Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


On August 31, 1964, after months ot disagreement between the House and Senate over how much to pay the Senecas—a disagreement caused to some extent by the corps’s influence in urging the Senate to cut down the original House figures and not pay the Indians except via the usual court proceedings—Congress passed a $15,000,573 reparations bill for the Senecas. But added to the bill was a disturbing amendment requiring the Secretary of the Interior to present to Congress within three years a plan for the termination of the Senecas’ relations with the federal government—in effect bringing to an end such things as the tax-exempt status of the reservation and federal approval of leases and trusteeship of Seneca land. (The plan was submitted at the end of the three-year period. That was in 1967, and although Congress has so far failed to act on the Senecas’ termination, it may do so at any time.)

Meanwhile, shortly after President Kennedy had shut the final door on them, the Senecas, who had fought hard to save their land, set about determinedly to prepare for the coming disruption. Under the leadership of George Heron, a past president of the Nation, they set up committees to pick relocation areas for new homes and cemeteries, to plan housing and new community centers, and to propose economic development projects that would aid the people in their new situation. When Congress’s appropriation became available in September, 1964, the Senecas were ready to move quickly. New ranch-type homes of varying designs were built during the wet and wintry months, in two tightly compressed areas that totalled 500 acres. One of them, named Jimersontown, near Salamanca, was laid out in 145 one-acre plots; the other, Steamburg, near the southern end of the reservation, had 160 plots of the same size. The Corps of Engineers built the streets in both of the new settlements. A family could own as many as three plots, but even so, the shift to suburban-type living, with houses close to each other, was a sharp change for people who had been used to privacy and a closeness to the woods and wild game. Other money was used to move 3,000 Seneca graves to two new cemeteries; to build a community center and tribal council headquarters on each reservation; to develop a sixty-acre industrial park on the Cattaraugus Reservation for industry that hopefully would employ Indians; and to set up a i.8-million-dollar educational fund for college and business and vocational school scholarships for young Senecas. In addition, twenty-five public housing rental units on the Allegany Reservation and thirty-five at Cattaraugus were erected with other federal funds.

The hubbub of moving was accentuated by a constant harassment from the engineers, whose plans called for completion of the dam in 1965 and who kept posting deadlines for the Indians to get out of the condemned area. In working with the leadership of the Senecas, the engineers behaved properly and according to orders and regulations, but many Senecas today remember only their cold and officious manner and recall them as the Sioux recall Custer.

It was traditional in the nineteenth century for the government, when it wanted something from the Indians, to promise them anything and then let someone else worry about carrying out the promise—which, more often than not, was never done. In the case of the Senecas, the government revived the tradition. By 1968, with the dam built and the engineers gone from the scene, the Senecas were well on their way to adjustment to a new life on their smaller reservation. But in scores of ways, hopes that the Indians had once held high were still unrealized. Complaints ranged from new homes left unfinished (front steps not provided from the porch to the ground) or already showing signs of shoddy construction, to frustrated attempts to bring revenue to the Nation through use of the area’s new recreational potential. Although the engineers, in response to President Kennedy’s letter, had led the Senecas to believe that they could profit from concessions on the reservoir, the Indians were indefinitely stalled: the water level at their end of the reservoir, the upper portion, rises and falls the most, and through much of the year contains great mud flats. Solving the problem by channelling or other means would have cost much more than the Indians could afford, especially since their concessions would be competing economically with other facilities (some of them free to the public) prepared by the engineers at the taxpayers’ expense lower down on the lake, where the water level is more constant.∗

∗ One way in which the Senecas hoped to profit from the expected flow of visitors was to create a multimillion-dollar tourist attraction called Iroquoia, which would project the Indians’ history and culture in a Williamsburg-like re-creation of Iroquois settlements of the past. The Senecas have not yet decided whether the plan is economically feasible.