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On the reservation, resentment

Seneca Nation leaders have renounced violence, urged calm and tried to dampen the emotion in the buildup to the state’s attempt seneca nationto collect taxes on cigarettes.

Even so, some emotion — mostly frustration — has bubbled up from the Cattaraugus Reservation.

With questions about potential economic harm from a successful attempt at tax collection, sometimes it sounds like a people’s attempt at survival.

While two public, “peaceful” rallies are planned on the reservation this morning, tensions had been climbing, and the raw emotion has still shown its head.

The Senecas, who have been subjected to “continued aggression and encroachment from New York State,” need to remain resilient, Tribal Council Member J.C. Seneca said Tuesday.

“I firmly believe that, like my father told me, the state government and the United States are not going to be happy until they eliminate us as a people. And this is the process of what they’re trying to do,” Seneca said.

“They want to terminate us and assimilate us into the white society,” Seneca continued. “That’s their goal, ultimate goal. And we’re going to fight every inch of the way to stop them and to keep our culture and our traditions and our nation alive and well.”

It’s not just about the state attempting to collect taxes on cigarettes from non-Indians. Seneca frustration stems from generations of broken treaties, leased-land disputes and claims of eminent domain by the state, said Robert Odawi Porter, a Seneca Nation lawyer who is running for president of the nation.

“Really it goes back to the very beginning,” Porter said. “The state and its officials have engaged in nothing but predatory conduct. It’s just been one continued episode of theft and efforts to terminate us.”

In an advertisement in today’s Buffalo News, a Seneca business group blasts Gov. David A. Paterson and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for their support for collecting the tax.

The ad, paid for by the Seneca Free Trade Association, tries to mock the perceived ease with which government officials “think nothing of sacrificing Native Americans” due to promises to special interests, or “when they create and pass unconstitutional laws to eradicate economies of sovereign nations.”

“When Native Americans are beaten and killed in the days to come it will be easily defended as, ‘We are just doing our jobs,’” the advertisement says.

Fierce language is exactly what some leaders hope to defuse.

When asked about the mood of the community prior to Tuesday’s court hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, Seneca described tension and uncertainty.

“We’re trying to communicate with our people,” Seneca said late Tuesday morning. “We sent a message out for everybody to stay calm.”

That message has also included telling Senecas not to give “outside law enforcement” any reason to come onto Indian territory, Seneca said.

“If somebody does something like that, hopefully we can deal with it in quick fashion where it doesn’t turn into something that gets out of control,” he said.

Monday night, the Tribal Council voted to reiterate its protocol for outside law enforcement agents coming onto sovereign lands.

The Council passed a resolution reinforcing an existing policy that the Seneca marshals be contacted before any outside police agency comes onto the reservation for a non-emergency situation. In emergency situations, police should notify the marshals while they’re en route.

The continuing debate is the latest development in a long history of conflict between the state and Indian tribes.

“As far as they’re concerned, things have been taken from them over and over again,” said Keith R. Burich, a Canisius College history professor.

The push to collect this tax is the latest example of how Native Americans have been treated, said Burich, who teaches a course in Native American history.

As evidence, Burich cited the construction of the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston and the Kinzua Dam in western Pennsylvania.

In both cases, the government took Indian land for those projects, he said.

“It’s not like it happened 250 years ago or 300 years ago. It’s happened in recent decades,” he said. “It’s a matter of things being constantly taken from them.”

Tax exemptions for Indian tribes are common across the country and were granted in exchange for, among other things, giving up millions of acres of land, he said.

“And I think that gets lost in all of that,” Burich said. “They’ve given up an awful lot in order to get what really amounts to a very small exemption from taxation.”

Concern over the issue has extended into Niagara County, which has the Tuscarora Reservation.

Personnel at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station got an e-mail Friday urging individuals to be aware of the “threat” related to the tax-collection matter:

“Due to the increased threat, it is strongly recommended personnel limit their travels in and around Local Reservation areas cq(Tuscarora, Allegany, Irving)cq to include Native American operated casinos. If travel through these areas is unavoidable, members should maintain heightened situational awareness to malicious activity.”

The e-mail, which had the subject line “FOR SITUATIONAL AWARENESS ONLY — NATIVE AMERICAN THREAT,” continues: “Those personnel who patron [sic] Native American retailers should remain cognizant of the current threat and report any adverse activity to the [State] Police or the closest servicing law enforcement agency. Personnel should not engage or interact with malevolent activity and immediately vacate to seek haven.”

Mass messages to base personnel are sent when there is something in the community individuals should be vigilant about or aware of, said Maj. Andrea E. Pitruzzella of the base’s public affairs office.

“They’re not very frequent at all,” Pitruzzella said, noting that this message was sent because of the base’s proximity to the reservation areas.

“It’s just keeping us aware of our surroundings.”

By Aaron Besecker

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