Seneca Nation Seeks President Obama’s Help on Thruway

July 29, 2011 Updated Jul 29, 2011 at 11:31 AM EDT

By WKBW News

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Seneca Nation Seeks President Obama’s Help on Thruway

July 29, 2011 Updated Jul 29, 2011 at 11:31 AM EDT

Allegany Territory (WKBW release) -- The Seneca Nation of Indians on Thursday submitted a petition to President Barack Obama, seeking his administration’s help to address grievances about the New York State Thruway Authority’s illegal occupation of a three-mile swath of land across the Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory.

Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter said he wrote to the White House under provisions of treaties with the U.S. Government and treaty recognition principles endorsed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Porter said top state officials have consistently refused for at least the last five years to meaningfully discuss the issues involving the Thruway easement.

“The Thruway easement issue is not new for the state or the Seneca Nation. For 60 years and clearly and emphatically over the past decade, we asked state officials to discuss long-standing, legitimate grievances the Nation has over the illegal Thruway right-of-way on our sovereign territory,” Porter said.

The easement where four lanes of the highway run through Nation territory signed Oct. 5, 1954 is void because federal law required the Secretary of the Interior’s approval, which never happened – as a federal magistrate judge in Buffalo ruled in July 1999.

On April 14, 2007, the Nation’s Council rescinded its own Sept. 18, 1954 authorization for the Thruway easement. Later in 2007, the Nation imposed a $1 per vehicle toll, billed to the state, for each motorist passing through its territory. The state continues to reject bills for the tolls, which now total more than $80 million.

In various court actions, repeated letters and multiple public statements, three Seneca presidents in the last five years made it clear to New York Thruway and government officials that the voided easement for the 300 acres of land the Thruway uses needed to be subject of discussions with the Nation.

As recently as Jan. 12, 2011, Porter wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, listing a series of topics the two sides needed to discuss, including the Thruway right-of-way.

Porter today released his letter to President Obama, urging his administration to intervene to start fruitful talks with state involvement.

Porter wrote President Obama that the Nation is:

“…seeking the United States’ involvement and assistance in resolving the nearly 60-year unauthorized occupation of 300 acres of the Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory by the State of New York for purposes of constructing and maintaining the New York Thruway.

“Because the United States did not consent to an October 5, 1954 conveyance of an easement to the state for the Thruway, made under duress by the Seneca Nation, the easement obtained by the state violated the federal Non-Intercourse Act … and was void from its inception. The state’s continuing occupation of Seneca land for purposes of the Thruway for nearly 60 years is a continuing violation of federal law that must be resolved.

“The United States’ involvement is necessary because – despite the clear violation of the Non-Intercourse Act by the State of New York – the Nation’s claim against the state in the absence of the United States’ direct involvement and participation has been determined by the Federal Courts to be barred by the states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Nation is therefore left with a clear right, but no remedy that the Nation can effectuate itself.

“The United States’ involvement is urgently needed to protect the Seneca Nation’s land against this continuing violation of federal law by the State of New York, and the continuing unauthorized occupation of its lands by the state.

“The Seneca Nation calls upon President Barack Obama, on behalf of our Treaty partner the United States, to act on the commitment made by President George Washington over 200 years ago to ‘protect’ the Nation in all of its ‘just rights,’ and to honor the commitment made in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua to protect the Seneca Nation in the ‘free use and enjoyment of its lands.’

“Such action would also honor the recent commitment made by the United States in adopting and supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which among other things requires the United States to ‘provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for … any action which has the aim of dispossessing [indigenous people] of their lands, territories or resources,’ and recognizes the right to redress for ‘lands, territories and resources which [indigenous people] have occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.’ ”

The letter includes the following, in bold capital letters:

“The president’s assistance is essential to finally bring about a resolution to New York’s longstanding illegal use of Seneca Nation lands.”

Porter emphasized that this issue stands alone among others that Nation leaders listed to New York state officials over the years.
He said the Thruway easement – which predates by decades disagreements over taxing tobacco sales and the Nation’s gaming compact – has nothing to do with ongoing litigation over state efforts to tax Indian tobacco sales statewide; nor is it related in any way to the Nation’s dispute with the state over its withholding of nearly $300 million because state endorsed casino gaming activity violated the exclusivity clause of the state-Nation gaming compact.

“This is a separate issue and one of long-standing disagreement between the Nation and the state,” Porter said. “State officials for 10 years have thus far ignored all of our appeals on the easement, and we can document many. These issues are critical to our Nation and our people and it’s time for the state to recognize that and join us in discussing them.”