Video On Seneca and Kinzua Dam Hydropower Tragedy
Such a traumatic event has left indelible scars on our people and our soul as a nation. Many of our people still cry today when they recollect those emotionally wrenching days.
- David Kimelberg, CEO of Seneca Holdings LLC
Photo available at http://www.heritageinterp.com/2003.htm
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the forced relocation of more than 150 Seneca Indian families from the last remaining lands of Indian Territory in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Hydropower Dam .
The Seneca Nation is one of the oldest nations in the world and preceded the formation of the United States of America. It is one of the original nations of North America with sovereignty from the United States and Canada directed by a government-to-government relationship. After the American Revolutionary War the United States and the Seneca signed the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794 protecting Seneca territories in southwestern New York and northwestern Pennsylvania from claim or future interference by the United States.
However, in the first half of the 20th century the United States abrogated its treaty obligations and through the process of eminent domain laid claim to more than 10,000 acres of Seneca land in Pennsylvania (Hauptman, 1986, p. 183). Seneca Land in Pennsylvania situated among the Allegheny Indian Reservation was stolen under the guise of flood control protection. The land was then used to construct the $125 million Kinzua Dam and hydropower facility, which its proponents at the time argued would lead America into a new industrial age (Hauptman, 1986, p. 183).
The city of Pittsburgh was instrumental in advocating for the construction of the Kinzua Dam. Plans that initially began as flood control initiatives spearheaded by H.J. Heinz and the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce soon became designs for hydro-electric power development along the Allegheny River. During the Great Depression special interest groups formed including companies like Carnegie Steel and Gulf Oil who advocated for the Kinzua Dam project so that they did not waste their factories’ workforce (Hauptman, 1986, p. 184). The Indians were to be sacrificed for the “Pittsburgh Renaissance.” It was clear after the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 that the City was in dire need of flood control if it was to be an industrial pillar in the next half century (Hauptman, 1986, p. 184).
So it followed that the Army Corps of Engineers condemned the Seneca’s homes, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools, farms all of which once lined the bends of the Allegheny River. In the “taking” process the federal government burned Seneca age-old homesteads as the families were forced to watch unable to stop the desecration of their homes. After their communities in flames had been leveled to the ground the land was flooded and with it centuries of a People’s livelihood, burial plots, and ancestral ties to the land. The “Indian Problem” as the Seneca families were often referred to during the time period were removed to suburban communities near the City of Salamanca in New York state. The menial compensation that was awarded to the Seneca Nation by Congress would not cover the historical trauma that still resonates today (Hauptman, 1986, p. 183). For the Seneca people, relocation and removal from the “take area” was their second “Trail of Tears” (Hauptman, 1986, p. 183).
The Kinzua Dam became operational on September 16, 1966 (Rosier, 1995, p. 345). According to Rosier, “proponents of the dam cloaked their argument in the rhetoric of the “common good,” claiming that the Indians impeded economic progress and thus threatened national security.” (Rosier, 1995, p. 347). Although, there was an alternative plan (the “Conewango Plan”) devised by one of the most respected civil engineers in America at the time and would cost the U.S. less money by diverting waters to Lake Erie, it did not stand a chance against the lobbying campaign of Pittsburgh elite (Rosier, 1995, p. 346). In 1957 the Seneca Nation testified before Congress opposing the construction of the dam. Their opposition remains to this day and is based on the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 which states that the United States will not claim Seneca land “nor disturb the Seneka Nation” (Rosier, 1995, p. 358).
Had the diversion plan been approved it would have solved the issues of downstream flooding on the Allegheny, but deprived Pittsburgh of water from the Allegheny River. The major industrial companies and wealthy business elite were not going to be satisfied with less water for industrial development for Pittsburgh if only to honor the U.S. treaty with the Senecas and save the Indians’ homelands. (Rosier, 1995, p. 368).
President John F. Kennedy had the opportunity to veto the Kinzua Dam project and honor the U.S. treaty with the Seneca Nation but he declined after insurmountable pressure from proponents of the dam. The pleas of the Seneca Nation and those who supported the U.S. honoring its treaty obligations were drowned out by the vast interests of Pittsburgh’s industrial and business elite in addition to the support of congressmen and the strong arm of the Army Corps of Engineers. (Rosier, 1995, p. 368). It was a tumultuous period and many Americans opposed the President’s decision, including the singer songwriter Johnny Cash who penned a song about the trauma.
In recent years, it has been the aim of the Seneca Nation to right the historic injustice that was committed against them and to “recast one of the darkest moments of the Seneca people into an economic boon.” The Senecas were not the only tribal nation to be forcibly removed from their lands for the development of hydropower dams as it occurred throughout the 20th century and continues today.
Garrison Dam On June 11, 1953, the United States dedicated the Garrison Dam. For the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, the anniversary is not one to be celebrated.
However, we are seeing a resurgence of tribal nations taking control of their resources and developing their capacity in the Energy Sector including oil, natural gas, coal, and hydropower.
After more than 60 years of others profiting from Seneca land and water through the Kinzua Dam hydropower facility the Seneca Nation attempted to win the rights through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate the dam through a Seneca owned and managed energy company. The Kinzua Dam generates up to 450 megawatts of electricity every year for the Pittsburgh region. The dam was most recently operated by First Energy, an Ohio based company with major holdings in Pittsburgh. First Energy’s 50-year license to operate the dam was due to expire in November 2015. First Energy has made hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from operating the dam since 1965 on stolen land and resources originally belonging to the Seneca Nation.
In March of 2014, First Energy sold its license to operate the Kinzua Dam along with other hydrofacilties for $395 million to Harbor Hydro Holdings, LLC. Harbor Hydro is a subsidiary of LS Power Equity Partners II of New York City. Notably prior to this sale, in 2013 the Seneca issued comments to FERC stipulating that approval of transfer of licenses does not make any admission to the claims of the Kinzua Dam being operated on stolen land. On November 26, 2013, the Seneca Nation withdrew its comments and intervention, stating that it has entered into a comprehensive settlement agreement with First Energy Generation, LLC that resolves the issues that it raised in its comments.
So it remains to see if any past injustice has been righted.
The author was unable to receive comments from First Energy or the Seneca Nation on the terms of the settlement agreement. However, in the words of former Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter, “The difference today, unlike in times past, is that we are often dictating the terms and we are no longer being at the short end of someone else’s decision.” Hydropower is often thought to be a battle between energy and the environment, but what we forget are the people and the lives that we have DAM(ned) in the name of industrial progress.
The piece is dedicated to Chief Cornplanter. May the legacy of his diplomacy never be forgotten in the name of progress.
Kinzua Dam Area
- Map of the Seneca Indian Territory (Allegheny Indian Reservation) stolen by the construction of Kinzua Dam and abrogation of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1764.