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1-4_2018-02-28 * Indigenous People of Western New York Kristin





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Indigenous People of Western New York 

Kristin Szczepzniec

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Indigenous People of Western New York

Buffalo has a low proportion of foreign born residents compared to other cities. But an unusually high percentage of the region’s foreign-born are refugees. Buffalo has become a top location for refugee resettlement in the nation.

data, demographics, refugee, civil rights, buffalo

This article is available at DigitalCommons@ILR:https://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/buffalocommons/380


Territorial Acknowledgement

In keeping with regional protocol, I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and by honoring the sovereignty of the Six Nations–the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora–and their land where we are situated and where the majority of this work took place. In this acknowledgement, we hope to demonstrate respect for the treaties that were made on these territories and remorse for the harms and mistakes of the far and recent past; and we pledge to work toward partnership with a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration.


Indigenous people of North America date their history on the land as “since time immemorial”; some archeologists say that a 12,000 year-old history on this continent is a close estimate.1  Today, the U.S. federal government recognizes over 567 American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes and villages with 6.7 million people who identify as American Indian or Alaskan, alone or combined.2 

The land that is now known as New York State has a rich history of First Nations people, many of whom continue to influence and play key roles in shaping the region. This fact sheet offers information about Native people in Western New York from the far and recent past through 2018.

Terms such as Native American, Native, Indigenous, First Nations, and American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) are preferred by different individuals in a variety of contexts and can be used to convey different meanings. Most Native people prefer to be recognized by their tribe, nation, or pueblo identity, since each group has a unique history and heritage. Often, the diversity of First Nation peoples is overlooked.3 

Many people do not realize that it was not until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that “Indians” born in the United States were granted citizenship and—at least in theory—the right to vote.4 

This fact sheet summarizes some of the available history of Indigenous people in what is now known as Western New York and provides information on the contemporary state of Haudenosaunee communities. Intended to shed light on an often overlooked history, it includes demographic, economic, and health data on Indigenous people in Western New York.

It was drafted by Kristin Szczepaniec, Collaboration and Research Specialist at Cornell in Buffalo ILR and the Partnership for the Public Good. She is a native of Western New York and identifies as Seneca, hawk clan, and Polish.




Federal recognition and tribal identity are complex topics for most Native people today. A federally recognized tribe, nation or pueblo is an entity that has a government relationship with the United States, possessing certain inherent rights of self-government and entitled to federal benefits, services, and protections. We should note in passing that there are dozens of tribes who are not federally recognized throughout the U.S. and that not every federally recognized tribe has a land base or reservation.

Sovereignty makes Native citizens different from other groups that may be delineated by race or ethnicity. The term sovereignty denotes a political relationship with the U.S. government. As Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), “tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government.”5 This designation extends to the state level as well: states do not have any authority over a tribal nation within their territory unless the state and tribe have established legal agreement on a particular issue.6 For example, in order to establish a casino in Niagara Falls, the Seneca Nation made an agreement with the state of New York to establish exclusivity rights in the area.7

Tribal sovereignty also means that any decisions about the tribal citizens with regard to their property and peoples are made with their participation and consent. Native peoples governed themselves for thousands of years, through tribal protocols, traditions, religion, and kinship systems. Today, while many tribes make decisions in traditional ways, most tribal governments are organized democratically with elected officials and three branches of government.

Federal, state, and local laws apply to Native citizens in different ways. On federal reservations, only federal and reservation laws apply. Individual Natives pay federal income taxes just like every other American. Most tribes have established tribal courts. Similar to state governments, tribal governments not themselves subject to taxation by the federal government. Like state and local governments, too, tribal governments use their revenues to provide essential services for their citizens, but tribal governments generally cannot levy property or income taxes because of the unique nature of their land tenure and jurisdictional restraints. Income from tribal businesses is the only non-federal revenue source for most tribes. States cannot directly tax a tribal government, but they can collect taxes on sales to non-members that occur on tribal lands—with conditions that are often established through intergovernmental agreements.

The question as to “who is ‘Indian’” is complicated and fraught with disquieting history, and the answer is not always binary. Before white settlers, tribal identity was more fluid, much like tribal boundaries and alliances with other groups. Today, as part of tribal sovereignty, tribes determine membership. Many use blood quantum, ranging from 100%

As Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), “tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self- government.”

The question as to “who is ‘Indian’” is complicated and fraught with disquieting history, and the answer is not always binary.



to one-thirty-second. But the notion of membership by blood quantum was begun by colonial governments looking to determine who was a “real Indian,” and to this day, is haunted by the idea that this is a widespread practice when dealing with animals, not humans.

Originally, the federal government favored including “mixed blood” or more assimilated Indians in tribal membership rolls in hopes that they would be more likely to cede tribal land. Later after land claims were established, the government favored restricting definitions of “who is Indian” in order to limit its duties to the Native population. Officials hoped that intermarriages would “dilute Indian blood” and promote assimilation.

Today, tribes may determine membership by lineal descent (being able to prove that you had an ancestor listed as a member of that tribe––a method still beholden to colonial history), residence on tribal lands, participation in ceremonies and rituals, knowledge of tribal language and culture, or membership in a recognized clan. The issues are complex, because there are people with Native ancestry who do not know much about Native culture; conversely, there are people who are not enrolled but who regularly practice ceremonies and/or speak their Native language. In 2018, tribal citizens are still issued cards by the federal government certifying their “Degree of Indian Blood,” which can be used for things like airport security or as another valid form of ID. Modern Native people are continually asked to “prove” and define their identity—and must struggle to preserve and perpetuate their cultures while combating many incorrect or offensive stereotypes.

