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  • Seneca Storytelling:Effect of the Kinzua Dam on Interpretations of Supernatural Stories
  • Melissa Borgia (bio)

Supernatural tales among the Seneca and other Iroquois, or Hodinöhŝyönih,1 nations have been a critical part of their culture before recorded history and are still enjoyed today. While the specific content and way of telling the stories may have changed over time, the popularity of supernatural themes remains, and many of the stories’ characters still feature prominently in both text and storytelling in the community. The building of the Kinzua Dam on the Seneca Allegany Territory in the late 1960s and the subsequent upheaval in the community have deepened the tradition of stories about supernatural incidents. The upheaval has also served as a means through which old stories have gained strength and aided community members removed by the dam’s construction in overcoming those tragic events.

A possible vehicle promoting interest in supernatural themes and Seneca storytelling traditions is the desire to bring together tellers and listeners to strengthen the community against outside threats. Numerous threats to the traditional way of life and landbase have plagued the Iroquois—including the Seneca—since pre-Revolutionary times. The Indigenous people of the region have faced centuries of outside pressures and banded together against them: from the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree that ceded Seneca lands and created reservations in New York, to boarding school enforcement, notably the Thomas Indian School in operation from 1855 until 1956, to New York Thruway incursions during the mid-twentieth century, to the building of dams including the Kinzua Dam, which was ostensibly built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1963 for energy and to control flooding in Pittsburgh, hundreds of miles downstream on the Allegheny River. The location of the dam was especially devastating to the Seneca people since it flooded the gravesite of Cornplanter, warrior and diplomat during the Revolutionary War era, and the vision-site of spiritual leader, Handsome Lake. The dam’s construction flooded one-third of the Allegany Territory, displaced hundreds of Seneca people, and caused the relocation of cemeteries and the longhouse, a place of worship. As people who enjoy an ancient oral history, the Seneca enjoin their community members to lift their spirits during trying times and to maintain legends typifying themes such as winning battles, glorifying heroic figures, and overcoming supernatural beings. The resurgence in supernatural stories mirrors the resurgence of the community itself while the pressures have changed over time.

When asked about supernatural stories in the Kinzua Dam take area, many locals will share their own accounts. Allegany resident Tyler C. Heron shared his perspective of the storytelling traditions at Allegany, the personal twists on these old stories, and the effect of the dam on the telling of contemporary versions. His generation is a bridge between the elders featured in Alberta Austin’s That’s What It Was Like (1986), a collection of interviews with elders who were born in the early twentieth century and with today’s youth. Heron explains the contemporary setting for storytelling, old and new purposes for stories, and the effect of English today. Throughout his account are references to the importance of family and community, as well as losses incurred by the Kinzua Dam.

Despite these changes to communities within the region affected by the dam, modern stories are still redolent of some themes of previous generations, while new themes have also emerged. The characterization and array of supernatural beings, for instance, has remained relatively consistent, but the context now includes modern settings that reflect the changes seen by the dam’s construction. Through all these modern influences, and especially during Heron’s lifetime, even the language the tellers use to tell the stories has shifted from the Native tongue to English; in 1892—even after assimilation measures affected the language spoken—an estimated 2,000 Senecas spoke no English (Six Nations 1995), while there are arguably fewer than 50 native speakers today (Chafe 2007). Yet as the language has shifted, the content and significance have remained relatively stable.

As it is with storytelling variations across cultures, the Native storytellers may add a personal twist that changes each time a...

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