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The last time the Seneca Nation of Indians had a major referendum on casino gambling, tribal members voted it down after an acrimonious debate.

While no one is sure what the outcome will be when Senecas vote on the casino deal announced Wednesday by Gov. George E. Pataki and Seneca Nation President Cyrus M. Schindler, there is a feeling that, once again, the issue will impassion people like few others.

"It's going to cause another war among our own people," said Melvin Gates, sitting outside his home on Route 438 here Thursday. "(Schindler) doesn't know if the people want this. He's going to find out."

Interviews with about a dozen Senecas on the reservation along Cattaraugus Creek found sentiment roughly split between those in favor of the Seneca Nation's going into the gaming business and those opposed.

"It would be a good source of revenue for the nation," Jimmy Thompson, 42, said as he worked building a house. "It would mean employment for a lot of people who could use the work."

But while those in favor of gaming talk about how the money could boost the standard of living for all Senecas, others wonder about who ultimately will benefit and whether the Seneca Nation is risking its sovereignty.

"It's about our kids," one young woman said as she pointed to her toddler son. "We don't want to lose our sovereignty. We want our land for our children."

The woman declined to identify herself, as did a number of other people who were more than willing to offer their opinions on gambling provided that their names not be used.

"It's a small population here," explained one man, who also asked to remain anonymous. "Everybody knows everybody, and people are reluctant to go public."

That may change as details of the compact become known and as a referendum, which is believed to be planned for sometime in the late summer, comes into sharper focus.

In 1994, the Senecas conducted an advisory referendum on both the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations. Residents were asked to vote on three issues: whether they favored the Seneca Nation's getting into casino gaming, whether they favored it on Seneca land and whether they favored it off the reservations.

No, no and no were the answers from voters on both reservations. That mandate should have been the final word, according to the interpretation of the Seneca Nation's constitution by Gates and others.

"It got voted down, and it was never to be brought up again," said Gates, 69. "I don't know why they went ahead and did this thing."

Bob Jones, a Seneca on the Cattaraugus Reservation, also thinks that the 1994 vote precluded another vote in the future.

"I don't understand what all the hoopla is about," he said. "This has been tried before and voted down, and, to me, that's where it stands."

The issue of sovereignty is one that bothers a number of casino opponents. They think that by accepting New York State authority to regulate the casino, the Seneca Nation's leaders open the door for state regulation on a number of other issues.

And there is concern that eventually, this would lead to loss of Seneca land, a flash point for many Senecas still upset about land lost to the government during the construction of the Kinzua dam and the Allegheny reservoir.

"A lot of the older people are afraid of losing their sovereignty and their land," said Richard Jimerson, 55, who said he would wait to hear more about the proposal before making up his mind. "They've been taking land, like the Kinzua dam, and a lot of people remember that."

The feeling among many is that the main opposition to gaming lies with Seneca Nation elders. Indeed, two elders, who insisted that they remain anonymous, said gaming is not an answer for the tribe.

"I just don't think that's the road for us to travel on, because there's other things we can be doing that would be more beneficial to everybody," one of the elders said.

But not all elderly Senecas are against a casino. Some, like 80-year-old Gerald Parker, think that it could be a good idea.

"It should benefit the nation, if they do it right," he said. "There's more people for it than against it."

Cheryl Stevens, 27, said she was "kind of neutral" about the prospect of the Seneca Nation running casinos, but would consider supporting it "as long as it benefits the people."

A number of Senecas predicted that the debate would be volatile, as it was in 1994. One of them, who did not give her name, said she hopes that people can keep their emotions in check, but added, "Keep your scanner on."

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