Indigenous People in Western New York 

There are eight federally recognized tribes in New York State: the Cayuga, Tuscarora, Oneida, Onondaga, St. Regis Mohawk (along St. Lawrence River near Quebec, Canada), Seneca Nation, Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, and Shinnecock (located downstate).8

Of these eight tribes, all but the Shinnecock and St. Regis Mohawk identify as Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee or hoe-den-oh-saw-nee). In New York State, Haudenosaunee is the designation most commonly used by the Iroquois to refer to themselves.9 Some scholars of Native American history also prefer it because they consider the name “Iroquois” to be derogatory in origin.10 This name derives from two words in the Seneca language: Hodínöhšö:ni:h, meaning “those of the extended house,” signifying the people of the longhouse, and Hodínöhsö:ni:h, meaning “house builders.”11 The Iroquois confederacy is often referred to as the Six Nations (or, for the period before the entry of the Tuscarora in 1722, the Five Nations).12

Later after land claims were established, the government favored restricting definitions of “who is Indian” in order to limit its duties to the Native population.



Figure 1. Wampum are beads made from white and purple mollusk shells, bound by strings to make intricate patterns on belts. The belts are used to signify official authority or to keep record of important stories, ideas or treaties. 
Source: syracuseadventures.wordpress.com.

Many Western New Yorkers recognize the Hiawatha belt as a symbol of the Haudenosaunee [See Figure 1]. This wampum belt is named after Hiawatha, the Peacemaker’s helper, and it records the time when five nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) joined together to form an alliance. The center symbol represents the Onondaga Nation, as well as the Tree of Peace under which the Native leaders buried their weapons of war. The Seneca are the Keepers of the Western door and the Mohawk are the Keepers of the Eastern door.13 The first nations in New York State did not, traditionally, occupy a specific tract of land, but archeologists have confirmed that these communities tended to settle and travel within general designated areas.14

In Western New York as in much of the United States, tribes were forced onto small tracts of land called reservations [See Figures 3 and 4]. 

• The Cayuga do not currently have a reservation, but are negotiating their land claim with New York State; there are approximately 450 members of this nation living in New York, including about 100 speakers of their language.15 

• The Oneida reservation is 32 acres, located in Madison County; about 40 of the 1000 members live on the reservation, with about 200 speakers living in New York and Ontario, Canada.16

• The Onondaga Reservation is 7,300 acres, located five miles south of Syracuse (there is also an Onondaga Reservation in Canada); there are approximately 470 people living on the reservation in New York, including about 20 fluent speakers of their language.17

This wampum belt is named after Hiawatha, the Peacemaker’s helper, and it records the time when five nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) joined together to form an alliance.



Figure 2. Source: Niagara County Native Map: http://www.smithancestry.com/places/niag/niagaracounty.htm  Figure 3. Source: Erie County Native Map: http://www.smithancestry.com/places/erie/erie.htm 

• The Seneca Nation, with over 8,000 members, has five reservations in New York—Cattaraugus, Allegany, Oil Spring, Niagara and Buffalo. The City of Salamanca on the Allegany reservation is known as the “only city in the world entirely on an Indian reservation.” Unlike many other tribes, the Seneca Nation owns its territories (most other territories are held in trust for a nation by the U.S. government).18 Today, there are approximately 175 fluent speakers of the Seneca language.19 

• The Tuscarora reservation is 9.3 square miles located about 20 minutes from Niagara Falls, mostly in Niagara County but with a portion in Erie County. There are 1,140 people living on the reservation. There are roughly 15 fluent speakers of the language in Western New York and North Carolina.20

The Tuscarora, prior to the arrival of Europeans, migrated south from what is now Ontario and Western New York to what is now known as Eastern Carolina. After the Tuscarora Wars (1711-1713) against the English colonists in that region, most surviving Tuscarora migrated back north to areas near Pennsylvania and New York. With similar cultural and linguistic Iroquoian connections, they quickly aligned with the Iroquois of New York. In 1722, Tuscarora was accepted as the Sixth Nation of the Haudenosaunee. In 1803, a final group of Tuscarora migrated to Western New York and after that, the Tuscarora in New York no longer considered



those who remained in the south as part of their nation. Today, the Tuscarora who allied with the colonists and the Oneida during the American Revolution are recognized by the United States government as the Tuscarora Nation of New York and have a reservation that is surrounded by the Town of Lewiston. The Tuscarora who allied with the British during this time were resettled to present-day Ontario and are part of the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, which is officially recognized by the Canadian government.

In the United States, the historical designation of a Native group as either a tribe, nation, pueblo or band was dependent on colonial administrators who were often unfamiliar with indigenous political practices and the fluidity of social structures. Historically, for many indigenous people, there was considerable flexibility of residence because of their foraging economies. Today, in the post-reservation era, groups that maintain their political independence (and who are often affiliated with designated land bases) are known as nations, tribes or pueblos, while those who may share a similar heritage to these groups but who have formed subsidiary units are denoted as bands.

