[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only. It may contain biased and distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context.]
NEW YORK TIMES -- Until six months ago, Michael Schindler was an ironworker who could balance on a rail in the sky.
That is far less risky than what he is doing now, people in Seneca territory in western New York said. Since he was elected president of the Seneca Nation of Indians in November, he has been trying to hold his fractured tribe together while it is in a bitter confrontation with Gov. George Pataki over sales taxes.
Last month, Pataki announced interim agreements with six of the nine Indian nations in New York that could resolve the state's long effort to impose taxes on Indian cigarette and gasoline sales. No state taxes would be collected under the deal, but five of the tribes agreed not to sell gasoline at all. All six said they would raise cigarette prices to reduce the advantage they have over non-Indian businesses.
Since the agreement, there has been a war of nerves between the holdouts and the governor, with the state imposing a virtual blockade of gasoline shipments to the reservations and tribe members staging protests.
On Sunday, about 1,000 Indians and their supporters blocked traffic on a 30-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway south of Buffalo, and the state police shut down that section overnight. A dozen state troopers and a number of Indians were hurt in the clash. Thirteen people were arrested on Monday on disorderly conduct charges stemming from the continuing dispute.
The Senecas have not signed the accord with the governor, and Schindler has become the most visible leader of the holdout tribes.
Speaking softly as he always does, Schindler, 43, said it was unthinkable to enter an agreement with the state or provide New York with the detailed information about Indian commerce the governor demanded. "We are a sovereign nation," he said during a conversation in his office at the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, near Buffalo. "We have the right to govern ourselves. We were here before the white people got here."
Some Senecas and outside experts say Schindler's battle with the governor goes beyond the tax controversy and amounts to a test of a new type of traditionalist Indian leader. Traditionalists like Schindler argue that Indians must reassert their rights to self-determination and must reject such lures offered by white society as casino gambling.
"This is a turning point," said Laurence Hauptman, a professor of Native American Affairs at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "The Seneca have emerged as the most tradition- and sovereignty-minded of the Indian nations in New York."
In addition to the Seneca Nation, with 6,700 people, the other two nations that have refused to sign a sales-tax accord are the Poospatucks of Long Island and the large but politically divided Akwesasne Mohawks near the Canadian border in eastern New York.
Gas-station tanks are empty on the reservation these days. Indian businesses are laying off scores of employees. Fury against the state is growing and Schindler is under increasing pressure to find some way out of the morass.
That task is made harder because the Senecas are deeply divided. On one side are Schindler's traditionalists, who trace their political birth to a strong anti-casino movement and who propose what amounts to their own tax on Seneca-owned gas stations and convenience stores.
On the other side is a group that people here call "the businessmen." They are Seneca entrepreneurs who have used the tax-exempt status to build gas stations and convenience stores. The businessmen and followers of their Seneca political party favored construction of a casino and dominated tribal politics for years.
Schindler said that, like many Indians who grew up on the reservation, he was unsure of the importance of Indian tradition as a young man. His path back to what he called Indianness explained the positions he takes on the issues dividing the nation now, he said.
The son of a Seneca ironworker, Schindler, like many Indians, attended an Episcopal church and graduated from public high school in nearby Gowanda, where the Senecas' white neighbors sent their children.
Around him, was the poverty and the social disintegration that he said was fostered by U.S. government policies. For a long time, he said, his attitudes were shaped by those pressures. He drank too much as a young man, he said. He fathered two children out of wedlock and drifted away from the reservation to live among whites in Dallas for nine years.
But during the years he was away, he said, he began to straighten himself out and to feel the tug of Indian tradition. He read about Indian history and, working with a traditional medicine man, he said he learned about the spiritual connection of Indian people to each other and their land.
When he moved back in 1987, some people there said he seemed to have found himself. He became involved in the Senecas' traditional religion and in community organizations. And he grew skeptical of the powerful Seneca businessmen.
When the businessmen began pressing for a casino, their opponents, including Schindler, rallied around the anti-casino cause. "It is a vice," Schindler said. "It can create a lot of social problems and I think we have enough of that around here."
In 1994, a tribal referendum put the Senecas on record as opposed to opening a casino. That same year the businessmen lost the presidency to an anti-casino candidate, Dennis Bowen.
But Bowen won by only three votes of 933 cast and the businessmen's Seneca Party retained control of the tribal council. The two sides locked in battle that left the nation's government paralyzed, with each side trying to take control.
In 1996, there was another Seneca election. In a meeting of the anti-casino group, someone suggested Schindler as a candidate for president. Part of his appeal, several people said, was that he had not held office before.
He won by a decisive vote of 1,037 to 850 and his allies unseated every Seneca Party tribal councilor who was up for election.
Schindler said he had never had any political ambitions but felt a duty to try to help his people through a time of crisis. The confrontation with Pataki, he said, had become symbolic of hundreds of years of aggression from the American leaders.
"The state," he said, "is trying to destroy us as a nation." Indians, he said, had learned from hard experience that agreements and treaties usually led to loss of Indian territory or independence.
Though the Seneca businessmen endorse those views, they say they worry about his leadership. They say that Schindler's anti-business stance would deprive the nation of the only realistic path to self-reliance.
Schindler says the businessmen have used the Indians' tax-free status for their own benefit, building high-volume businesses because of their low gas and cigarette prices. He said that he would fight the governor to preserve the Senecas' sovereignty but that it was time for all the Seneca people to benefit from the success of all the Seneca businesses. "I am very concerned for our nation," Schindler said, "because there are people who would sell the nation out for a dollar."
I was grateful that this article was written and I thought it was done quite intelligently. However, I think it would be nice if it was followed up with some background about why sovereignty is so crucial and how destructive is the tax and any state power over reservations. I liken sovereignty as equal in importance to the civil rights struggle because it, too, is fundamentally a human rights issue. As Michael Schindler, the President of the Seneca Nation said in the article, "The state is trying to destroy us as a nation."
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