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Senecas demand new deal on land used by Thruway Call issue separate from dispute over tobacco, gasoline

CATTARAUGUS INDIAN RESERVATION -- The Seneca Nation of Indians has no intention of ever collecting cigarette taxes for the state, and its leader raised the ante Thursday in the high stakes poker game by saying the tribe could erect its own toll booth along the section of Thruway on Seneca territory.

"If any taxes are going to be collected, it may be our taxes in the form of a toll booth," Seneca Nation President Maurice John Sr. said at a news conference to outline why the tribal council has withdrawn the easement it gave the state allowing the Thruway Authority to cross reservation land near Silver Creek.

Although John's words seemed confrontational, he and other Senecas say they want to sit down and negotiate. The Senecas have no intentions of disrupting traffic on the Thruway or utilities that cross the reservations.

In addition to a new compensation package for the Thruway right of way, they want to discuss the ongoing controversy over tobacco and gasoline products.

They want -- at least initially -- direct talks between John and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.

But with John and Spitzer expected to meet in the coming weeks, the Seneca president said, the tribe's latest actions nullifying the Thruway easement should not be construed as a response to the state's ongoing efforts to collect taxes on tobacco sales to non-Indians.

"The issue before us is a land issue. It's totally separate from taxes," John said.

In 1954, the state paid the Senecas $75,000 and agreed to compensate individual members whose land was taken for the Thruway. But the individual payments, tribe officials say, never were made.

"A lot of Senecas have passed away waiting to get paid for the land the New York State Thruway took," John said of the 300 acres. "One of the individuals was my great-aunt Hattie Halftown."

John said the Senecas might consider resolving the dispute by accepting annual payments from the state or perhaps additional land to accommodate the tribe's growing population.

The Senecas' tribal courts also need to examine easements for numerous other roads and utility rights of way running through reservation lands to make sure they are valid, John said.

Although Seneca leaders call the Thruway matter a land dispute and not part of the ongoing tax debate, the two issues will loom large when Spitzer and John meet.

The Thruway issue, said Seneca counsel Robert Porter, dates back to 1993 when the Senecas filed suit as part of a legal fight that also included land claims on Grand Island and other islands in the Niagara River. The Senecas lost that lawsuit.

"It's a matter of Seneca control over Seneca Nation land. That has never been ceded to any other government," Porter said of the Thruway claims.

While the Senecas are reaffirming no "immediate effort to disrupt in any way the Thruway," they say they consider the state a trespasser on Indian land.

Officials with the New York Association of Convenience Stores, the Senecas' chief antagonist in the tobacco tax-collection dispute, said Thursday the Thruway issue is an attempt to obtain leverage with the state over the tax issue.

Spitzer has pledged to collect the taxes, and the new state budget assumes the state will take in about $200 million in new collections of sales of gasoline and cigarettes by Indians to non-Indians.

"The term 'childish' comes to mind," James Calvin, executive director of the trade group, said of the Senecas' Thruway claim. "The state bestowed upon the Seneca Nation an exclusive franchise to mint money with its casinos, and all they do is complain about how the state is treating them."

The Spitzer administration, probably trying not to ratchet up any tensions, remained uncharacteristically silent Thursday. Darren Dopp, a Spitzer spokesman who had noted Wednesday that the Senecas already lost a lawsuit over the Thruway issue while Spitzer was attorney general, declined to comment Thursday evening.

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

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