The Tonawanda Band of Seneca is a federally recognized tribe who have maintained their traditional form of government by Seneca chiefs, called sachems, appointed by clan mothers. In 1838, the U.S. signed the Second Treaty of Buffalo Creek with the six tribal nations in Western New York as part of the Indian Removal program. Under the Treaty, the Ogden Land Company would buy the four Seneca reservations in New York and the proceeds would be used to relocate the Nation to the Kansas Territory. In 1842, the U.S. entered the Third Treaty of Buffalo Creek, which clarified that the Odgen Land Company had purchased only two reservations, including the Tonawanda Reservation, but not the Cattaraugus or Allegany reservations. The Senecas of the Tonawanda Reservation refused to leave their land since they had not been consulted in this treaty, nor had their chiefs signed it. In 1848, the Seneca of Cattaraugus, Allegany, and Oil Springs adopted a republican constitution and government, electing a council and executive officials to govern their lands. The Tonawanda Band opted out of participating in the republic and seceded to reestablish their own traditional government, using the proceeds from their land sale to buy back most of the Tonawanda Reservation.

Today, most of those who identify as American Indian reside off of tribal reserves—about 78 percent.21 The Buffalo Niagara metropolitan region is considered one of the top 15 major metropolitan areas for Native populations, with one percent of the people identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native in the Census, for a total of 12,017 residents [See Table 1].22

In the United States, the historical designation of a Native group as either a tribe, nation, pueblo or band was dependent on colonial administrators who were often unfamiliar with indigenous political practices and the fluidity of social structures.

Today, most people who identify as American Indian (about 78 percent) reside off of tribal reserves



Major Urban American Indian & Alaskan Native Population 

Table 1: Source: Table DP-1, Profile General Demographic Characteristics: U.S. Census 2000. Based on Primary and Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas. 

Looking more broadly at the eight counties of Western New York, Natives total over 19,000 residents and comprise over 1.3% of the population (Allegany and Wyoming Counties do not report enough Native residents for Census figures).23 The history of genocide, forced migration, and broken political treaties since the time of contact with European immigrants in the 17th century continues to affect Native communities in Western New York as well as across the nation. While the U.S. government and Native tribes have made efforts in recent times to reaffirm tribal sovereignty, renew cultural practices, and reduce health, education, and economic disparities, many challenges persist.24

Looking more broadly at the eight counties of Western New York, Natives total over 19,000 residents and comprise over 1.3% of the population. 




Local History 

In order to understand Native communities today, it is important to understand the events and context that have shaped them. Several events in particular have molded the Indigenous communities of Western New York.


Centuries ago, the nations of the Haudenosaunee united to form a confederacy, establishing peace in what is now Upstate New York. This confederacy influenced the U.S. Constitution, as the U.S. Senate acknowledged in a 1988 resolution: “the confederation of the original thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced…by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”.25 At a Cornell University conference in 1987, some 200 scholars examined scholarly and historical evidence that the world’s oldest living democracy is the Six Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois.26

Centuries ago, the nations of the Haudenosaunee united to form a confederacy, establishing peace in what is now Upstate New York.





The Treaty of Canandaigua, also known as the Pickering Treaty, signed in 1794 between the federal government and Haudenosaunee Confederacy of New York, promised the Haudenosaunee one million acres of land and annual payments of cash and goods in exchange for their support in the Revolutionary War.27

One of the most important treaties for the Seneca Nation is the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842, which established that the Nation would have full use of the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories, meaning that these lands are not held in trust by the federal government like most reservations but are owned by the Seneca Nation.28


The Thomas Indian School was founded in 1855 on the Cattaraugus Seneca Reservation and operated for almost 200 years. Because it was founded as an orphanage, unlike federally funded boarding schools like Carlisle, it is often lost in conversations about boarding schools. It began as a somewhat benevolent institution, taking in Native children from across New York State and helping children to learn their Iroquois languages. Unfortunately, the structure of the school changed in 1875 when the State Board of Charities took over. Thousands of Native children were sent there, and very few reunited with their parents or siblings, let alone with their culture, language, or way of life.

Generations of Native children were harmed by the dissolution of Native families caused, in part, by schools such as Thomas and Carlisle, which historians have deemed one of the most destructive agents of forced assimilation. When the children were finally released, they were often estranged from their parents and left with no place to go. Many children left the schools harboring feelings of resentment and abandonment, and without the self-esteem or skills necessary for survival in a world from which they had been isolated and were ill-prepared to enter.29 Many of today’s Native elders in Western New York attended the Thomas Indian school.


The building of the Kinzua Dam on the Alleghany River near Salamanca in 1965 was a momentous event in Western New York history. The construction of the dam displaced more than 600 Seneca nation members and submerged 10,000 acres, nearly one-third of Seneca territory. Homes and forests were burned and then flooded. Two thousand graves, including the 1836 grave of Chief Cornplanter, were moved, but many other graves were lost. This land grab broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, signed by President George Washington, and resulted in the loss of considerable fertile soils.30 The majority of Seneca had practiced traditional ways until being

Generations of Native children were harmed by the dissolution of Native families caused, in part, by schools such as Thomas and Carlisle, which historians have deemed one of the most destructive agents of forced assimilation.



displaced by the Dam project and deeply resented the forcible change to their way of life.31
In 1964, the Seneca lost an appeal over the relocation of a four-lane highway through the remaining portion of the Allegany Reservation
.32 This caused the loss of more land to the interstate, which divided the reservation territory. The construction of the road and dam divided tribal members who had long lived side-by-side and separated two communities that now must travel significant distances to see their friends and family.


