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'A nation of warriors' Seneca Nation President Maurice John has no shortage of battles

Seneca Indians have been known as a nation of warriors since the days of George Washington and the Revolutionary War, Seneca Nation President Maurice A. John says.

And that is not about to change.

Although he is the leader of a community of just a few thousand people, he and his nation are among the most powerful economic forces in the region.

And everywhere the 58-year-old Seneca leader looks these days, it seems he has a fight on his hands:

*Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer wants to collect $200 million in taxes he says the Senecas avoid paying when they sell cigarettes to non-Senecas, both on the Seneca territories and through the mail and Internet.

*A lawsuit against the proposed Buffalo Creek casino in U.S. District Court, gambling opponents say, has a real possibility of derailing the Seneca's third casino.

*The National Indian Gaming Commission, told by the judge to reconsider whether the Buffalo Creek property can house a casino, has subpoenaed Seneca records in a separate dispute over how the Senecas spend their casino profits.

Moe John, as he is known on the Seneca territories, insists the nation will never back down from Spitzer in the high-stakes battle over cigarette taxes.

"I took an oath of office to protect our land, our people, our government and our way of life," John said. "We won't give in on this fight."

When asked if violence will erupt if the state tries to enforce the impending tax collections, John said: "I hope and I pray every day that there will be no violence. I'll do everything I can to prevent it.

[But] I can't guarantee there will be no violence . . . We are a nation of warriors."

John's comments on taxes came during a wide-ranging interview of more than four hours this month. It was by far the longest interview given by John, who took office last November and rarely speaks to reporters away from public events.

Accompanied by a Seneca lawyer, Martin E. Seneca Jr., John took a Buffalo News reporter and photographer on a tour of the new $160 million Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel. He also took them into the deep backwoods of the Allegany Reservation, showing places where he hunted and fished as a boy.

Sitting in bright sunshine on a park bench in front of the Seneca Nation's history museum in Salamanca, John responded to questions about some of the key issues and controversies facing the Senecas. At times, his close friend and aide Seneca chimed in with answers.

>You've spoken in the past about being a teenager when your home was torn down by the federal government to make way for the Kinzua Dam project. How did that affect your view of the Senecas and their dealings with the state and federal governments?

John: To put it simply, what does it mean to watch your father cry? My father had to watch while the government pulled down trees and set them on fire. Our homes were destroyed. The bones of our ancestors were taken from the ground and thrown into boxes. I think about all that every day.

The Kinzua Dam is important, but only because it serves as a reminder. It can't help me to solve any government situation, but it can make us strong.

>You've said that, before the presidential election, you made it a point to visit some of the poorest homes and trailers in the Seneca Nation. Why did you do that, and what did you see that stuck with you?

John: I spent a good month knocking on doors, visiting people and talking about issues. The most valuable lesson I learned is that we have to help the people who slip through the cracks and don't get the help they need. You walk into a house that has no back door, and you talk to a grandmother who's trying to take care of two toddlers. We need to make sure these people can take advantage of the programs we have.

>What do you hope to do for those poor people?

John: Housing is a priority of mine. We've built 65 new houses for people in the past three years, and we want to keep building new homes for the needy. We need to expand our programs for substance abuse. The casinos have made money available for these programs. I realize that we just need to ease some of the red tape and make the programs more available to more people.

>Last month, you told me you were very upset because -- in your words -- Gov. Spitzer was refusing to meet with you on the tax dispute. Have you been able to meet with him yet?

John: No, I'm still calling for that meeting. I don't want to meet with him to discuss issues. I just want to meet with him, face to face. I just want to get a sense for what kind of man he is, and for him to meet me. We don't consider ourselves to be insignificant. We're the seventh largest employer in Western New York right now. We're proud of our nation.

>The state has now passed a budget that formally anticipates collecting $200 million in cigarette and gasoline taxes from Indian tribes. Do you still believe there is any chance of a compromise with the state on this issue?

John: Our lawyers are still talking to his lawyers. We are not giving up.

>How far will the Senecas go to avoid paying state taxes? In light of past confrontations between Senecas and state police, are you worried about the possibility of bloodshed?

John: As president, I'm doing everything I can to prevent violence from happening. But as we sit here today, I can't guarantee that won't happen. I can't control every Seneca, just as Eliot Spitzer can't control every state trooper. We are a warrior society. We've always fought oppression. It's in our DNA. You can't expect us to sit back and let New York State take our livelihood away. . . . I worry about my people. There are more troopers than there are natives.

Martin Seneca: We are trying to use diplomacy, logic and reason to find a solution. John Marshall, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, once said, "The power to tax is the power to destroy."

