Comparative Governmental Structure

Data Sheet #2

                                    Seneca Iroquois National Museum    Allegany Indian Reservation


The year 1848 brought significant change to the Seneca, since it was in that year that the majority of the Seneca chose to abandon the traditional chieftainship form of government and to accept the elective for still in use today in the Seneca Nation of Indians.  Those Senecas who comprised the Tonawanda Band of Seneca did not choose to be part of this revolution and still continue to use the chieftainship form of government.

The reasons for the change in form of government were many, but most obvious was the widespread dissatisfaction with what was seen as rampant corruption among the chiefs.  This corruption became evident to many after a series of treaties in which the lands and resources of the Indian people in New York State were greatly reduced.  Most notably and the greatest insult, was the treaty negotiated at Buffalo Creek in 1838 under which all remaining Indian lands in New York State were lost.  A compromise treaty was negotiated in 1842, again at Buffalo Creek, which returned some of the Indian lands including Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Oil Springs Reservations.  Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda Reservations were not returned and only years later were the Tonawanda able to purchase back a portion of their former reservation and once more return it to reservation status.  The Tonawanda Chiefs were signatories to neither treaty at Buffalo Creek, since they did not agree with the actions taken and did not wish to legitimize either treaty.

There were, of course, other reasons for the revolution besides the treaties.  The issuance of removal of the New York Indians to some western location was a major issue at the time.  Opinion among Indians was divided with some wanting to move west to avoid further white influence, while others wished to remain in their homeland.

The other major issue involved in the revolution was that of dispersement of annuity goods among the Indians.  The chiefs felt that the annuities should be distributed by their offices in order to preserve their power, while many of the people felt that the chiefs already controlled too much of the tribal resources.  Indian Agent Stryker, caught between the factions, asked his superiors for advice on the growing unrest and was told to use his best judgment in deciding the dispersals.  He chose to distribute annuities through the heads of household, causing the chiefs to protest this action.  As a result, he withheld payment while he sought instruction once more.  Receiving word again that he was to use his best judgment, Stryker determined to distribute annuities through the Council House on the Cattaraugus Reservation and Allegany Reservation.  Throughout this difficult time (also known as "Stryker Defalcation"), Stryker was firmly backed by those advocating revolution and overthrow of the chieftain form of government.  This group included men such as Asher Wright and many of the sons of the chiefs who called for a political convention to decide the issue.  The leaders drew up a draft constitution and distributed it for all to see.  The convention, held on December 4, 1848, on the Cattaraugus Reservation, decided the issue with a clear majority in favor of the elective form of government for the Allegany, Cattaraugus and Oil Springs Reservations.  The Tonawanda chiefs, having avoided the Buffalo Creek Treaties, were not held in such great disregard, and therefore the chief system was retained among the Tonawanda where it is still in use today.


Traditional Iroquois Chief System

Todadaho (Chief of Chiefs)


Council of Chiefs

(50 Chiefs)


Seneca                         Cayuga                Onondaga                Oneida            Mohawk

8 Chiefs                      10 Chiefs             14 Chiefs               8 Chiefs          9 Chiefs



0 Chiefs


Elder Brothers:

Seneca: Keeper of the Western Door

Onondaga: Keeper of the Central Fire

Mohawk: Keeper of the Eastern Door


Younger Brothers:

Cayuga:  People of the Hill

Oneida: People of the Stone

Tuscarora:  Wearers of the Shirt




Seneca Nation of Indians

Elective System, 1848



Executive Committee                               Council                                          Judicial

*President                                               8 Allegany                                       2 Surrogates  

*Treasurer                                           8 Cattaraugus                                     6 Peacemakers

*Clerk                                                    0 Oil Springs                                   


*From the same reservation                4 year terms, staggered                 2 year terms, even

2 year terms, alternate                         every 2 years with 4 each              divided between

between reservations                           reservation.                                    Reservations



Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society