In 1960, the construction of the Niagara Falls Power project in what is now Lewiston marked another significant blow to the region’s Native population. Led by Robert Moses, New York State seized 550 acres of the Tuscarora reservation through eminent domain to form a reservoir. Moses’s initial offer to the Tuscarora tribe was just $1,000 per acre, while at the same time he was offering adjacent Niagara University $50,000 per acre.33 The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the State.34 As a result of this project, 37 homes were destroyed and 175 members of the Tuscarora tribe were displaced. Fishing on the reserve, which had played a significant role in providing food to Native families, became almost nonexistent.35


Constructed in Cattaraugus County in the late 1800s and incorporated in the early 1900s, Salamanca was once a booming railroad town. It is the only city in the U.S. that lies completely within a Native reservation—the Seneca Nation Territory. In 1892, roughly 3,000 non-Native people of Salamanca received leases to rent the Seneca land for 99 years in exchange for a total payment to the Nation of only $17,000 per year.36 In 1991, when the leases expired (after some extensions), the Nation requested increased rents and restitution. Tensions ran high, with the Senecas seeking to rectify years of exploitation by whites and non-Natives outraged that Native residents of Salamanca did not pay local taxes on their tribal land. Ultimately, the Seneca Nation increased rents dramatically (in some cases from $24 to $2000 per year), and leases were limited to 40 years.


Today, Natives in Western New York continue to remind residents of the area’s history and to influence local culture and politics. In 2015, Lancaster High School changed their 70-year-old name, “Redskins,” to the “Legends.” School board members recognized the old name as a “symbol of ethnic stereotyping” that could be “hurtful and disrespectful to others.”.37 That same year, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown signed legislation to

Moses’s initial offer to the Tuscarora tribe was just $1,000 per acre, while at the same time he was offering adjacent Niagara University $50,000 per acre.




change the name of Squaw Island to Unity Island38 (the Oxford English, Webster’s and Miriam Webster’s dictionaries have all cited the word “squaw” as an insult).39 In addition, some school districts, including Niagara Wheatfield, have decided to rename “Columbus Day” as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” due to the history of slavery, genocide, and kidnappings linked to the Italian explorer.40 Indigenous people continue to push for more widespread adoption of this policy and to remind the public that Native people are “still here.”41

Belief Systems and Cultural Values 

Traditionally, Haudenosaunee social life was communal and structured around seasonal agriculture and hunting. Elders were, and continue to be, highly respected, seen as a source of wisdom, guidance, and spirituality, and consulted when making decisions within the family or the community.42 The concept of family in many tribes is quite elastic when compared to the modern Western European concept of a nuclear family; it includes not just parents and children, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, community elders, and family friends.43 Many tribes in Western New York have a matrilineal system, with lineage passed down through the mother or female side of the family.44

Regardless of specific religious beliefs, spirituality is a core component of Native identity, and spiritual practices permeate traditional daily life.45 Practices and rituals are generally centered on respect for the earth, reverence for the gifts of nature, and responsibility for stewardship of the land.46 Most Native tribes hold the land they live on as sacred; it is considered both a physical and spiritual homeland that ties past and future generations together.47 Many tribes and nations share cultural values that emphasize restraint, patience, and being grounded in the present.48 Polite body language is important, and Western European customs such as direct eye contact and vigorous hand shaking can be viewed as aggression or dominance.49 

Language and Education 

In the United States today, 28% of people who identify as American Indian and Alaska Native speak a language other than English at home.50 In Western New York, 87.5% of AI/AN peoples speak only English at home and 8.2% speak another language.51 Many tribes would like to see this percentage increase and are making concerted efforts at the local and national level to increase funding and programming to teach youth their tribal languages.52

Directly related to efforts to reaffirm native culture and language is a growing body of reforms to education; nationally, Native students fall consistently below average in terms of high school and college graduation

Regardless of specific religious beliefs, spirituality is a core component of Native identity, and spiritual practices permeate traditional daily life.

Native students fall consistently below average in terms of high school and college graduation rates, and their academic success is measurably lower than white peers.









rates, and their academic success is measurably lower than their white peers.53 In 2015, the national high school graduation rate for all students reached an all-time high at 82%, while Native students experienced a stagnant rate of 69.6%.54 Only 52 percent of Native students who graduated in 2004 enrolled in college immediately after high school, as compared with 74% of white students.55 Of all Native students who enrolled in a four-year institution in the fall of 2004, only 39 percent completed a bachelor’s degree by 2010 (compared to 62% of white students).56

In Western New York, too, higher education rates lag. In 2012, 17% of Native residents of Western New York age 25 and older held at least a Bachelor’s degree, in comparison to 33% of white residents.57 Native residents comprise 1.4% of high school graduates, which means they are actually more likely to graduate from high school, but they are less represented in most higher education programs: Associate’s (1%), Bachelor’s (0.6%), Master’s (0.5%) and Professional (0.6%) degrees. Interestingly, though, Natives are over-represented in individuals obtaining Doctorate degrees, accounting for 1.4%.

