Constructing Western Expansion: Reframing Settler Colonialism as a Negotiation

Elana Krischer

Nineteenth-century survey map of the Seneca reservations created by the Holland Land Company. “Map of Morris’s Purchase or West Geneseo in the State of New York.” Image courtesy of the State University of New York at Fredonia Archives & Special Collections; Municipal Archives of Amsterdam; Nederlandse document Reproductie B.V.

A portion of the New York State Thruway between Buffalo and the Pennsylvania border runs through the territory of the Seneca Nation. The Thruway itself has long been a source of contention between the Seneca Nation and New York, but in recent years has fallen into disrepair so severe that the state reduced the speed limit on the stretch of road by twenty miles per hour. Strained relations between New York and the Seneca Nation over casino revenue and other issues led the Seneca Nation to refuse New York’s plans for repairing the Thruway. The two recently came to an agreement about construction and repairs after New York officials agreed to listen to other Seneca complaints. As my recent JER article shows, the Seneca Nation’s strategy of asserting their sovereignty by withholding on agreements until the terms are satisfactory is one of many centuries-old strategies the Senecas used to negotiate settler colonialism and ensure a Seneca future amid settler pressures.

At the end of the American Revolution, the Senecas suddenly faced multiple, overlapping settler-colonial projects. The Senecas, the westernmost nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations), controlled what is now western New York at the end of the eighteenth century. Federal and state officials, missionaries, land speculators, and land companies all worked to dispossess the Senecas and gain control of their lands through a variety of means. Although extermination and removal were the overarching goal of all the settler groups involved, each settler group worked out what western expansion and their individual settler project would look like through their involvement with Seneca lands. The Senecas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries recognized what these individual projects were trying to do and strategized different ways to slow or counteract settler colonialism as individual settler groups were constructing it. Not only did the fragmented settler projects leave room for the Senecas to shape the boundaries of settler colonialism, the Senecas disagreed among themselves on how to negotiate settler colonialism and slow or stop western expansion.

At the heart of the Seneca strategies to keep their lands were repeated claims of sovereignty. During negotiations, the Senecas always used settler recognition of Seneca sovereignty to bolster their arguments and reframe the negotiations as discussions between sovereignties. These strategies were successful, and the Senecas remain on their homelands today. Examining Seneca strategy through time reveals that not only were the Senecas facing multiple, overlapping settler colonial projects but that settler colonialism is an ongoing process that does not yet have an endpoint. Most importantly, the Seneca story reveals that settler colonialism is a negotiated process that the Senecas had a hand in shaping.

These were not just rhetorical strategies. During negotiations with New York or the United States, the Senecas often had real leverage. This leverage came in the form of treaties with the United States, such as the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, or because the United States’ military, political, or economic stability hinged on Seneca actions. The Senecas did not always agree on strategy, but they did agree on maintaining land and sovereignty. In my recent JER piece, I show the many alternate strategies that the Senecas used during the nineteenth century as individuals or groups to negotiate settler colonialism and ensure the Senecas would continue to exist as a nation into the future. The Senecas disagreed about Christianity, removal, and governance and in doing so opened more opportunities for negotiation with settler groups and forced settler groups to reflect on the extent of their own projects. Rather than succumb to the pressures of settler colonialism, these eras of negotiation allowed the Senecas to rewrite the narrative of the nineteenth century that continued to include the Senecas as a sovereign nation.

The ways the Senecas negotiated settler colonialism illuminates new ways to conceptualize the narrative of the nineteenth century and beyond as it relates to western expansion. James K. Polk’s political maneuvering and Andrew Jackson’s removal tactics typify the way manifest destiny and American western expansion are taught. In these stories, brief moments of Native resistance ultimately end in the success of an all-encompassing, monolithic settler-colonial project. Taking a longer view of the Seneca story shows that through the negotiation of many settler-colonial projects, Native nations actively shaped what western expansion would look like. Seneca attempts to keep their lands were not bursts of energy in response to settler policy, but a continuous, strategic, centuries-long effort to ensure that the Senecas could exist into the future as a Native nation on their own terms. By viewing the Seneca story in this way over the course of many centuries, one gets a better picture of the persistence of Seneca sovereignty and power, even in the East in the nineteenth century, rather than piecemeal and fleeting moments of indigenous resistance. Settler colonialism is an ongoing process, but as that process moves through time, Native sites of power remain. Western New York continues to be one of those sites.

Seneca leaders today negotiate settler colonialism by reminding settlers of Seneca sovereignty and perpetuating the narrative that designates the Seneca reservations as Native sites of power. New York State and the Senecas have a long, difficult history in which New York State violated federal law and treaty rights to gain control of Seneca lands. Today, the Seneca Nation operates casinos in western New York and has the exclusive right to operate in this area because of a 2002 revenue-sharing agreement with New York State. The agreement’s renewal did not specifically include revenue-sharing, so the Senecas stopped paying New York State in 2017. New York State believes withholding payment is illegal, but the Senecas turned to the federal government to affirm their position. Although in this particular instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Senecas would have to continue payments to New York State, the strategy of turning to federal officials and systems to protect Seneca sovereignty from New York dates back to the late eighteenth century. Additionally, the Senecas used the contention over casino revenues to delay and negotiate through New York’s Thruway repair. Seneca strategies are not always directly successful, but as the Senecas used them over the course of hundreds of years, they have allowed the Senecas to remain on their lands and negotiate the boundaries of settler colonialism with New York and the United States.

In May of this year, only a few months after the court’s decision on casino revenue, The Buffalo History Museum repatriated Seneca leader Red Jacket’s Peace Medal to the Seneca Nation. Given to Red Jacket by George Washington as a gesture of good faith prior to the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, the medal is the physical representation of the relationship between the United States and the Seneca Nation, and according to the Senecas, the continued recognition of Seneca sovereignty. As new issues arise for the Seneca Nation in their ongoing negotiation of settler colonialism, whether they have to do with land reacquisition, casino revenue, or transportation, the Senecas will continue to use the recognition of sovereignty that Red Jacket’s medal represents to protect their nation’s interests and continue the narrative of Seneca nationhood on Seneca lands.

1 September 2021

About the Author

Elana Krischer holds a PhD from the University at Albany, SUNY.

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