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SENECA ISSUE PROMPTS STERN WORDS

Now that they have gained the backing of the federal government in their lawsuit asserting a claim to Grand Island, the Seneca Nation of Indians has a few words of advice for state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco and Town Supervisor Peter A. McMahon:

Butt out. Watch your mouth. And get ready for a settlement.

"If they were at the table, I wouldn't even negotiate with them," said Rosemary Patterson, tribal councilor for the Seneca Nation.

The Senecas, strengthened by the Justice Department's backing, want to settle, but they think that statements made by Vacco and McMahon last week -- such as Vacco's "I'm not in a settling mood" and McMahon's accusing the Senecas of "Indian giving" -- were way out of line.

Ms. Patterson said McMahon's remark was "racist" and called it "an affront to a minority."

Vacco should keep quiet, she said, because the Senecas will deal with Gov. Pataki, not Vacco, on settlement issues.

"He's not even in a position to negotiate," she said.

But at Grand Island Town Hall, a small flood of phone calls since Friday's federal decision has offered nothing but praise for the town's hard-line stance, McMahon said.

"I think most people realize that there is no greater risk today than there was before (the federal decision), as far as the end result of this," McMahon said, noting that 200 calls have poured into his office. "I think there's broad support here for the position . . . the town has taken."

That position, McMahon said, will be to back Vacco's anti-settlement stance "100 percent."

"I don't think a settlement sounds good. I think it sounds like blackmail," McMahon said, echoing Vacco's subtle suggestion last week that the Seneca land claim might be a ploy to gain money or land for a future casino.

Ms. Patterson rebutted the casino innuendo, stating that the Grand Island lawsuit is in no way tied to the nation's forthcoming referendum on the possibility of casino gambling.

"That's not true," she said.

She said a settlement of the suit could be a mix of any of these possibilities: land on Grand Island, land not on Grand Island, or cash.

"We're asking for a settlement so we can go on peacefully," she said.

The Senecas' claim is based on an 1815 sale in which the state bought Grand Island and 21 other islands in the Niagara River from the Indian nation. The Senecas now say the purchase was invalid, since the contract was not approved by Congress. The federal government agrees.

But Vacco is arguing that New York's ownership of the island dates from shortly after the Revolutionary War, when the new U.S. government received ownership of Grand Island, which the Indians had given to the British before the war. The 1815 contract -- in which the state agreed to pay $1,000 to the Senecas for the island and $500 a year forever -- was just a way for the state to placate the Indians at that time, he said.

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