When it comes to K-12 students, the picture is brighter in Western New York than in many regions. State data on Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers, and Syracuse shows that AI/AN students in these cities perform on par with non-Native students. Today, efforts to improve education outcomes continue through things like school infrastructure improvements that bring computer technology and high-speed internet to Bureau of Indian Education-run schools and increased collaboration with tribal leadership on education policy.58 

Health and Health Outcomes 

Traditional Native American approaches to healthcare reflect a holistic worldview. Health and illness are viewed within a larger context of connection to spirit, community, and the earth.59 The word ‘medicine’ has a more expansive definition for Indigenous people than in the West, including sacred prayers and ceremony, and healers are spiritual leaders.60 Healers learn practices passed down through generations, and every tribe has its unique methods such as herbal medicine, sweat lodges, and drumming, among others.61

Native healthcare is specifically protected and provided for by the federal government and administered by the Indian Health Services (IHS). Despite this, Native peoples experience severe health disparities compared to the general population. Nationally, Native Americans born today have a life expectancy that is 4.4 years less than the U.S average; they are also more likely to die from diabetes, tuberculosis, and suicide than any other group.62 Suicide is the second leading cause of death—2.5 times the national rate— for Native youth in the 15 to 24 year old age group.63 Many of these

Of all Native students who enrolled in a four- year institution in the fall of 2004, only 39 percent completed a bachelor’s degree by 2010 (compared to 62% of white students).

Health and illness are viewed within a larger context of connection to spirit, community, and the earth.



outcomes are linked to historical traumas and inadequate federal funding.64 The IHS is chronically underfunded, spending an average of $5,000 less per person compared to the national average, and less than half of low-income, uninsured AI/AN people have access to IHS healthcare.65

Recognizing the scale of the challenges, the IHS has made efforts to improve services, giving tribes greater management over healthcare delivery, providing more healthcare support for Natives who live in urban areas, and incorporating more cultural awareness in service delivery.66 As more healthcare practitioners devote attention and research to the needs of Native American patients, more effort is being made to blend traditional healthcare philosophies with Western medical treatments.67 

Economy and Employment 

Historical trauma, a lack of economic and educational investment, discrimination, and the physical isolation of reservations all play a role in the persistent economic disparities Native communities face.68 Nationally, Native poverty and unemployment rates are double the average, and median incomes average $13,000 less.69 The median household income, in 2015 inflation-adjusted dollars, is $40,465 for AI/AN communities in Western New York – $8,100 lower than the general population’s median income. In Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Erie counties, unemployment for AI/AN peoples is a full 6% higher than the general population.70 Of local Native people, most work in three industries: management, business, sciences, arts, and occupation services (30.2%), service occupation (24%), and sales and office occupations (22.6%).71


Geography Pop. Group Median household income
U.S. AI/AN 40,271 Total pop. 53,889 Cattaraugus AI/AN 26,412 Total pop. 42,601 Erie AI/AN 30,455 Total pop. 51,247 Genesee AI/AN Total pop. 48,313 50,880 Niagara AI/AN 35,455 Total pop. 49,449 Orleans AI/AN 61,691 Total pop. 46,359

In the last decade, as a result of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, over 50 percent of mental health programs and over 80 percent of alcohol and substance abuse programs have transitioned from IHS to tribal control.

Nationally, Native poverty and unemployment rates are double the average, and median incomes average $13,000 less.




The most successful economic sector for Native populations in New York State is casinos and gaming, which bring in tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually.72 The Seneca Nation is the fifth largest employer in Western New York, with three casinos (Seneca Allegany, Seneca Niagara and Seneca Buffalo Creek) that employ over 3,500 people.73 Indian nations in Western New York and around the country are working to create other avenues for economic growth, including tourism, construction, retail, and manufacturing.74 Tribal governments are also partnering with the federal government to create economic opportunity, as seen in legislation like the HEARTH act, passed in 2012, which gives tribes the ability to determine lease regulations and reduce barriers to leasing land for residential and business use.

The Seneca Nation is the fifth largest employer in Western New York, with three casinos that employ over 3,500 people.







As people, policymakers, and community organizations continue conversation about Buffalo and Western New York, it is important to understand and acknowledge the Indigenous history of this area and the people who continue to live, work and recreate here. This publication was prepared in consultation with various Indigenous stakeholders and allies, and we thank them for their assistance. We welcome any feedback or clarification should additional information become available.




WNY Native Etymologies 

Appalachian means “From where the messenger returned” in Lenape.

Buffalo means “Beautiful Water” or “Beautiful River.” The meaning and derivation of the name continues to be a discussion point among residents and historians. No one contests that the original settlement, and later the city, was named for the creek on which it was located, but how that creek got its name is hotly disputed. One Indian derivation theory postulates that an Indian named “Buffalo” lived on the creek, prompting the early non-natives to call the stream “Buffalo’s Creek.” This Seneca was said to have been a member of the Wolf clan and called “De-gi-yah-goh” or “Buffalo” by his tribe. Although several theories involve Indian names, there are an equal number that revolve around the early French explorers. These French- based theories include that the name comes from the French words “Beau Fleuve”, meaning, “Beautiful River,” or Boeuf a Leau” meaning “Oxen or Cattle at the Water.”

Canada means “Village,” a small town or community. The word comes from an aboriginal word: “Kanata.” Canada was the first country in the world to adopt an official policy of multiculturalism (respect, equality and diversity), recognizing that it is an asset to the growth and future of their country.

Canandaigua derives from the Seneca name of its historic village, “Konondaigua,” which was established long before any European Amer- icans came to the area. In a modern transcription, the historic village is rendered as tganodæ:gweh, which means “the chosen spot” or “at the chosen town.”75

Cattaraugus derives its name from the Indian word “Gah-ta-ra-ke-ras,” signifying “Sinking Shore” or “Sinking Beach,” originally applied to Lake Erie and then extended to the adjacent country.