We do not view ourselves as subservient to New York State, but if the state wants to overpower us, they're going to.

>A legal challenge in federal court seems to have a very real chance of preventing you from opening a Buffalo casino. What will you do if that decision goes against you? Might you consider trying to open another casino elsewhere in Erie County, possibly Cheektowaga?

John: I don't know how to predict the outcome of that. We'll do whatever we can to comply with our compact with New York State. I only hope the state realizes the impact it's going to have on Buffalo if a judge breaks the compact. If the people of Buffalo don't want our casino, don't want the profits, don't want the jobs, that's unfortunate . . . I thought Cheektowaga was a great idea, but a court took that out of the equation.

Martin Seneca: The casino and hotel that we built here [in Salamanca] -- we wanted to build something even bigger and better than that in Buffalo. But Buffalo seems to be controlled by a small, vocal group of people. So we can't do it.

>There has been some talk of a possible Seneca casino in the Catskills. Would you like to see that become a reality? Can you give us a progress report?

John: I am not privy to those discussions, but if the chance ever did arise, I think it would be in the best interest of the nation to look at all the options.

>Some Senecas claim that your casinos have done business with so-called front companies. These are companies that claim to be run by Seneca Nation members, but, in truth, are financially backed and controlled by white people. What would you do if you learned that such a company was doing business with the casinos or the nation?

John: We have a compliance department that evaluates all minority contractor applications . . . I make it a point not to get involved. If there are any problems with it, they haven't come to my desk.

>According to court records, you and your wife owe the Internal Revenue Service more than $9 million in unpaid taxes, relating to the gas station you used to operate. The tax lien dates back to 1990. Why haven't you paid the government, and do you ever intend to?

John: Basically, I can't pay it off. I don't have $10 million in my back pocket. I'm in no position to pay it off.

>Are you aware that many Senecas see you as a hero for defying the IRS?

John: I don't consider it a badge of honor. I don't recommend the path I've taken to any young people. I tell young people to work with the federal government. I put my family through hell over this. I put myself in harm's way. I spent time in jail. I'm a poster boy for the IRS. The IRS just doesn't know it.

>According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Seneca Gaming Corp. decided last September to distribute $46 million to the Seneca Nation. Can you say what that money is being used for?

John: It went into the general fund for the Seneca Nation. We use it for the health, education and welfare of our people. We have auditors and accountants to make sure everything is complied with . . . I find nonnatives to be preoccupied with cash.

>I sometimes get e-mails at The News from people who claim that, if the Senecas call themselves a sovereign nation, they should not accept millions of dollars in aid from the federal government every year. What is your reaction?

John: We're entitled to it. When whites first came to this land, we helped them. We shared our knowledge, our land and our food. Many of our people have gone to war to fight for the United States. It's not like we're taking handouts. Promises have been made to the Indians by the federal government, going back to the time of George Washington. We have the right to vote in your elections. We enjoy dual citizenship.

>The Senecas have a matrilineal society. Those people whose mothers were Senecas are considered enrolled Senecas, regardless of the race of their father. If someone had a Seneca father and a mother who was not a Seneca, they cannot be enrolled Senecas. Some Senecas feel this is unfair. Do you advocate any changes, and do you think it ever will be changed?

John: I'm not a fortuneteller. I believe the Mohawks made a change. Every tribe is entitled to its own opinions and mistakes. It's not something that I'm ever going to have a say in, or push for. If ever there is a change, the mothers of the nation would lead the way.

>Another long Seneca tradition is vote-buying -- candidates paying people to vote in the presidential elections. What is your stand on vote-buying, and do you think it should be outlawed?

John: What you call vote-buying, New York State calls campaign donations. How much money is Hillary Clinton raising? Why don't we call that vote-buying? If there are any changes to be made in our system, they'll be made by the Seneca Nation, not by The Buffalo News.

Martin Seneca: We learned from the white man how to run campaigns and elections, but we're more honest and forthright about it than you are.

>According to public court records, you owed $92,000 in child support payments last year to a woman in Little Valley. We've never heard your side of this story.

John: There's nothing to address. It's a family court issue. I'm current in my payments. I've made peace with my creator.

>The Seneca Nation makes much of its money from two things that are addictive -- cigarettes and gambling. Does that bother you in any way?

John: It doesn't bother me. We make money selling gravel, too. We're not just about cigarettes, gas and gaming. The Seneca people are diversifying into other businesses. We're encouraging more of our young people to go to college, and we're giving them scholarships. We hope they will come back here after college and diversify into all kinds of businesses.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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