Oldest Seneca citizen shares story of tribe's struggle, survival
Special to Indian Country Today
In 1961, eight months into office, President John F. Kennedy dealt a traumatic blow to the Seneca people with the swoop of a pen.
In a letter to the Seneca Nation, Kennedy ended the tribe’s fight to protect its lands along the Ohi:yo’ — Seneca for “beautiful river," the Allegany — from being flooded by the building of the Kinzua Dam. In one sentence, Kennedy changed the lives and the lands of the Seneca people forever.
He wrote: “It is not possible to halt the construction of the Kinzua Dam currently under way.”
The letter and the completion of the dam would sink the hopes of the Seneca people and submerge their lands, directly impacting more than 130 families on the Allegany territory with a forced removal.
Some 700 Seneca lost their homes in the communities of Coldspring, Quaker Bridge, Shongo, Onoville, Red House, Cornplanter, Sunfish, Bay State, Old Town and Bone Run. One-third, or 10,000 acres, of prime Seneca territory was lost.
Ralph Bowen was in his late 30s, a member of the Seneca Nation Council, and one of those whose homes were leveled by the Army Corps of Engineers to make way for the dam. On Saturday, he and his fellow Seneca Nation members will reflect on the momentous and wrenching days of dispossession they went through in the annual Remember the Removal commemoration.
Today, Ralph Bowen’s shock of slick white hair stands in stark contrast to the smooth, deep maple-syrup brown sheen of his 98-year old forehead. He is the Seneca Nation's oldest member, and although his son Dennis says he is slowing down, Ralph still has a lot to say. And he ought to: He has witnessed a great deal and has lived through great challenges in his time.
He was a young boy growing up in the Great Depression, he served four tours of duty in World War II as an aerial gunner, and he has seen great changes unfold at the Seneca Nation and the world at large. Bowen says that in his nearly 100 years, the greatest struggle ever to have confronted the Seneca people was the Kinzua Dam removal.
Bowen, who served five terms, or 20 years, on the Seneca Nation Council, was part of the body of Seneca leaders at the forefront of challenging the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal government in its drive to build the dam.
It was a proverbial David and Goliath legal battle, as the Seneca were poor and had few resources. At the time, the average Seneca family income was about $3,000 a year, and the unemployment rate stood at roughly 35 percent. Weathering long, harsh western New York winters, most Seneca depended on the surrounding forests for wood to warm their homes by woodstove. Few had running water or electricity.
The Seneca Nation officials worked on behalf of, and in true service to, the people, without compensation. A nation budget was nonexistent. Still, Bowen and his counterparts believed they had the law on their side — namely, the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty.
The agreement, also called the Pickering Treaty, was one of peace. It not only established friendship between the fledgling United States and the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, it affirmed the land rights of the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee, or people of the Longhouse.
Red Jacket, one of the Seneca signatories to the treaty, stated that the business of the agreement was to "brighten the chain of friendship” between the Iroquois and the states. But of great significance to the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga and Tuscarora, the treaty restored lands to the Six Nations and acknowledged those lands.
The treaty 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.”
In 1954, 160 years after those affirmations were inked onto parchment, steeled with the steadfast belief in the treaty's protections, Bowen headed to Washington to make the Seneca’s case. He and George Heron and Basil Williams, who both served as president of the Seneca Nation during the Kinzua era, met with federal officials and senators. “There were a lot of talks and trips to Washington,” Bowen said.
There were no expense accounts, no nonstop flights; instead, their wives would pack them egg salad sandwiches, and the delegation would make the seven-hour drive to defend their land.
Bowen believed the treaty carried weight. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause establishes that federal laws and treaties made under its authority constitute the “supreme law of the land.”
Bowen was among the minority on the council who felt strongly about the power of the Canandaigua Treaty protections. Ralph’s son Dennis Bowen Sr., who also served as president of the Seneca Nation in later years, recalled: “He kept saying, 'It’s the treaties; they have to honor the treaties.' But some in the community would roll their eyes and say, ‘There he goes again with his treaty talk.’”
Back in the '60s, there were councilors who simply felt like "you can’t fight the government,” said Dennis Bowen Sr. “Some of the other councilors didn’t share his faith in the treaties or take them seriously.”
When all the talks and meetings in the halls of the Capitol seemed to go nowhere, the Seneca Nation leaders cited the treaties and asked the courts to rule on whether Congress intended to break the 1794 treaty.
For a time, Ralph Bowen and the Seneca people maintained the hope and belief they might prevail. “Some of our women formed a group to protest the dam. The nation fought it in the courts,” he said. With what few resources the tribe scraped together, it hired Arthur Morgan, a civil engineer who proposed a reasonable, workable alternative that would have rerouted the waters, sidestepping and saving the Seneca territory.
“We had some helpers,” said Bowen. The Quakers, Democratic U.S. Rep. James Haley of Florida and Johnny Cash stood in support of the Seneca. “I thought it was going to work. There were a lot of negotiations and meetings with senators. They listened to us,” said Bowen, trailing off. “I guess I was naïve."
Bowen may have gotten his resolve from having served in the Air Force in World War II, where he flew seven missions in the European campaign and helped to liberate France and Europe from Nazi occupation. He earned aerial gunner wings, was decorated with four Campaign Stars, the Distinguished Unit Citation, the WWII Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and marksman badges. In 2019, Bowen was the first Seneca and only the second Native to receive France’s highest military award: the French Legion of Honor. This past summer, he was inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame.