Cayuga means “Boat Landing.” The name also refers to one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Chautauqua has two longstanding folk translations: “bag tied in the middle” and “place where fish are taken out.”76

Cheektowaga is from the Erie-Seneca Indian word, Ji-ik-do-wah-gah, meaning “Place of the Crabapple Tree.” The earliest Indian dwellers were Neuters, who lost their lands to the Seneca tribe of the League of the Iroquois.77



Erie was the name of a Native people who lived along the southern shore of Lake Erie. It is unclear whether the lake was named after the tribe, or the tribe was called Erie because of its proximity to the lake. The Iroquoian tribe called the lake “Erige” (“cat”) because of its unpredictable and sometimes dangerous nature.78

Gowanda is a Seneca word meaning “Beautiful Valley Among the Hills.”

Keuka means “canoe landing” in the Iroquois language and “lake with an elbow” in the Seneca language. Keuka Lake is unusual because it is Yshaped, in contrast to the long and narrow shape of the other Finger Lakes. Because of its shape, it was referred to in the past as Crooked Lake.

Kinzua, site of the controversial new dam in Pennsylvania, was named by the Senecas. The correct pronunciation, according to them, is ‘Kin-zu-ah,’ not the commonly heard ‘Kin-zoo.’ The ‘Kinzu-’ part derives from a Seneca word signifying ‘fish’ and the ‘ah’ is a suffix meaning ‘penetrated’ or ‘speared.’ The whole expression therefore means “fish on a spear.”79

Lackawanna means “stream that forks” in Lenape. It was given to a river in Pennsylvania. Western New York’s Lackawanna was named after the Lackawanna Steel Company—which was founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania before opening up in the suburb of Buffalo now known as Lackawanna.

Niagara derives from the Iroquois name for the river On-ga-ria or Onguia-ahra meaning “The Throat” or “The Strait.” “Niagara” is a simpli- fication of the original. Other sources have the translation as “Thunder of Waters.”80

Oswego is a Mohawk name that means “flowing out” or specifically, “small water flowing into that which is large.”81

Scajaquada derives from the name of Philip Conjockety, who was also known as Ska-dyoh-gwa-deh meaning “Beyond the Multitude.” Scajaquada creek was originally named Conjockety Creek. 82

Tonawanda means “Land by the Waters.” It was given to the town by the Neuter and Erie Indians, the area’s original inhabitants. This is most likely from the Tuscarora tahnawá•teh, which means “merging water.” It could also mean “swift waters,” which would certainly describe the Niagara River as it heads towards the falls.83

Toronto means “Meeting Place,” which is appropriate since it has been called the world’s most multicultural city.

Tuscarora means “Shirt Wearers.” It is derived from Skarureh, meaning “long shirt people,” which refers to the long shirt worn by Tuscarora men.

The correct pronunciation, according to them, is ‘Kin-zu-ah,’ not the commonly heard ‘Kin-zoo.’



WNY Local Resources 

In addition to the many individuals who are knowledgeable about Haudenosaunee history and contemporary communities in WNY, the organizations below are all hubs, connectors, and disseminators of this knowledge.

Oneida Indian Nation 
Genesee Street Oneida, NY 13421 

St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians 
412 State Route 37 Akwesasne, New York 13655 

Seneca Nation 
PO Box 231 Salamanca, NY 14779 

Cayuga Nation of Indians 
PO Box 11 Versailles, NY 14168 

Tonawanda Band of Senecas 
7027 Meadville Rd Basom, NY 14013

Tuscarora Nation 
5226 Walmore Rd. Lewiston, NY 14092

Onondaga Nation 
3951 Route 11 
Nedrow, NY 13120 
http://www.onondaganation.org/ admin@onondaganation.org

Shinnecock Indian Nation 
PO Box 5006 
Southampton, NY 11969 

Cornell University Indigenous Studies Program 

UB Native Grad Student Association 

UB, the Haudenosaunee-Native American Studies Research Group 

Native American Community Services of Erie & Niagara Counties, Inc. 
1005 Grant Street Buffalo, NY 14207 
or phill@nacswny.org

SNI Buffalo Native Resource Center 
135 Delaware Avenue, Suite 300 
Buffalo, NY 14202

Indian Health Services, Lockport Services Unit 
6507 Wheeler Road Lockport, NY 14094
Native American Resource Program @ Native American Magnet School #19 97 W. Delavan Ave., Room 215 Buffalo, NY 14213 716-816-3183

Buffalo State Native American Student Organization 




1 Stefan Lovgren, “Who Were the First Americans?” National Geographic, September 3, 2016. Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/ news/2003/09/0903_030903_bajaskull.html

2 United States Census Bureau, “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2017,” November 2017. Available from: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/cb17-ff20.pdf.

3 American Indian Policy Institute, “2013 Demographics on American Indians & Alaska Natives,” Arizona State University, accessed September 2017. Available from: https://aipi.clas.asu.edu/content/demographicshttps://aipi.clas.asu.edu/content/demographics.

4 8 U.S.C. § 1401 (a)(2).

5 Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831).

6 Ibid. 

7 New York State Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, “Governor Cuomo and Seneca Nation of Indians Announce Landmark Agreement, June 13, 2013. Available from: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomoand-seneca-nation-indians-announce-landmarkagreement.

8 Pedro Ruiz, “Native American Indian Language & Culture in New York,” New York State Education Department, 2012. Available from: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/media/users/xr1/Language_n_Cultural_Awareness/NativeAmericanCultureLanguageNY2-27-13.pdf.

9 Haudenosaunee Confederacy, accessed September 2017. Available from: http://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/.

10  Ryan M. Kasak, “A distant genetic relationship between Siouan-Catawban and Yuchi,” in Rudin, Catherine and Bryan J. Gordon (Ed.) Advances in the study of Siouan languages and linguistics, 2016, pp. 5-38.

