Barry E. Snyder Sr. grew up in poverty, struggled with adversity and wound up as one of the most powerful business and government leaders in the history of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Snyder, an entrepreneur who influenced Seneca Nation politics for 50 years and won election as president five times, died on Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 79.
According to Seneca Nation officials, Snyder died in his Irving home, surrounded by family members and other loved ones.
“Barry served our nation during our times, but he will deservedly be looked upon as a leader for all times,” said Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong Sr., a longtime friend and political ally of Snyder. “Throughout his life and through his service, Barry elevated the Seneca Nation and the Seneca people. As president, he touched every facet of life on our territories.”
At times a controversial figure within the Seneca Nation, Snyder was elected to two-year terms as Seneca president in 1980, 1992, 2004, 2008 and 2012.
No other president served that many terms in the tribe's history.
He served as the Indian tribe’s treasurer, eight terms in the Seneca Nation Council, and for many years as chairman of the corporation that oversaw the Senecas’ multimillion-dollar casino operations.
Snyder was also one of the founders of the Seneca Party, the political organization that has dominated the tribe for decades.
He was a soft-spoken leader who became a fierce advocate for his tribe’s sovereign rights. Snyder spent much of his political career battling with New York State leaders over efforts to tax cigarettes and gasoline sold by the Senecas.
"I will fight, whatever it takes, to protect our sovereignty and prosperity,” he said in 2004.
Snyder was a leader of the Senecas’ push to establish profitable casinos in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo. The Seneca Gaming Corporation, which Snyder led for many years, became one of the largest employers in the region, with more than 4,000 workers.
“Barry was the driving force behind the company’s success and growth,” said Kevin W. Seneca, the current Seneca Gaming chairman. He said Snyder “had a vision for Seneca Gaming Corporation, and he was masterful at getting people to buy into that vision.”
A member of the Senecas’ Hawk Clan, Snyder grew up in a very poor family on the Cattaraugus Reservation, where he was raised by his grandmother. As a boy, he was sent by his family to spend several years at the notorious Thomas Indian School, an institution in Irving run by state officials, the vast majority of them white. Discipline was very strict at the school, and many Senecas felt that educators there were trying to disengage them from their tribal language and culture.
Snyder later attended Gowanda High School, graduating in 1957. He then spent two years in the U.S. Army, before returning to the Seneca territory.
He worked as a barber and at a General Motors plant in Buffalo before he decided to start selling cigarettes from the trunk of his car on the Cattaraugus Reservation, about 45 minutes south of Buffalo.
"We knew we were immune from taxes," Snyder recalled of those days. "We sat out front. We had 30 boxes of cigarettes. We just wanted to test the waters."
In 1983, he opened the Seneca Hawk, a business in Irving that sold gasoline, cigarettes and other items. Not long after that, he became one of the tribe’s first tobacco millionaires.
Snyder was soon joined by other Senecas who set up their own smoke shops, gas stations and in later years, huge internet sales operations that enabled Seneca businesses to sell bargain smokes all over the United States.
Although critics sometimes accused Snyder and other wealthy Senecas of not doing enough to help the poor, Snyder worked hard over the decades to improve health care, pensions and other services for Senecas in poverty.
He also worked to improve services for Senecas suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction and diabetes.
Snyder told The Buffalo News he had struggled with alcoholism as a young man, and he often said he considered substance abuse one of the biggest challenges facing the more than 7,000-member Seneca Nation.
“I do care for the poor in this nation, because I was one of them,” Snyder said during a 1994 interview. “I remember what that was like.”
“Barry was a guy who lived through a lot of tragedies, and saw a lot of people fall by the wayside because of drugs and alcohol,” said Susan Asquith, a public relations consultant who worked closely with Snyder on three of his presidential campaigns. She worked with him on the Seneca Diabetes Foundation, an organization Snyder started to help Senecas who suffer from diabetes.
“Barry was aggressive and passionate about what he wanted for the nation – mainly, economic sovereignty … independence,” Asquith said. “But he also worried about the physical and mental health of his people.”
“Service was at the heart of everything my father did,” said one of his sons, Scott Snyder. “My father touched more lives than he would ever admit.”
Snyder was also in the center of many controversies within the Seneca Nation, including allegations that the Seneca Party had too much power and had used improper tactics to pressure people to vote for their candidates.
Businessman J.C. Seneca, 60, said he often disagreed with Snyder's political moves but always respected him.
"He and I had differences of opinion, but I have known Barry and his family almost my whole life, and I respected him," said Seneca. "I was very saddened to hear of his death. He provided leadership over the decades and tried hard to build a better world for the Senecas. He should be honored and remembered."
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Deanna Jimerson; two sons, Scott and Ryan; a sister, Maxine Jimerson; and two brothers, Art John and Dale Snyder. He also had 12 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.
“He never regarded his accomplishments as his own,” Scott Snyder said of his father. “They were the shared accomplishments of the Seneca Nation.”
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the Addison Funeral Home, 262 North Main St., Angola.