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Senecas vigilant despite reprieve Nation members know state is bound to revive tax issue; they'll be ready when it does

An uneasy calm has taken hold among the Senecas, now that the state once again has backed away from collecting taxes on Native American tobacco sales.

But no one on the Cattaraugus Reservation is taking the tax peace for granted.

It is only a matter of time before politicians in Albany again attempt to impose taxes on reservation retailers, many Senecas say.

"The major thing everyone is asking is, when is this going to happen again?" said Krissy Montour, holding her 22-month-old son, River, outside her restaurant, the Green Light Cafe. "I was there for the protests when I was a teenager in 1997, and I will still be there."

Several miles away standing beside the Thruway, Valerie Marr and Celeste "Rooney" Kettle spoke over the loud whoosh of passing cars and trucks to make their case for tribal sovereignty.

"When Indians were drunk and fought with each other and were on welfare, the state didn't bother us," Marr said. "But now we Indians have been educating ourselves and using our treaties as avenues to make an economy, and the state is trying to stop us."

Part of the education Senecas embraced is the power of public relations. Marr and Kettle stood in front of two huge signs: "Break a Treaty, Break the Law" and "Honor Indian Treaties."

Thousands of motorists passing along the Thruway read these signs every day.

And more recently, another more subtle sign has been placed beside the banners -- a pile of brush in the shape of a small bonfire waiting to be lit.

"We're hoping for peace," Marr says. "We buried our hatchets a long time ago."

But the symbolism of the wood pile cannot be ignored.

Senecas succeeded in closing down sections of the Thruway and Southern Tier Expressway back in 1997 with fires. Now there is word among tribe members that pallets and tires are once again being stockpiled for fuel, should the state try to collect retail taxes.

For Marr and many other Senecas, the state leadership is represented by two men in Albany.

They see Gov. George E. Pataki as a friend of the Indians who will not attempt to collect taxes on tobacco.

They view Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer as an enemy who wants to collect the taxes.

And while they are comforted in knowing that Pataki is in office for another nine months, they also are aware that Spitzer may well be the next governor.

>Seeking to beat Spitzer

Concern is so great that the Seneca Nation is funding a voter registration drive among Senecas to try to keep Spitzer from winning the election.

"Pataki knows what the battle is, but Spitzer sits back in his cozy little office and just watches the trouble he creates," said Cyrus M. Schindler Jr., a tribal councilor, businessman and outspoken critic of the attorney general.

The tax issue, for the Senecas, represents both their livelihood and an emotional touchstone.

They say their treaties guarantee no taxes will be imposed on the reservations, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held otherwise.

Even Senecas who have nothing to do with tobacco sales say they are determined to stand up against the state if it interferes with tribal commerce.

"I don't care about the business people here. They'll do what they want, but I don't want the state coming on my land and taxing us," Frank Kettle said.

Kettle and his friends stood outside the Green Light Cafe Tuesday afternoon.

And so it is with the Senecas in their on-again, off-again battle against the giant political powers of New York State.

Senecas say they are all in agreement that Spitzer should pick a fight with someone else and let them live in peace, selling their cheaply priced cigarettes.

>Issue alive in Albany

But Spitzer, a Democrat, is not alone in his determination to collect taxes from Indian retailers. In Albany, the Indian tobacco and tax issue is not dying.

"Tax and Finance is aiding and abetting the illegal practice of not collecting taxes that we're entitled to collect by law," said Sen. Nicholas Spano, a Republican from Yonkers who chairs the State Senate's tax committee and has been a leading advocate for collecting the cigarette taxes.

Last week, the state Department of Taxation and Finance gave the green light for Milhem Attea & Bros., a Buffalo tobacco wholesaler, to continue selling tax-free cigarettes to Indian tribes.

In Rochester Tuesday, Spitzer met with Seneca President Barry Snyder Sr., who requested the meeting several weeks ago. Spitzer spokesman Darren Dopp said the two "shared their views," amd called the meeting "cordial."

>Feeling the effects

The Legislature last year approved a measure, which the governor signed, requiring wholesalers to collect the $1.50 per pack excise tax on cigarettes they sell to Indian retailers for non-Indian consumers.

All of this tough posturing has already resulted in some smoke shop closings and loss of jobs on Seneca territories.

"I used to own a smoke shop but I closed it down because I heard the state was going after us for taxes," said Lee Redeye, a 20-year-old Seneca. "I didn't want to waste putting money into the shop."

As for Cyrus Schindler, who has a load of wood pallets on order, he believes the state would have stopped Indian sales of untaxed tobacco long ago if it had the true legal authority.

"Don't you think if they really had a law, the state would have ended this long ago?" Schindler asked, quietly sitting in an Amish-made rocking chair in his reservation store beside the Thruway.

With a grin, Schindler added, "I call this place Cy-Mart."

News Staff Reporter Michael Beebe contributed to this report

-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com and tprecious@buffnews.com

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