The Seneca Nation Comeback

On Monday, 8/22, David Sommerstein of National Public Radio reported that the Seneca Nation’s new president, Harvard Law School educated Robert Odowi Porter, is improving the lot of this tribe of Native Americans who have been impoverished by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and complicit administrative agencies, for so long. As a former Western New Yorker who frequently visited the “Res”, as it is derogatorily known by whites, I believe what Mr. Porter proposes for the Seneca is nothing short of inspired. He suggests taking over the Kinzua Dam to generate income for the tribe.

Yet another in a laundry list of disastrous programs carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Kinzua Dam displaced Seneca natives and thus added to the cultural divide between white and red folks this country is famous for. If I wrote that sentence in 1971 (and at age six I could have done with what I saw on my weekly fishing trips to Cattaraugus) people would have questioned my patriotism. Let’s just say that the Army Corps of Engineers made an ugly, stinking trench out of Smokes Creek running through my backyard in Hamburg, New York. The creek flooded every year, and so the response was digging out and grading the bank. Before then, the creek was host to turtles, darters, ace, frogs, lush vegetation, and thus mammals like ermine, fox, rabbit, porcupine, opossum, deer, raccoon, grouse, pheasant and more. By digging it bare, plus an easement on either side, the Corps ruined natural habitat, and residents lived with the “externalities” of that project. Of course, we had flooding, too. In software terms, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Back to the Seneca. If you have never driven on Reservation land, you cannot imagine poverty like Native Americans endure, similar to inner city poverty, where, as minorities move in, those with wealth leave and take all the resources with them, creating a poor economic donut ring in the urban areas around the city center. With those on Reservation land, the resources were confiscated, creating blight. Those who do not understand the history are tempted to blame the Seneca for their poverty. Since Native culture tends to value, in Woody Tasch’s words, “small, local, and slow,” there is a tendency to attribute such poverty to laziness. The truth, as we are seeing in the incredible frailty of world economies, is that nature does not follow double-digit growth. The Seneca are smart for maintaining tradition, but continue to be made pariahs for capitalizing on their sovereignty through gambling, tobacco, fireworks, and other income generating enterprise. It seems that “We the People” still excludes some of us.

This leads to the other misperception that the United States “allows” Native Americans to pursue their ends. Few realize that treaties were written between natives and Europeans from the time the Americas were still British, French, and Spanish colonies. Many of those treaties are still considered intact because they were transacted through ritual such as the tradition of exchanging wampum, which served as the impetus for telling the story of an event. Non-natives tend to honor documents, saying if it wasn’t recorded, it didn’t happen. Well, it certainly did happen, and our Bureau of Indian Affairs, just like German administrators attending to the Holocaust or Iraqi Baathists listing political targets, documented their activity in detail. Law depends on evidence, and it is no coincidence that the rise of Robert Odowi Porter informs the Seneca struggle. The Seneca Nation, as with other tribal governments, will use the full power of its legal claims to create a better future for its people. You watch.

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