To officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Power Authority – indeed, to the white world at large – they are the leaders of the Tuscarora Nation of Indians
They’re the ones you see at ribbon cuttings and Fort Niagara re-enactments, and because of their relationships with various government agencies, they also control the finances of their people, including the multimillion-dollar settlement the tribe received under the recent Power Authority relicensing agreement.
But on the Tuscarora Nation, among the Tuscarora themselves, there is little such recognition.
Neil Patterson, his wife, Francine, their son Neil Jr., and the elder Patterson’s sister, Susan Patterson, had this brought home forcefully to them on April 30, when a Condolence Ceremony – an Iroquoian ritual at which chiefs are elevated – was held at the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation.
Neil Patterson Sr. and Jr. had put themselves forward for chiefdom, but were denied after protests by several Tuscarora Clan Mothers. Iroquois custom and tradition dictates that, once a man is denied or “has his fire put out,” he can never again be considered for a chief’s position.
The controversy over who is rightfully in charge among the Tuscarora goes back more than 50 years. In a Nov. 8, 1954 letter to the editor that appeared in the old Niagara Falls Gazette, Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson addressed the issue. Anderson was a medicine man and founder of the Indian Unity Movement, the forerunner of the American Indian Movement.
The Tuscarora are comprised of seven clans – the Deer, Bear, Wolf, Turtle, Snipe, Beaver and Eel. These clans have been historically documented back to the 1700s, and are the basis of authority among all Iroquois tribes, including the Tuscarora.
Clan membership is passed down through the generations maternally. Each clan has a Clan Mother and is entitled to one chief or sachem and one sub-chief.
Two illegitimate clans were created as recently as the 1980s, the “White Bear Clan” by the Niagara County Baptist Convention and the “Sand Turtle Clan” by a former chief of the Deer Clan who was about to be deposed.
“Any future attempts to ‘raise a chief’ into one of these bogus clans will be stopped,” Anderson wrote. “I write this account in good faith, with no attempt to hurt anyone’s feelings, but instead to try to save our clan system from disruption by the type of Christian elements who burned our two longhouses to the ground in times past.”
At the April 30 Condolence Ceremony, the Pattersons were hoping to become chiefs of the Sand Turtle Clan – which, as Anderson pointed out, does not legally exist. Susan Patterson claimed to be the Clan Mother.
Still, it was the Pattersons – and their tribal clerk, Leo Henry – who took possession of the multimillion-dollar Power Authority relicensing payoff in 2008. Many members of the tribe have no idea how much they received, but state officials confirmed that the final figure was $2 million a year, payable for the 50-year life of the agreement.
When the PA seized the Tuscarora land in 1958 in order to build a reservoir for the Robert Moses Power Project, the tribe was paid $1.5 million in compensation. A portion of the money was divided up between every enrolled member of the tribe.
No such sharing of the wealth occurred in the recent payout. In fact, numerous Tuscaroras told the Niagara Falls Reporter that the Pattersons claimed that the money would be spent on drugs and alcohol, so not giving it directly to the people would be the responsible thing to do.
According to the 2010 census, 1,155 people live on the Tuscarora Reservation. A number of these are not enrolled members of the tribe, but based on the census figure each person would get $1,731 annually for the next 50 years. To put it another way, a Tuscarora child born in 2008 would have received $85,550 by the time she reached 50.
Instead, the money was put into bond funds that yield monthly returns averaging between 3.5 percent and 5.6 percent annually. Records made available to the Reporter show $281,291 of the Tuscaroras’ money is in the Templeton Global Bond Fund and another $486,974 resides in the Franklin Total Return Fund.
What happens to the monthly dividend payments remains a mystery.
State Sen. George Maziarz confirmed the $100 million settlement.
“It’s $2 million a year, but who they gave it to and what’s been done with it, I have no idea,” he said.
Even more shameful is the Pattersons’ denial of utilities to tribal members he’s had disagreements with.
“On the reservation, you can’t just call Niagara Mohawk and tell them you want electricity, (the Pattersons) have to OK it,” said one Tuscarora, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There’s some real nice homes here, expensive houses, and you go up to them and see there’s no meter.”
While the animosity on the reservation isn’t new, it’s been growing exponentially since the Power Authority settlement. On the pavement of Upper Mountain Road, in front of the Pattersons’ home – where unannounced “tribal council” meetings are held – someone recently spray painted the words “DEN OF THIEVES.”