Onodowahgah (The People of the Great Hill)


Artwork by John Kahionhes Fadden


OVERVIEW: Written by Kanatiiosh

The Seneca call themselves Onondowahgah, which means the People of the Great Hill. The name refers to the Seneca's belief that they emerged into this world from under South Hill, which is located near Canandaigua Lake in what is now New York State.

The Onondowahgah are one of the original Five Nations to accept the Peacemaker's message and joined together with the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Cayuga to form the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is also know as the Iroquois Confederacy. Haudenosaunee translates to mean (People of the Longhouse), which refers to the type of homes built by the Haudenosaunee.

In the picture (above), the artist (Kahionhes) depicts the Onondowahgah by showing a man wearing a gustoweh (feathered hat) containing a single eagle feather placed next to a big hill to represent that the Seneca are known as the People of the Great Hill. When reading the Aiionwatha (Hiawatha) Belt, looking northward, the first square on the left-hand side represents the Seneca Nation. The square on the far right-hand side represents the Mohawk Nation. However, if you read the Aiionwatha belt looking southward, then the opposite would be true.

The Hiawatha belt represents the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. When the Peacemaker came to the warring Five Nations, he carried with him the message of Kaianeraserakowa (the Great Law of Peace). The Peacemaker came to the Haudenosaunee with his message of Skennen (Peace), Kariwiio (The Good Word), and Kasatensera (strength), which contains the principles of peace, equality, respect, love, and justice. The Peacemaker envisioned the uniting of these Nations in peace as one extended Longhouse with each Nation having their own hearth fire. In other words, each Nation would have a shared sovereignty in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the responsibility to protect the Peace, the Natural World, and the Future Generations to come, while retaining the sovereignty over their own Nations. The joining together of the Five Nations is perhaps the oldest example of nations uniting under a single form of government and spirituality. Interestingly, the Haudenosaunee draw no distinction between what is political and what is spiritual, for our spiritual leaders are also the political leaders.

The Seneca are known as the Elder Brothers, which has significance when the Grand Council of Chiefs, composed of all fifty chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, meet to discuss matters of importance to the entire Confederacy. The Seneca are also known as the Keepers of the Western Door. In the picture (above), the man is wearing a gustoweh, which is a feathered hat. One can identify the Nation that the wearer is from by the number of eagle feathers and the position that these feathers are worn on the gustoweh.

Onondowahgah men wear one eagle feather on their gustowehs, like the Cayuga. However, there is a major difference in the way the feather is worn. The Seneca wear their eagle feather in an upright position, whereas, the Cayuga wear, in their gustoweh, their eagle feather in an downward tilted position. If the man were a chief of the Onondowahgah Nation, he would wear attached to his feathered hat deer antlers that symbolize his authority as one of the eight chiefs of the Seneca Nation. One of the many jobs of the Clan Mothers, who are the female leaders, is to raise (to bring forth) a new chief from her clan, when one passes on or is removed. The Clan Mothers have the authority to dehorn (impeach), which is done by the removal of the deer antlers off the gustoweh of a chief who is not doing his duty to the people properly.

The Onondowahgah have eight clans. The eight clans are Turtle, Bear, Wolf, Beaver, Snipe, Heron, Deer, and Hawk. The Haudenosaunee are matrilineal, which means that the clans are passed down from one's mother. In other words, if your Mother is of the Bear clan, then you are of the Bear. If your father is of the Wolf clan, but your mother has no clan then you would have no clan, even though your father has a clan, because clans are passed on from mother to sons and daughters. Some mistakenly think that when a man marries a women he becomes her clan, this is untrue. If you are born with a clan, that clan remains yours through out your life.

Ancestral Homelands Map


A Historical Site of a 17th Century Seneca Village.



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Website created May 27, 2000:Updated August 2001

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