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How Senecas became exempt from taxes on their lands

Ever wonder why Senecas can sell tax-free gasoline and cigarettes in a state where taxes on those items are considered exceptionally high?

It goes back to a treaty signed in 1842 in Buffalo – the Buffalo Creek land treaty.

In that treaty, the Senecas were exempted “from all taxes, and assessments for roads, highways, or any other purpose until such lands shall be sold” on their own land. Using that exemption, Senecas have, over the past decade alone, expanded their wealth and influence to hundreds of millions of dollars. The exemption allowed the Seneca Nation to operate their thriving cigarette and gasoline businesses.

And that is one reason why the Senecas for the past decade or so have commemorated the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842 with a ceremony.

“We honor the treaty that made it possible for us to come back,” Seneca President Maurice John said.

Friday at the Burchfield Nature & Art Center in West Seneca, the ceremony included food, dance, crafts, and speeches that together “polish the chain of friendship,” according to Richard Nephew.

This Native American phrase and philosophy for forging relationships is behind the Seneca Nation’s treaty gatherings that Nephew helped start about a decade ago at the Burchfield Nature & Art Center in West Seneca, which was once part of the Seneca’s Buffalo Creek Reservation.

“People need to get together from time to time and talk about our past. This is an occasion to do that. So we don’t offend each other. Let’s talk about our relationship. Let’s talk about how we got here today,” said Nephew, a past member of the Seneca Nation’s Legislative Council.

“It’s not a celebration we’re having,” he said. “It’s a commemoration of what we lost and the fact that there are good people who’ve come to our aid in the past.”

The Senecas started holding commemorations because they were frustrated with New York State’s desire to collect taxes on cigarettes.

Modern politicians didn’t seem to know about the treaty and its language about protecting them “from all taxes,” Nephew said. In the decade since the first treaty gathering at the nature center, Seneca wealth and influence has grown. The 1842 treaty led to this success, John said. Now the Seneca Nation wants more.

“Our population is growing,” he said. “We’re trying to expand our territory.”

The Senecas traditional homeland ranged from the Genesee River to Lake Erie and into Pennsylvania, where they farmed and hunted. Following the American Revolution, when the Senecas sided with the British, treaties were signed that recognized several Native American reservations in New York State.

But Seneca lands declined steadily after that, said Rick Jemison, a Seneca Nation councilman. An 1826 treaty signed by Native American leaders, including Red Jacket, cut thousands of acres from the Tonawanda Senecas now living on a fraction of their original land near Batavia.

“He had to defend himself for signing the 1826 treaty,” Jemison. “He said he was coerced.”

Red Jacket died in 1830. Later that year, President Andrew Jackson, through his Indian Removal Act, started to relocate Native Americans out West. A contested 1838 treaty took away all remaining Seneca lands. This included the reservation along the Buffalo Creek that contained farmland and creek water that supplied energy for mills.

Outcry after the deal led to the treaty of 1842 that restored some of that land.

Two territories were returned to what is now the Seneca Nation – Allegany near Salamanca and Cattaraugus near Irving. Another group, the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, governs itself separately on land they bought back.

“A lot of pressure was brought to bear on elected officials. If it wasn’t for good honest, fair-thinking Americans that came to our aid in 1838, we wouldn’t have had a new treaty in 1842,” Nephew said. “The 1842 is the last treaty that we signed. Probably the last one that we’ll ever have. We want what was promised.”

The tax-exemption has proved particularly useful in the 21st century.

“That, of course, creates some opportunity for us and we capitalize on it,” Nephew said.

High state taxes created a market for the Senecas to sell tax-free.

“A couple of our entrepreneurs said, ‘Hey wait a minute. There’s something here,’ ” Nephew said. “Cigarettes are not a great product to be fighting about but it’s the principle. If it wasn’t cigarettes and they raised the taxes on bread and Popsicles, it would have been that product.”

The Burchfield Nature and Art Center at 2001 Union Road, a community gallery and meeting space, is at the edge of Buffalo Creek that gave the old Seneca territory its name. On display inside the nature center Friday, people could see the Senecas’ modern presence. A show put up to coincide with the commemoration features work by Iroquois artists. A quilt of a Native American in profile is suspended from the ceiling. Paintings and drawings are on the walls. A display case holds a handmade lacrosse stick, baskets shaped like strawberries, an ear of corn and a tote.

“We grabbed as many as we could for this,” said Penny Minner. She learned from her cousin about how to pound ash as thin as paper to weave it with curlicues the way her grandmother did.

When she makes the hour-long drive from Salamanca to the wooded nature center and walks the path to its shores, she likes how peaceful and quiet it is, like home.

“It is kind of like going to the roots of where we came from. It kind of hurts at the same time. You get pushed further and further away,” she said, thinking of the lost land. “It’s still part of us.”