Barry E. Snyder, Sr., a visionary, respected and influential business and political leader of the Seneca Nation of Indians, died on Oct. 1 after a brief illness. He was 79.
Snyder wielded significant influence in Seneca Nation affairs for more than half a century, during which time he served five terms as Seneca Nation President, and was also elected to serve as the treasurer and as a member of the Seneca Nation Council.
“Barry served our nation during our time, but he will deservedly be looked upon as a leader for all times,” said Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong, Sr., a longtime friend and associate of Snyder’s. “Throughout his life and through his service, Barry elevated the Seneca Nation and the Seneca people. As president, he touched every facet of life on our territories.”
A member of the Seneca Nation’s hawk clan, Snyder was born on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, where he was raised by his grandmother, who instilled in him a great sense of pride in being a member of the Seneca Nation, as well as a sense of respect for Seneca history and traditions. Snyder attended the Thomas Indian School and was a member of the graduating class of 1957 from Gowanda High School. After graduating from high school, Snyder served two years in the United States Army and later worked as a barber and at the General Motors plant in Tonawanda. In 1960, he married Deanna Jimerson, and together they raised three sons: the late Barry E. Snyder, Jr., and Scott Snyder and Ryan Snyder. The Snyders have 12 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.
“Service was at the heart of everything my father did,” said Scott Snyder, who is an eight-time chairman of the Seneca Party, the dominant political party co-founded by his father to represent the voice of the Seneca people. “He lived his entire life in service to the people and causes who mattered to him. He served his country, he served the Seneca Nation and the Seneca people, and, above all, he served his family.”
Upon returning home from his military service, Snyder became involved in Seneca political and government matters. He went on to serve eight terms on the Seneca Nation Council, and also served as treasurer. Snyder was elected to the first of his five terms as Seneca Nation President in 1980. He was also elected to the tribal nation’s highest office in 1992, 2004, 2008, and 2012.
Under Snyder’s leadership, the Seneca Nation made significant political and economic gains, and transformed the way of life on the Cattaraugus and Allegany Territories. Among his administrations’ many accomplishments were the construction of world-class facilities for healthcare, education, recreation, and public safety. The Nation also established new housing opportunities so the Seneca people can live on-territory, and made incredible gains in renewable energy. In addition, the Nation launched its own Seneca Transit System and created Seneca Strong, a program aimed at combatting substance abuse and addiction.
The nation’s most notable economic gain under Snyder’s direction was the success of its three Class III casino gaming properties: Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls, Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca, and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo. As the longtime chairman of the Seneca Gaming Corporation board of directors, Snyder played a critical role in setting the vision and growth strategy for the company, including completing significant expansions at all three locations. Today, Seneca Gaming Corporation is one of the largest private employers in the region, with nearly 4,000 employees. Even after relinquishing his chairmanship upon learning of his illness, Snyder continued to serve on the board of directors until his death.
“Barry was the driving force behind the company’s success and growth,” said Kevin W. Seneca, current Seneca Gaming Corporation Chairman. “Just like with his businesses on territory and how he approached his duties when he was in elected office, he had a vision for Seneca Gaming Corporation, and he was masterful at getting people to buy into that vision. I don’t think the company would be where we are today if not for his leadership.”
The success of the Nation’s three casinos also helped open the door to a wave of new developments, improvements and programming on the Nation’s territories.
While his stewardship of the Seneca Nation’s gaming enterprise often kept Snyder in a visible public position, it was far from his first trailblazing effort for the Seneca Nation’s economy. In 1983, Snyder opened Seneca Hawk, the first gas station and smoke shop on the Cattaraugus Territory, helping to change the Seneca economy forever. Today, his business employs nearly 100 people on the Cattaraugus Territory. He later helped the Nation bring high-stakes Bingo and Class II gaming to their territories.
As a leader, Snyder was known for always remaining calm, even in high-pressure situations. In the 1990s, he helped lead the fight against New York State taxation on Nation territories, along with his lifelong friend Maurice John. When protests broke out on Seneca Territory, Snyder helped restore calm in the community, even as the Nation successfully beat back the taxation attempts. Years later, Snyder negotiated a settlement with Governor Andrew Cuomo over the State’s violations of the Nation-State Gaming Compact. Under the memorandum of understanding then-President Snyder negotiated and signed in 2013, the Seneca Nation retained more than $200 million for Albany’s non-compliance.
“Barry understood that, in order to achieve our long-term goal of true sovereignty, we first need to achieve economic sovereignty,” President Armstrong said. “He advanced that goal more than any leader in our Nation’s modern history. He set lofty goals for the Nation, and he accomplished them.”
Aside from his business and political leadership, Snyder also devoted significant time and energy to helping combat one of the most serious health issues facing the Seneca Nation – diabetes. In 2005, he and his wife established the Seneca Diabetes Foundation to support diabetes education, prevention, and treatment, and to fund research to improve the lives of those afflicted with diabetes. The foundation has raised more than $6 million to date and has awarded more than $425,000 in annual scholarship funding to qualified Seneca students pursuing post-secondary education in a healthcare field. Since its founding, the Seneca Diabetes Foundation has established endowment funds with the foundations at both Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center
In 2018, medical center renamed the ambulatory services building on its Grider Street campus as the Barry & Deanna Snyder Dialysis & Medical Office Building. It is the first health care building in Buffalo named for a leader of the Seneca Nation. The facility offers multiple services, including outpatient dialysis treatment, head and neck oncological services, and ambulatory surgical services.
“Barry saw the importance of creating important pathways for the Seneca Nation with the greater community,” said Michael R. Militello, vice chairman of the Seneca Diabetes Foundation and a trusted friend of Mr. Snyder. “He used his influence and his position to benefit the health and well-being of the Seneca people.”
“My father touched more lives than he would ever admit,” Scott Snyder added. “He never regarded his accomplishments as his own. They were the shared accomplishments of the Seneca Nation.”
In addition to his wife, Deanna, Snyder is survived by, Scott Snyder and Marie Williams, Ryan Snyder and Millie Fox; a sister, Maxine Jimerson; two brothers, Art John and Dale Snyder; his grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandson and numerous relatives and friends. Mr. Snyder was a proud member of American Legion Post #1587.