Lawyers for the Seneca Nation of Indians sued New York State on Thursday, charging that the state broke federal laws more than 60 years ago when it built a 2.7-mile section of the Thruway through Seneca territory in southern Erie County.
The lawsuit filed in Buffalo's federal court demands that the state compensate the Senecas for its use of the land, and it also seeks to stop the state from collecting tolls on the Seneca's Cattaraugus Territory near Irving.
“After decades of seeing our property invaded without authorization from the federal government that is required to protect our native land, we find it necessary to take legal action against these state officials,” said Seneca Nation President Todd Gates. “We are not seeking to cause any disruption, but rather to ensure that the New York State authorities comply with federal law and gain approval from the Department of Interior for the Thruway that encroaches on 300 acres of land that has belonged to the nation and our ancestors for generations.”
State officials had no immediate comment on the legal action, but the Thruway dispute between the Senecas and the state has simmered for decades. State officials have always maintained they did nothing improper or illegal, pointing out that they paid the Senecas $75,000 for the right to build the Thruway through the Seneca land.
According to the Senecas, its leaders were "pressured" in 1954 to agree to an easement allowing the Thruway to be built on Seneca land that is legally designated as an Indian reservation.
The Senecas allege that the state needed federal government approval to get a land easement on an Indian reservation but did not get that approval in the 1950s.
A large plywood sign standing Thursday on the side of the Thruway in the disputed stretch says the state owes the Native American nation $675 million in tolls based on the number of vehicles that drive each day over Seneca land.
"This is a longstanding dispute between the nation and the state," the Senecas said in a statement. "The nation has openly denied the validity of the purported easement since at least 1993, and despite asking the New York State Thruway Authority to remit Thruway tolls to the nation, the NYSTA has refused, maintaining that the easement is valid despite the lack of federally mandated approval from DOI."
Seneca leaders said they initially sued the state over the issue in 1999 but were unsuccessful. They said the Thruway issue has "been a strain on nation-state relations for decades."
The Thruway dispute has put a "constraint" on the tribe's economic growth, the Senecas alleged Thursday. The tribe said it soon hopes to announce plans for the "Oasis Project," a "cultural shopping center" that would attract tourists and create hundreds of jobs for local residents. Details could be announced within the next week, the Senecas said.
A News reporter and photographer who drove through the area found the Seneca Nation stretch of Thruway pocked by potholes and cracks, and in much worse shape than the Thruway stretches just east of it and just west of it. There were at least two "Rough Road" signs posted, and speed limit signs of 55 miles per hour and 45 miles per hour are posted in several spots.
"I try to avoid the Thruway. I drive on Route 20 instead whenever I can," said a Seneca Nation member in his 30s who spoke to The News at an Irving gas station. "I have friends who have lost hub caps and had flat tires out there. The state does a terrible job of maintaining it."
The man declined to give his name, saying he does not want to become embroiled in Seneca Nation politics.
When asked about the bad road conditions on Seneca land, State Thruway Authority spokesman Jonathan Dougherty said: "Like any community impacted by our projects, we work with them to help mitigate any disruption the roadwork may cause. The Authority is working toward an agreement with the Seneca Nation to move ahead with a contract to begin rehabilitation of the roadway in the Seneca Nation territory."
He did not provide further detail.
The lawsuit is the latest flashpoint in a long-standing battle over the section of Thruway that passes through the Seneca's Cattaraugus Territory, between Exit 57A in Eden/Angola and Exit 58 in Silver Creek.
Since at least the early 1990s, Seneca leaders have argued that motorists are trespassing on their land when they use the Thruway.
In July 1992, protesting Senecas started bonfires about 20 yards off the Thruway in the Town of Brant. Several state troopers complained about being hit with shovelfuls of cinders thrown by protesters.
At times, the Senecas have discussed installing their own Thruway tollbooths, and in 2007, the Seneca Tribal Council announced it had voted to rescind the state's right to use the property.
At least seven years ago, the Senecas put up a highway sign advising Thruway travelers that they were no longer in New York State and now were in sovereign Seneca territory and "subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the Seneca Nation.”
In 2011, then-Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter alleged that the state owed the Senecas more then $80 million in tolls for Thruway motorists who drive through the Cattaraugus Territory. According to Porter, the amount of money owed increases by one dollar every time a car or truck used the Thruway to pass through Seneca land.
Porter asked then-President Barack Obama to help resolve what he called "the nearly 60-year unauthorized occupation of 300 acres of the nation's Cattaraugus Territory by the State of New York for purposes of constructing and maintaining the New York Thruway."
State officials have always disagreed and have refused to pay the requested millions, saying there is nothing illegal about the arrangement.
The Senecas and New York have also been embroiled in a dispute over about $110 million per year in revenue from the Senecas' casinos that the Senecas used to share with the state. The Seneca Nation stopped paying 25 percent of its slot machine revenues to New York 13 months ago.
New York claims the Seneca Nation violated its gambling compact with the state. The Senecas say the casino payments were not required after the 14th year, according to their reading of the 21-year compact.