Neil Patterson Jr. is fighting a $25 fine all the way to the state's highest court Thursday.
It's not the money but the principle, said Patterson, a resident of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, who asserts that a 1794 treaty means the state's hunting and fishing regulations don't apply to him or other Native Americans.
Patterson was ticketed during the winter of 2003 for not having his name and address on his ice-fishing gear. He was cited while fishing at the mouth of 12-Mile Creek in Wilson-Tuscarora State Park.
"I don't have a New York State fishing license. I never have and I never will," Patterson said Tuesday.
Two vanloads of Tuscaroras will leave the reservation for Albany at 7 a.m. Thursday to cheer on Patterson and his attorney, Christopher Amato of Albany, in their 2 p.m. courtroom faceoff against the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Patterson asserts that the Treaty of Canandaigua, made by the federal government and the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy when George Washington was president, gives Tuscaroras free use of land in large parts of Western New York.
He lost his case in Wilson Town Court in 2003 and in Niagara County Court in 2004, but the Court of Appeals, which refuses to hear most of the cases sent to it, decided to give him a hearing.
Asked how much more than $25 he's spent on the case, Patterson said, "Quite a bit, but obviously, the issue is larger. Our people get ticketed all the time by the DEC. In our eyes, that's an illegal policy."
"A state can't run around enforcing regulations against Indians who are fishing off reservation, pursuant to treaty," said Amato, a lawyer who often takes Indian-rights cases.
"On non-reservation land, the regulations apply equally to everyone," countered DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren.
She said Indians may hunt and fish without licenses on reservation land. The state offers Indians who live on reservations free licenses for off-reservation hunting and fishing.
Wren wouldn't comment on the DEC's legal strategy, but Amato said the state is arguing that the Treaty of Canandaigua was undone by the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree.
In that treaty, the Seneca Nation sold large chunks of Western New York to Robert Morris, the Philadelphia businessman and politician who has gone down in history as the "financier of the Revolution."
Amato said the state believes that the later treaty did away with the free-use rights given to the six Iroquois tribes three years before.
"They're saying Tuscarora rights were extinguished in a treaty they weren't a party to," Amato said. "I think it goes to a question of basic fairness."
He said only the Senecas were party to the Treaty of Big Tree, unlike the Treaty of Canandaigua, which involved all six tribes.
Amato said he expects no decision from the bench Thursday. The Court of Appeals usually hands down its rulings several weeks after a case is argued.