Barry E. Snyder, Sr., president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Courtesy Seneca Nation

Barry E. Snyder, Sr., president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Barry E. Snyder Sr., President: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series


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.

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 descendent 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.

To read the full interview with Tonkawa Tribal President Don Patterson visit the NMAI series here.


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Barry E. Snyder Sr., President: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series