Apr 27/97: Seneca unite to fight NY taxes


.c The Associated Press
AP-NY-04-27-97 1607 EDT
Ben Dobbin

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. It may contain biased and distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context.]

CATTARAUGUS INDIAN RESERVATION, N.Y. (AP) -- Carol Snow-Buffalo was punched in the face by a fellow Seneca Indian when a long-running feud between tribal factions erupted at a council meeting early last year.

The effects were lasting: the 39-year-old mother of three still has double vision in her right eye, and she refers to some of her 6,700 compatriots on this wooded, hilly territory as "the enemy."

But a week ago, casting aside rancor over casino gambling or the gulf between rich and poor on the reservation, the Senecas joined forces at a huge rally to face down what she calls "our common enemy" - New York state.

"I'll stick up for whatever I believe is right," said Mrs. Snow-Buffalo, a champion of the triumphant anti-casino movement. "But we stick together against the state troopers."

The highly combustible issue that has brought Senecas closer together is cheap cigarettes and gasoline, the base of the tribe's economy.

New York is pushing to resolve its long struggle to impose sales tax on Indian tobacco and gas sales. At stake is up to $300 million in potential taxes. Unless the nine tribes statewide raise their prices to reduce their advantage over non-Indian merchants, Gov. George Pataki is threatening to levy sales tax beginning Thursday.

So far, six tribes have reached interim tax agreements. The Senecas are one of three holdouts, and Pataki has responded by ordering a virtual blockade to cut off gas and tobacco deliveries here.

With gas tanks dry and "smoke shops" depleted, the move has thrown at least 400 people out of work in a territory dotted with more than its share of tin shacks and mobile homes.

State troopers intervened when protesting Senecas blocked highways through their western New York land with burning tires and cars, leading to periodic clashes over two days, 25 arrests and about a dozen injuries on each side.

The Seneca Nation's new president, Michael Schindler, is one of a new brand of traditionalist leaders across the country who believe Indians must guard against moves to undermine their self-reliance and sovereign rights.

He recoils at New York's insistence that the Senecas sign a tax accord and turn over detailed information about Indian commerce.

"If the state gets in here and starts to regulate us, it's just another step in the direction of terminating our federal status as a tribe and toward the eventual assimilation of us into the white society," he said. "And that's nothing short of genocide."

To keep New York at bay, the Seneca Nation offered to become its own gas and tobacco wholesaler, issuing licenses to retailers. Pump and tobacco prices would be marked up but those extra charges - a sort of internal tax - would be funneled back directly into Seneca social and educational programs.

So far, Pataki is not biting, and the pressure on Schindler to strike some deal agreeable to all Senecas is mounting.

Aside from Pataki, Schindler must appease the powerful clique of private Seneca businessmen who run most of the 42 gas stations and convenience stores that have sprouted here since the mid-1980s. The stores provide about 500 jobs, many of them low-paying.

Many ordinary Senecas blame the "businessmen" for not spreading the wealth they derive in large part from their tax-exempt status, criticism that underlies much of the factional unrest on the territory in recent years. In 1995, during the height of the battle for control of the tribal council, three people were killed in a shootout.

Business leaders who had dominated tribal politics for years were ousted in November by anti-gaming candidates led by Schindler, a 43-year-old ironworker who rejects casinos as just another socially destructive lure offered by white society.

But as long as the businessmen bring in dollars, their interests cannot be ignored.

"If we can work something out for everybody to be happy, then I don't see a problem," said Scott Snyder, a member of one of the most powerful business families. "I don't see a problem giving back to the nation as long as it goes to the programs that should be funded. In turn, I don't think they should be the exclusive wholesaler. They can't just shove it down our throat."

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