11 Wallace Chafe, English - Seneca Dictionary, p. 88.

12 I. Goddard, "Synonymy," in G. Trigger (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Northeast (Vol. 15, pp. 319-321), 1978. 

13 Onondaga Nation, “Hiawatha Belt,” accessed September 2017. Available from: http://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/hiawatha-belt/.

14 Ruiz.

15 Ruiz, and Christopher Moseley, Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd ed., Paris, UNESCO Publishing, 2010. Available from: http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/endangeredlangua ges/atlas.

16 Ruiz.

17 Ibid.

18 Seneca Nation, “Birth of a Nation,” accessed September 2017. Available from: https://sni.org/culture/birth-of-a-nation/.

19 Moseley, 2010.

20 Ibid.

21 United States Census Bureau, November 2017. 

22 “Urban Indian America: The Status of American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Families Today,” National Urban Indian Family Coalition, January 2008. Available from: http://www.aecf.org/resources/urban-indianamerica/.

23 Given that the results of the census data did not populate AI/AN results for Allegany or Wyoming counties, we did not include them in the data analysis in this fact sheet.



24 The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: Strengthening Tribal Communities through Education and Economic Development,” June 2014. Available from: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-pressoffice/2014/06/13/fact-sheet-strengthening-tribalcommunities-through-education-and-econom.

25 100th Congress 2nd Session, H. Con. Res. 331. III, Concurrent Resolution, October 5, 1988. Available from: https://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/hco nres331.pdf .

26 Bruce Johnson, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy, 1982; Nancy Dieter Egloff, “’Six Nations of Ignorant Savages:’ Benjamin Franklin and the Iroquois League of Nations,” 1987, M.A . thesis, College of William and Mary; Kirke Kickingbird and Lynn Shelby Kickingbird, Indians and the United States Constitution: A Forgotten Legacy, Oklahoma City and Washington, DC: Institute for the Development of Indian Law, 1987.

27 Seneca Nation, “Frequently Asked Questions,” accessed September 2017. Available from: https://sni.org/faq/; Hansi Lo Wang, “Broken Promises On Display At Native American Treaties Exhibit,” National Public Radio Code Switch, January 18, 2015. Available from: http://www.npr.org/sections/ codeswitch/2015/01/18/368559990/brokenpromises-on-display-at-native-american-treatiesexhibit.

28 Seneca Nation of Indians, “Frequently Asked Questions.”

29 Keith R. Burich, “’No place to go’: the Thomas Indian School and the ‘forgotten’ Indian Children of New York,” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2007, p. 93+. Available from: 

30 Seneca Nation of Indians v. United States, 262 F. 2d 27 (1958).

31 Terry Belke, “The Tragedy of the Kinzua Dam”, June 3, 2017, WGRZ. Available from: http://www.wgrz.com/article/sports/outdoors/thetragedy-of-the-kinzua-dam/445448395.

32 Seneca Nation of Indians v. United States, 338 F. 2d 55 (1964).

33 Ginger Strand. Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).

34 Federal Power Commission v. Tuscarora Indian Nation, 362 U.S. 99 (1960).

35 Pierre Berton. Niagara: A History of the Falls. (New York: McClelland and Stewart, 1992).

36 Elizabeth Kolbert, “Indians Bill New York Town As Its 99-Year Leases Expire,” New York Times, June 11, 1990. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/11/nyregion/indian s-bill-new-york-town-as-its-99-year-leases-expire.html.

37 Philip Victor, “New York school district drops ‘disrespectful’ Redskins name,” June 9, 2015. Available from: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/9/nyschool-district-changes-redskins-name.html

38 Harold McNeil, “Farewell, Squaw Island. Hello, Unity Island,” Buffalo News, June 23, 2015. Available from: http://buffalonews.com/2015/06/23/farewell-squawisland-hello-unity-island/.  See also “Unity Island becomes official name of Niagara River plot,” July 6, 2015. Available from: http://buffalonews.com/2015/07/06/unity-islandbecomes-official-name-of-niagara-river-plot/.

39 “Squaw Island: Time to Change the Name,” Buffalo Rising, November 23, 2014. Available from: https://www.buffalorising.com/2014/11/squaw-islandtime-to-change-the-name/.

40 Bretton Keenan, “Niagara Wheatfield School District to rename “Columbus Day” as “indigenous Peoples Day,” WKBW Buffalo, September 28, 2016. Available from: https://www.wkbw.com/news/niagarawheatfield-school-district-honors-those-who-died-atthe-hands-of-columbus-and-his-men.



41 Justin Moore, “Push to make Indigenous People’s Day a holiday in Buffalo,” WKBW Buffalo, October 10, 2016. Available from: https://www.wkbw.com/news/push-to-makeindigenous-peoples-day-a-holiday-in-buffalo.

42 Patricia Clark and Norma Sherman, “The Importance of Elders and Family in Native American Culture,” March/April 2011, Horizons. Available from: http://blog.nrcprograms.org/wpcontent/uploads/2011/05/importance1.pdf.

43 Levanne Hendrix, “Health and Health Care of American Indian and Alaska Native Elders,” Stanford University, accessed September 2016. Available from: http://web.stanford.edu/group/ethnoger/americanind ian.html.

44 The Seneca Nation of Indians, accessed September 2017. Available from: https://sni.org/.

45 Christopher Jocks and Lawrence Sullivan, “Native American Religions,” Enyclopedia Brittanica, March 14, 2016. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Native-Americanreligion.

