IRVING, N.Y. (AP) – Seneca Indian Richard Nephew considers himself a product of the reservation land where his grandfather hunted deer out his back door and grew corn and beans before New York paved over part of it in the 1950s.
”I grew up eating those vegetables and eating the deer meat that my grandfather gathered there,” Nephew said April 19 on the reservation at the western edge of New York, where his family still lives.
He remembers his grandfather’s sorrow and anger over losing the land when the New York State Thruway came through, he said: feelings he took to his grave.
The family may have gotten a small payment when the Seneca Nation agreed to accept $75,000 to let Interstate 90 onto its land, Nephew said. But the amount – he does not know what it was – could not make up for his grandfather’s loss, he said.
”He always felt that we had a bad deal,” said Nephew, now a Seneca tribal councilor.
He and today’s other leaders of the 8,000-member tribe have lately come to feel the same way, and in mid-April took a surprising step that they said would begin to right a decades-old wrong.
With the Senecas and New York’s new governor already at odds over the state’s plans to collect sales tax on cigarettes sold by reservation retailers to non-Indian customers, the tribal council rescinded the 1954 agreement that authorized the Thruway right of way across 300 acres of the Cattaraugus reservation.
The move effectively turned the state and a three-mile stretch of thoroughfare into trespassers on Seneca land.
The Indian nation wants to negotiate with the state for compensation, maybe a yearly payment, for use of the land a few miles in from the Lake Erie shore. And they are looking at other roads and rights of way for which they may have been shortchanged, Seneca President Maurice John said.
”This is only the beginning,” John said April 19 after sending a letter to Gov. Eliot Spitzer informing him of the council’s action.
Although John said the move was unrelated to the escalating cigarette tax dispute, Buffalo-area Assemblyman Sam Hoyt suggested it was ”not at all coincidence.”
”It’s an attempt by the Seneca Nation to try to leverage the Thruway issue to get a more favorable outcome with regard to their negotiations with Gov. Spitzer on the tobacco tax issue,” Hoyt said. ”I don’t fault them. In fact, it’s pretty creative.”
Spitzer’s predecessor, George Pataki, backed off collecting reservation sales taxes after the Senecas burned tires and shut down part of the Thruway in clashes with state police when the issue was raised in 1997. The Senecas say federal treaties dating to the 1700s shield them from state taxation.
This time around, Seneca leaders said, they want a diplomatic resolution.
”The nation has no intention of shutting down the Thruway,” said Seneca Treasurer Kevin Seneca, who said talks with Spitzer are planned.
Spitzer spokesman Christine Pritchard confirmed the talks but did not comment further April 19.
”This is not an issue that is going to escalate into violence. We do not support that,” John said.
But several speakers at a Seneca news conference were clearly frustrated by what they see as the state’s infringement on their lives and businesses.
”It’s an ongoing battle with the white man and we will never stop,” said Linda Doxtator, a tribal councilor.
”Years ago, you killed our people, you killed our children, our elderly, our women,” another council member said. ”We’re still here. … Now you got to deal with us. We’re not backing down.”
In rescinding the Thruway right of way, the tribal council said the U.S. government never gave the required approvals. Tribal leaders cited a 1999 opinion by U.S. District Magistrate Carol Heckman which said that the Secretary of the Interior Department had not complied with laws governing rights of way on Indian lands. The decision was part of a Seneca land claim case involving Grand Island, north of Buffalo, which the Senecas lost.
”They’re turning up the heat, they’re upping the ante. It should be recognized for what it is,” said Hoyt, a critic of the Senecas’ plans to build a casino in Buffalo. The nation operates two other western New York casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca.
John said he and Spitzer had already agreed to meet on the cigarette tax issue when the council’s Thruway vote was taken April 21. He said a date for his meeting with Spitzer had not yet been set.