Native American Heritage Month 2019: Dancing with the Tonawanda Senecas


By Pinn Duong

On November 21st, GCC celebrated the Native American Heritage Month with Tonawanda Seneca Nation Dancers at the Harvest Festival. It was the first time I saw a Native American social dance and their lively garments and experienced the energy brought on by the social bonds between the dancers. They even invited many of the attendees to join in their rhythms and footsteps. 

Seneca was the largest of six Native American nations (the other five nations were Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscaroras) which comprised the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, a government that pre-dates the United States Constitution. As Seneca occupied the most western region of the Iroquois, they were known as the “Keeper of the Western Door.” The Seneca nation’s own name is Onödowága, meaning “People of the Mountains.” Present-day Senacas lives on three reservations: Tonawanda, Cattaraugus and Allegany, each named for the river in which they are located (1).

The Iroquois word for social dances – guyno, so, ohn anndwadek, note, gawdoe – translates as ‘a group of songs for entertainment purposes.’ Social dance comes at an early age in the traditional communities of the Iroquois. Expectant mothers would introduce melodic and rhythmic movements to their developing infants, accustoming their children to the flow of dancing and social bonding that comes with it.

Many social dances are associated with mammals such as the rabbit and racoon, duck, robin and pigeon. Almost every dance is led by the announcer who serves as a “caller” ensuring all the dancers stays on beat and doing the correct steps. Below are some of the common social dances across the Nations:

Women’s Dance

This social dance expresses gratitude for the fertility of Mother Earth and to the “Givers of Life” – corn, beans and squash – which are the complementary crops essential to the agriculture of the native tribes (2).

Corn dance

Corn is the leader within the “three sisters” of plants that provides ecological and nutritional balance. With its high nutrient requirements, corn crops can deplete the soils’ nutrients and needs its sisters, bean and squash crops, to enhance and protect the nutrients of the soil. Corn dance is performed in a double line which symbolized planted rows (2).

Smoke Dance

Originally a war dance, the likeliest origin of Smoke Dance probably has little to do with smoke, and more to do with war. The Six Nations had dances that would help warriors prepare for battle; once the wars stopped, the dances became ceremonial to their ancestors. These dances—performed solely by men at the time—were slow, heavy and dramatic, meant to incite the fortitude for combat. 

The Senecas were particularly skilled at warfare but were also sophisticated in diplomacy with the other five Nations. As war dances had lost their original inspiration over time, they became known as smoke dances (3).



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