said Dennis Bowen, Seneca, former president of the Allegheny Seneca Nation in New York State.
3.) According to GoErie.com, the 1,500-acre Cornplanter Tract, granted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to the descendants of Chief Cornplanter in 1796 was all that was left of Seneca land in Pennsylvania, was seized and flooded. Two thousand graves, including the 1836 grave of Chief Cornplanter, were moved, but many were not.
4.) The Seneca proposed rerouting the Allegheny River as a less expensive alternative. They took their case to the U.S Supreme Court, which refused to hear their case. President John F. Kennedy denied the plan to reroute the Allegheny and sent his condolences in a letter to the Seneca. In the letter, he said he supported the building of the dam, stating that congress had already allocated the funds to build the dam and towns and cities along the river were experiencing seasonal floods.
5.) In that same letter, Kennedy suggested new land might be offered to replace the land lost, but according to Bowen, “No land was ever given back. Each family that was in the relocation had a tract of land in their name and was given a house in exchange for what they lost in the take areas and floodplain, and that was the compensation at that time.” In his letter, Kennedy asked the Senecas cooperation “for a fair and orderly abandonment of their land.”
6.) In order to get the attention of the locals, Seneca Harry Watt wore a Plains Indian outfit to protest the dam. Watt’s outfit is on display as part of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum’s “This Is Where We Walked” exhibit. “He wanted people to recognize him as a Native American as he protested the taking of Seneca land,” Kari Kennedy-Hoag, a descendent of Watt, told GoErie.com. “And that’s what people expected.”
7.) The dam divided tribal members who had long lived side-by-side. A highway was built between two communities who now had to travel to see their friends and family. “The stress and pain was divisive,” Bowen said. “The forced relocation broke up the long standing neighborhoods. Your neighbor wasn’t your neighbor anymore; they were living somewhere else. There was a physical, geographical, divisive impact on our neighborhood structure,” he said.
8.) Bowen told ICTMN that there was an increase in school dropouts and lower achievement levels because teachers didn’t have an understanding or compassion for what had happened. “They thought we should just get over it. It’s like telling an American to just get over 9/11. You don’t.” Bowen was 13 years old when the dam was built and in high school when Kennedy was shot. “The American students were crying and the Seneca students cheered. It’s a different world,” he said.
9.) Rebecca Bowen, Seneca Nation Archives Department, and Dennis’s sister, said the ecology of the dam has been ignored. “This is the second summer that we faced an onslaught of algae because the water in the reservoir is not flowing.” Bowen said that both the Army Corp of Engineers and the hydro-power company control the elevations of the dams “at such a pace, it doesn’t flow like a river. We get large areas where we have a buildup of algae. We have hot temperatures, so now we get cautions: don’t get in the water, don’t let the animals drink the water, because of the algae.” A water creature known as a hellbender almost went extinct, and where medicines and flowers once grew, Bowen said, “All these things I grew up seeing women use, now they’re gone.”
The situation was so dire that Johnny Cash visited the Seneca and recorded a song called “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow” that honored the Seneca’s plight and brought recognition to the situation.
Jay Toth, Seneca tribal archaeologist, reached out to state historic preservation officials in New York and Pennsylvania, because, “They are clueless about the dam up here,” including the actions taken to remove people from the area. “For the general public the dams aren’t something they pay attention to but it has had extreme impacts on the environment and the people.”
Dennis Bowen said that after the dam was built, half of the elders died within two years. “You could say it was high blood pressure or a stroke, but it wasn’t. They died of broken hearts. Some of them didn’t want to move into the new houses that were built, some of them, even though they had indoor plumbing, brought their outhouses with them; and they still wanted to have their wood stove. It was a very deep wound.”
On November 26, 2013, the Seneca Nation entered into a comprehensive settlement agreement with FirstEnergy Generation, LLC. Rebecca Bowen stated that the Seneca Nation is a stakeholder in the dam and will not be pursuing licensing the dam. According to a Duquesne Energy Initiative blog, First Energy sold its license in March 2014 to operate the Kinzua Dam for $395 million to Harbor Hydro Holdings, LLC.