46 Ruiz.

47 Annette Alvarez, “Native American Tribes and Economic Development,” Urban Land Magazine, Urban Land Institute, April 19, 2011. Available from: http://urbanland.uli.org/developmentbusiness/native-american-tribes-and-economicdevelopment.

48 Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute, “Traditional Native American Values and Behaviors,” Evergreen State College, accessed September 15, 2017. Available from: http://nwindian.evergreen.edu/curriculum/ValuesBeh aviors.pdf.

49 American Indian Disability Technical Assistance Center, “Issue Brief #2- Improving Cross-cultural Communications: Awareness of Native American Cultures,” March 2007. Available from: http://ruralinstitute.umt.edu/images/tanac_issues_bri efs/Issues_Brief_2007_2.pdf.

50 United States Census Bureau, “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.”+

51 American Community Survey Tables, ACS 2015 (5Year Estimates), Social Explorer, generated September 2017. Available from: https://www.socialexplorer.com/tables/ACS2015_5yr/ R11463996.

52 Tanya Lee, “Speaking of Languages: Educators Back Native American Language Bills,” Indian Country Today Media Network, June 21, 2014. Available from: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/0 6/21/speaking-languages-educators-back-nativeamerican-language-bills-155398?page=0%2C0.

53 United States Census Bureau, “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.”

54 Ibid.

55 National Center for Education Statistics, “Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study,” (Washington, D.C.: April 2012). Available from: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012046.pdf.

56 National Center for Education Statistics, “2001 Enrollment in Post-secondary Institutions, Fall 2010; Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2010; and Graduation Rates, Selected Cohorts, 2002–07.” Available from: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012280.pdf.

57 National Center for Education Statistics, “The Condition of Education (NCES 201-144), 2017. Available from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017144.pdf.

58 The White House Office of the Press Secretary.

59 International Association of Providers of AIDS Care, “Fact Sheet 708: Native American/Alaska Native Traditional Healing,” AIDSInfoNet, April 21, 2014. Available from: http://www.aidsinfonet.org/fact_sheets/view/708.

60 K. Cohen, Honoring the medicine: An essential guide to Native American healing. New York, NY: Ballantine Books; 2006.

61 International Association of Providers of AIDS Care.




62 Indian Health Services, “Indian Health Disparities Fact Sheet,” April 2017.

63 Pamela Hyde, Adm’r, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Servs. Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Services, Behavioral Health and Tribal Communities, February 2011. Available from: http://www.store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA11PHYDE020811/SMA11-PHYDE020811.pdf.

64 M.M Sotero “A Conceptual Modal of Historical Trauma: Implications for Public Health Practice and Research,” Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice 1(1): 93–108. 2006.

65 Misha Friedman, “For Native Americans, Health Care Is a Long Hard Road Away,” National Public Radio, April 13, 2016. Available from: https://www.npr.org/sections/healthshots/2016/04/13/473848341/health-care-s-hardrealities-on-the-reservation-a-photo-essay.

66 Indian Health Services, “Behavioral Health,” October 2016. Available from: https://www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/behavioral health/.

67 “Alternative Methods Still Important to Native Healers,” Native Daughters, accessed September 2017. Available from: http://cojmc.unl.edu/nativedaughters/healers/alternative-methods-still-important-to-native-healers.

68 Katherine Peralta, “Native Americans Left Behind in the Economic Recovery,” U.S. News and World Report, November 27, 2014. Available from: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/11/27/native-americans-left-behind-in-the-economic-recovery.

69 Ibid.

70 American Community Survey Tables.

71 Ibid.

72 “Gaming,” National Congress of American Indians, accessed September 2017. Available from: http://www.ncai.org/policy-issues/economicdevelopment-commerce/gaming.

73 The Seneca Nation of Indians.

74 Mark Fogarty, “The Growing Economic Might of Indian Country,” Indian Country Today Media Network, March 15, 2013. Available from: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/0 3/15/growing-economic-might-indian-country-14896; Conrad Wilson, “Native American Tribes Venture Out of Casino Business,” National Public Radio, February 21, 2013. Available from: http://www.npr.org/2013/02/21/172630938/nativeamerican-tribes-venture-out-of-casino-business.

75 William Bright, Native American place names of the United States, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, p. 79.

76 “Stories behind names of many familiar places,” Olean Times Herald, February 7, 2016. Available from: http://www.oleantimesherald.com/news/stateand-union-stories-behind-names-of-many-familiarplaces/article_cd071cee-cd48-11e5-815367db9ca5a039.html.

77 “Town of Cheektowaga – History,” Town of Cheektowaga, New York, accessed September 2017. Available from: http://www.tocny.org/Home/TownHistory.aspx.

78 Great Lakes Information Network, “Lake Erie – Facts and Figures," Retrieved September 2017.

79 Olean Times Herald.

80 Henry R. Schoolcraft. Notes on the Iroquois, 1847, pp. 453–454; George R. Stewart. Names on the Land. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967) p. 

81 William Martin Beauchamp, Aboriginal Place Names of New York (New York State Museum Bulletin, Volume 108), New York State Education Department, 1907, p. 171.

82 Angela Keppell, “The Many Lives of the Scajaquada: grassy banks, navy year, battleground, trash dump, highway, creek,” Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time, July 2017. Available from: https://buffalostreets.com/tag/philip-kenjockety/.

83 Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Marshall Lloyd. League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1904) Book III, p. 129