In 1779, President George Washington unleashed the “Sullivan Campaign” — a scorched earth policy that ordered the total destruction of the Iroquois villages in the central New York Finger Lakes region.The incursion torched more than 40 Seneca and Cayuga villages, killing women and children and burning to the ground their foods stores and hundreds of acres of orchards. The survivors fled on foot, with few possessions, to Canada and further westward to the Genesee Valley.
The military expedition was a targeted genocidal campaign intended to annihilate the Iroquois. The invasion succeeded in permanently removing the Seneca and Cayuga from the highly-valued prime agricultural area.
Today, more than 250 years after the federal attempts to brutally extinguish the Seneca and Cayuga, in order to seize all of central New York, Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian army to invade the neighboring independent state of Ukraine.
It is impossible to ignore the parallels we are witnessing on the world’s stage with the invasion of Ukraine and the long ago invasion of Seneca villages. The sharp echoes of my ancestors’ shared, historic experience with large-scale assaults on villages and military operations that spared no one, reverberate.
President Washington wrote Sullivan, advising the capture of “as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s regime unfurled the Holodomor, “death by hunger,” a Soviet-inflicted forced famine on the Ukrainians. During this same time period, “Soviet Russification,” a policy to restrict and prohibit use of the Ukraine language was deployed. Hundreds of Ukrainian intellectuals and clergy were exiled to Siberia in an attempt to eradicate voices of resistance.
Putin has bombed residential areas, schools, and a childrens hospital; waging war on civilians, killing and injuring women and children. Reports indicate that more than 1.2 million people have fled Ukraine since the Soviet invasion began. I watch the news in horror, unable to push aside the thoughts crowding my head that remind me: We were Ukraine.
In 1775 there were an estimated 9,000 Seneca and Cayuga people inhabiting villages in Central New York; they were the original inhabitants of the region, tied to the land in spirit, ancient practices, traditions, and ceremony. By 1794, the Seneca and Cayuga numbers were reduced to approximately 4,000; but they were effectively removed from the shores of the Finger Lakes, lakes that would later bear their names.
One hundred years after the Sullivan Campaign, the white settlement of Waterloo would commemorate the taking of the Finger Lakes region from the Seneca and Cayuga with the erection of a 1879 monument that still stands today. It reads: To commemorate the destruction of the Indian village by Col. John Harper under orders of Major Gen. John Sullivan, Skoi-Yase He-o-weh-gno-gek: “Once a home, now a memory”.
It is a monument that makes my heart sink and ache with the knowledge of what my Seneca ancestors experienced. Many died at the hands of soldiers; those who survived went on the run. They had to struggle to hang on and find new, safe havens to protect their children and stay alive — much like the Ukrainians today.
The Seneca villages in central New York are indeed only a memory, erased by aggression, with only historic markers peppered here and there along the roadsides; markers that tell a one-sided story of history: attempted genocide justified by “hostile Indians.” Journals from the time indicate that the Native people left so quickly, that soldiers often found pots of food still cooking over fire pits. There is no marker along the Sulllivan trail that explains that the primary goal of the invasion was to remove the Iroquois and conquer the lands so that homesteaders could move in and claim them and white settlements could take hold.
As I watch the news reports of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the safety and comfort of my home, I feel for the Ukrainian people. Images of throngs of women and children on foot, pulling suitcases, pushing baby carriages; crowds waiting for trains to flee their homelands, and bombed out buildings reduced to ashes. I wonder what it must have been like for my ancestors. I can only imagine terror-stricken mothers, swooping up children, running for their lives, under fire, under attack, under seige; women unarmed and everyone outnumbered.
The Seneca, the Onöndowa’ge:onö’, People of the Great Hill, and historically, the Keepers of the Western Door of the Iroquois Confederacy, have persisted and endured hundreds of years of struggle. We are not alone in this struggle. Like our more than 570 brethren Native nations, every attempt was made to destroy us, remove us, rob us of our land, strip us of our culture, our language and lifeways. When elimination failed, the federal government attempted to terminate us. When those efforts failed, residential schools banned our language, and focused on rewiring our children with forced assimilation policies. Colonel Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School, endeavored to “Kill the Indian and save the man.”
In the 1830s, the federal government sought to remove the Seneca to Kansas, while land companies attempted to defraud us of our lands in Western New York. But the Seneca, including the women, fought back and staved off removal. Several iterations of the Buffalo Creek Treaty later, with significant cessions of land, the Seneca managed to retain our Allegany and Cattaraugus territories and stayed put.
More recently in the 1960s, the Army Corp of Engineers removed the Seneca from our Ohi:yo’ homelands with the construction of the Kinzua Dam, which flooded 10,000 acres of prime Seneca lands. Homes were burned, lands were taken, and more than 700 Seneca were forever removed.
Had the Seneca people buckled to state and federal removal and termination efforts throughout history, the Seneca may have left only a trail of roadside historical markers throughout New York; traces of our existence. While Sullivan’s invasion was able to remove us from central New York, and the federal government took our Ohi:yo’ lands, the Seneca have persisted and survived; we thrive today in Western New York.
In January 2022, the Mothers of the Nation, an entity provided for in the Seneca constitution, was re-established in an effort to reassert the role and authority of the women of the Seneca Nation. Prior to the establishment of a Seneca Republic in 1848, the Seneca were part of the Iroquois Confederacy, renowned as a matrilineal, matriarchal society. Women were instrumental in the traditional governance structures; they selected leaders, held property, and conferred on major decisions such as entering into war. Once the Seneca broke from the confederacy and established an elected form of government, the women were disenfranchised. Women were not allowed to vote or hold office in the new republic for 116 years–it wasn’t until 1964 that Seneca women won the right to vote, and a few years later, won the right to hold office. A Seneca woman has never been elected president in the 174 years that the Seneca have been voting to elect a president.
The Mothers of the Nation were catalyzed this year to serve as a check and balance for government accountability. More importantly, the Mothers of the Nation are committed to protecting the Nation’s assets for the best benefit of the children, the community, and ensure long-term sustainability for the future of our people.
On International Women's Day, this year, it is especially important to recognize the struggles women face and our shared experiences.The Seneca Mothers of the Nation stand in solidarity with the Mothers of Ukraine. We cannot know the depth of the pain and the challenges Ukraine families face as they suffer and endure this attack on their sovereignty, but our peoples share the historical trauma of targeted aggression. We too faced attempted genocidal assaults; we were Ukraine. We know the human toll is great and the devastation has lasting, generational impacts. However, we also both share a defiant spirit, an unwavering conviction to defend our principles and our people.
From one group of mothers to another, we pray for your safety, your strength, your tenacity, and your survival. Sgënӧh goheh — wishing for good health and strength!
Correction: This op-ed has been corrected to show that a Seneca woman has never been elected president in the 174 years that the Seneca have been voting to elect a president.
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