Bowen was also an ironworker for 35 years, building bridges and buildings in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh. Between his heroics in WWII and his experience on the high beam, combined with his belief in the treaty obligations, he maintained confidence in his nation’s efforts.
During the course of Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he made suggestions and promises in speeches that kept alive the Seneca’s hope. “Kennedy was making a deal with the governor of Pennsylvania, with the steel industry, while placating us,” said Dennis Bowen Sr. But once in office, Kennedy bowed to Pennsylvania’s industrialists and the Pittsburgh elite, namely Carnegie Steel and the Heinz family, acquiescing to the federal claims of eminent domain.
When the nation received the Kennedy letter, it shook the community. “The people were just in a state of shock,” Dennis Bowen Sr. said.
Kennedy’s letter of 1961 is encased in glass, part of a permanent exhibit at the Seneca Iroquois Museum on the Allegany territory. It effectively broke the oldest treaty on the books.
It also broke the people’s spirit and their hearts. Even after the letter cemented their fate, there was still so much that was unknown — what was going to happen to people’s homes and when.
The Army Corps of Engineers painted giant Xs on the homes slated for destruction. Rebecca Bowen, Ralph’s daughter, was just 11 years old at the time. She would sit outside and watch the bulldozers clear the land and flatten houses.
“I would yell at them. But no amount of hollering was going to stop the trees from being leveled or the land from being taken,” Becki Bowen said. “Once Kennedy signed off, the fight was over.”
“People were angry,” said Ralph Bowen. “There was a lot of sadness. The older generation would talk among themselves about how we were deceived.”
The Army Corps of Engineers burned the Bowen family house to the ground. In the late 1980s, the fiery image of the Bowen house ablaze was part of the footage included in the documentary "Lands of our Ancestors." At its premiere, Becki Bowen saw the footage for the first time. “It was a shock,” she said. “It still makes me so sad.”
Even after dealing with the impact of the government’s failure to honor the treaties, Ralph Bowen still believes in the power of the treaty.
“It’s not just a document; it has life,” he said. To this day, the Canandaigua Treaty provides for annuity cloth distribution to the Seneca in the form of unbleached muslin. While on its face, the treaty cloth may seem a relatively insignificant gesture, it is emblematic of the continued affirmation of the treaty obligations.
The Kinzua period was a time of great uncertainty; the destruction of people’s homes, the removal from their homelands, and the loss of place was heartbreaking and was physically devastating to some, particularly the elders. Dennis Bowen Sr. said the flooding of the lands so devastated the people, that in the short two-year timeframe after the removal, some got sick and died. “It was trauma and heartbreak,” he said.
In February of 1964, the Seneca remained in a quandary and still had yet to receive any sort of settlement or relocation compensation. Finally, in 1967, the federal government arrived at a $16 million settlement with a hitch: The Seneca were to submit a plan for their own dissolution. The caveat, however, was rejected; the Seneca refused to be erased.
The fight to oppose the dam occurred during the Termination Era, in which the federal government called for the eradication of tribes.
If a lesson emerged from Kinzua, it was one of survival. The elder Bowen said: “What came out of it is, we held on.”
The Seneca Nation utilized the compensation fund to build new homes and administrative buildings, and, most significantly, they used the money to establish an education fund for scholarships. “Before Kinzua, few kids even graduated from high school. It helped educate many Senecas. Now we have lawyers and teachers,” Bowen said. “We don’t have to be stuck anymore.”
The commemorative walk and removal events began in the 1980s. In the early years, the older people didn’t want to participate. “They would say, ‘We don’t want to relive that time.’ It was too difficult,” Dennis Bowen Sr. said.
Now, every year when the days grow shorter and the leaves on the trees in the hilly terrain of the Allegheny mountains begin to burn orange, yellow and red, the Seneca people gather at the Red House Bridge to remember how their houses were set ablaze and burned to the ground as the United States dispossessed them of their homelands.
In 2020, this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Remember the Removal commemoration will, like many things, be virtual. Rather than a public gathering, the Seneca people are encouraged to do their own walks in commemoration of the historic removal.
Bowen has never ceased from stressing the importance of the treaties, despite the tribe's failed attempts to flag them and use them as a shield from Kinzua.
Bowen’s daughter Becki said that when she was a young girl, her father often talked about the treaties and the nation’s sovereignty. “He always said, 'As long as we have land, they will always be after us.'"
The federal government may have succeeded in building the dam and flooding a significant portion of the Allegany lands. Kennedy and those in Congress in the 1960s may have broken the Canandaigua Treaty. The Seneca people may have buckled, they may have bent, but they were not extinguished. They, like Ralph Bowen, have lived to tell; lived to tell a story of struggle and survival. The Seneca story of Kinzua is a sad, familiar story of dispossession shared by many more Native people throughout Indian Country; an all too common thread, woven in the fabric of history.
The Seneca Nation’s continuation of the annual Remember the Removal seeks to ensure that with each step taken on the commemorative walk, the traumas of the past are not repeated, the treaties will never again be violated, the land will remain protected, and the people will prosper.
Leslie Logan, Seneca, is a writer and PR consultant who has written for Indian Country Today, the National Museum of the American Indian, Aboriginal Voices, Indigenous Woman and several anthologies. She has served as communications director for the Seneca Nation and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
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