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MONEY MAY NOT be the root of all evil. But millions of newfound dollars -- and the question of who controls them -- lie at the heart of the fury that for months has divided the Seneca Nation, shredded its inadequate government and now killed three men in a weekend gun battle on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation.

Sadly, the grim prospect is that these won't be the last victims unless the Senecas come to their senses and resolve their differences more peacefully. Ideally, they will come to agree according to traditional Iroquois customs of shaping solutions by consensus.

The idea that one side can totally impose its own solution on political friend and foe alike will only continue to fuel these problems and make matters worse. The dispute divides the monied Seneca Party and its president, Karen Bucktooth, on the one hand, and Dennis J. Bowen Sr., head of Coalition '94 who was elected president last November, on the other.

What is needed -- and it's much easier to identify than to achieve -- is a negotiated compromise that both sides will accept, even if grudgingly. That includes acceptance by the few among the Senecas who turn huge profits from bingo and the sale of cigarettes and gasoline.

Although the path toward more peaceful resolutions looks difficult, both sides ought to ponder the alternatives. They're incalculably worse. Today, amid the violence and under a hapless government, the Seneca people themselves flounder. All this could scarcely show more clearly than it did in the pools of blood early Saturday morning around the bodies of the three men shot at
the William Seneca Building. These Seneca Party supporters had apparently tried, after a drunken all-night birthday celebration, to storm the building occupied by Bowen backers.

"There is nothing right about this," said the daughter of one of the victims, as she stood waiting for the body of her father to be removed. "This thing has destroyed families. It certainly has destroyed our family."

Common sense would suggest that the Senecas holster their weapons long enough to discuss more reasonable approaches to a settlement. There are, after all, two skilled U.S. mediators from the Justice Department now at the reservation to push things along, if someone is willing to pay attention.

Perhaps someone is. Karen Bucktooth, the president supported by a majority of the Tribal Council, called for "everyone, regardless of their political views," to come together and find a way to end the violence. Bowen, the reformer, has for weeks said he would support a referendum on his presidency among Seneca voters and abide by the results, even though he won the two-year presidential term last Nov. 1.

A referendum would at least give all adult enrolled Senecas, perhaps 3,000 in number, a direct voice in the settlement. It may not be perfect, but it is better than vodka-fueled gunfights.

Any referendum, however, should include three conditions: secret ballots, adequate and impartial outside monitors, and determined efforts to end the blatant vote-buying customary in Seneca elections. Without the last, it would be no contest. The side with the most cash would buy the result.

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