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Historic Document Opposing Kinzua Dam Returned to Seneca Nation

It’s browned, tattered around the edges with a few tears and a tape mark in the middle, but the 55-year-old document was welcomed with gratitude by the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Todd Betts, of Warren, Pennsylvania, returned a historic petition written by the Mothers of the Seneca Nation to President Robert Odawi Porter and nation citizens in a formal presentation in front of the Seneca Legislative Council on March 12.

The petition was circulated for signatures in 1956 when the Army Corps of Engineers was developing plans to construct the Kinzua Dam – a massive structure that would flood 10,000 acres of Seneca Nation land and effect the forced removal of hundreds of Seneca residents from their homes. The Mothers of the Seneca Nation signed the petition opposing the plan, furthering the nation’s unsuccessful struggle to block the project.

Betts bought the original petition from eBay several years ago. A private collector of historic documents and relics, he said he realized that the petition held great significance to the Seneca.

“It is with deep gratification and honor that I am able to return this critical document to the Seneca Nation. I strongly feel that this significant historical document belongs with the Seneca people,” said Betts.

Porter and members of the Seneca Nation Council expressed their appreciation to Betts for recognizing the importance of the document.

“On behalf of the Seneca Nation, I would like to express our sincere gratitude to you for your generous spirit and your willingness to return to us this invaluable and historically significant petition to the Nation. I speak for everyone here today by saying we are deeply moved and indebted to you for preserving this document and understanding the gravity of its import to the Seneca people,” Porter. “This petition, mobilized by the women of the Nation 55 years ago, remains a testament to the commitment and passion our grandmothers and mothers demonstrated to protect and preserve our Seneca lands from federal intrusion. We may have lost that battle to stop the Kinzua Dam five decades ago, but we will mount every effort today, stand united and strong, to prevent further federal and state incursions and protect our sovereign rights, our lands, water rights and resources.”

Authorized by Congress with the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Kinzua Dam near Warren, Pa., between 1960 and its opening in 1965. The purpose of the $108 million dam was flood control and pollution flushing, but in 1970 the federal government also gave away the right to generate hydropower to private, for-profit utility companies – now estimated at $13 million in profits annually.

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The government forced 147 Seneca families – 800 people – out of their homes on 10,000 acres of their treaty-protected lands in a fertile valley, and relocated them several miles away. The homes were burned and the land was flooded to build the Allegheny Reservoir. The flooded land drowned significant cultural, sacred, and ceremonial sites, including a Longhouse and burial grounds.

Porter noted that the petition has been returned to the nation at a “fortuitous time” since the nation is on a five-year course to win the license to operate the hydropower facility attached to the Kinzua Dam that caused the nation historic devastation.

“This petition will serve to fortify our efforts because it is with the voices and the pledges of our ancestors that we derive strength and will move forward with the relicensing initiative,” he said.

The petition was signed by 122 Seneca women primarily from the Allegany territory and presented to then President Cornelius Seneca and the Seneca Nation Council in December 1956. A second petition was signed by Seneca men and during that day’s council session “all spoke in opposition” to the Kinzua Dam construction.

According to Seneca Nation Council minutes the day the petition was presented in 1956, the council unanimously passed a resolution denying the request of the Army Corp of Engineers for permission to conduct a field survey for the Kinzua Dam project. The resolution read in part:

“WHEREAS, the members of the Seneca Nation of Indians are unanimously opposed to this Allegany River Reservoir project, and the construction of the contemplated Kinzua Dam, Which construction would deprive the members of the Seneca Nation of their homes and home lands; and

WHEREAS, since the time this Allegany River Reservoir Project was first contemplated by the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, the Seneca Nation has been in constant opposition to the same;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That sitting in General Session on the Allegany Indian Reservation, this 4th day of December, 1956, the Council of the Seneca Nation of Indians hereby rejects and denies the permit to survey herein sought by the Corps of Engineers, United States Army.”

Seneca Nation officials presented the Betts family with gifts of appreciation at the close of the ceremonial return. Following the presentation, the document was placed on display at the Seneca Allegany Administration Building and will be formally accessioned into the Seneca Nation Archives.