By Robert Odawi Porter
The recent decision by the New York State Thruway Authority to lower the speed limit to 45 mph on that portion of Thruway running through Seneca Nation territory makes good sense to protect the motoring public. What doesn’t make sense is why the state doesn’t just solve the underlying problem that has caused the Thruway to fall into disrepair.
The reason the Seneca Nation refuses to allow major repairs on the Thruway to occur is simple: The state has no valid right of way for the Thruway in Seneca territory. The state is trespassing and, to add insult to injury, is operating an illegal business that generates millions of dollars a year, of which our Nation receives nothing. It has nothing to do with the gaming compact dispute.
Why is this true? Since 1790, federal law has required that every land transaction involving Indians – every sale, lease or right of way – be approved by the federal government. Throughout its entire history, the state’s officials have arrogantly ignored this requirement, which is why there are still millions of acres within the state still subject to unextinguished Indian title.
In 1954, the state asked the Seneca Nation Council to grant a permanent right of way for the Thruway for a lump sum of $75,000. This action occurred under duress against the backdrop of two major threats – the infamous state road builder Robert Moses and the fact that the federal government during that time was in the business of terminating Indian tribes.
Regardless of how one views the 1954 transaction, the Thruway right of way agreement violated federal law and was invalid on its face as it was never approved by the Congress or the president.
Recently, a series of Seneca presidents have escalated efforts to protect the Nation’s lands and press for justice, including Moe John and Barry Snyder. During my term, I petitioned President Obama for assistance against this state threat and pressed our claim for more than $600 million in lost revenues and damages. We met with high-ranking Obama administration officials, with the help of Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, but they didn’t act to help us.
So what should the Seneca Nation do about this ongoing injustice? When Senecas don’t get help from our friends, we take matters into our own hands. That is why since 2006 the state’s highways through our lands do not get repaired unless fair terms are reached in advance.
I’m not active in Seneca government any longer, but I do know that Senecas won’t stand for being denied justice when our sovereignty, our lands and our treaty rights are threatened. New York should simply follow the law and pay its bills.
Robert Odawi Porter is a former president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.