May 22/97: Pataki's secretive agreement fuels conflict


posted with permission from Native Americas magazine
May 22, 1997

Governor Pataki hails it as a major breakthrough in Indian-state relations, but the recent compact that resulted in the shutting down of the Indian trade in oil and tobacco products has unleashed the most severe conflict New York Indian communities have experienced in modern times.

The immediate impact of the compact has been the most massive layoff of workers in New York State Indian history. Two weeks after the announcement, the loss of jobs in these small communities is at around one thousand and the Indian anger is growing. In the Mohawk community of Akwesasne alone, 371 jobs were terminated - 238 occupied by Indians and 133 by non-Indians.

The fact that the agreement was signed after secret negotiations and verification that virtually no one in any of the communities who stood to be affected was consulted in formal processes or even informed as to its ultimate terms, has put the Indian leadership in a boiling cauldron. Several of the Indian representatives who signed with Pataki are keeping low profiles and a growing opposition movement is gaining ground. If Pataki's aides had planned the disruption of the Indians' democratic processes and decimation of their financial markets, they could not have played a more significant role or hoped for a better outcome.

What the State may not have known is that for all the complexity and volatility of Iroquois politics, more Indians than not understand the motivations of the state and can yet recall the bitter sequence of historical events in which the state and federal governments either confirmed or themselves moved unilaterally to dispossess Indians of their lands, resources, and rights. They recall the Power Authority Reservoir built on Tuscarora land and the Kinzua Dam that flooded Seneca land in the late 1950s. And they recall the Buffalo Creek Swindle of 1838 in which some of the chiefs and others, who were either bribed, confused, or drunk, signed away to unscrupulous agents of the Ogden Land Company 125,000 acres of Seneca land comprising four reservations-Buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, Cattaraugus and Allegany-which had been confirmed by the Pickering Treaty of 1794. The difference is this. Back then is was about Indian land. Today it is about Indian markets. These events and even the most obvious state-to-Indian land and economic comparisons lend perspective to the current taxation issue.

Prior to the state's incorporation the Iroquois reigned over the territory of what is now called New York State and well beyond. Of the state's 49,576 square miles, Indians retain only 161 square miles - less than one-third of one percent. The annual cash flow of one modern, privately-owned mega-supermarket in Buffalo or Rochester exceeds $50 million, more than that of several Indian national economies-even prior to the state's intervention. The business generated by one business-zoned avenue like Niagara Falls Boulevard in Western New York exceeds by several times the income of all the Indian Nations in New York State combined. The state's annual budget of $65 billion makes infinitesimal any perceived financial impact due to the presence of sovereign Indian economies.

By supporting a secret agreement that allowed neither Indian nor state community discussions and resulted in the virtual paralysis of all economic activity on reservations, Pataki's team has introduced an additional element of chaos in these communities that will be difficult, if not impossible, to predict or control. Whether driven by naiveté or cynicism, the result of the pact in Indian Country is already devastating - economically, socially and politically.

None of the traditional practitioners surveyed for this article can point with confidence to legitimate, open, fully inclusive, functional democratic processes implemented to incorporate the interests of the broad and diverse sectors of their communities. They privately admit that the play with the state was one for control and power to gain leverage over the unwieldy business sector. But, in the absence of open forums and community consultations questions not just linger, but burn like stoked embers in the hearts of thousands of Indian people across the state who have been impacted by the agreement.

The circumvention of democracy in several Iroquois communities is compounded by the fact that anyone raising criticism stands to be banished or outlawed by the established family powers. Indian businesses operating under the assumption of sovereignty have been branded as criminals and the specter of organized crime has been promoted without any Indian rights consensus on the allegations. And it would seem the agreement affords those Indian signatories the force of New York State and Federal laws to criminalize their own people.

Should Indian Nations regulate their own commerce for the benefit of community and nation? Certainly. Did Indian entrepreneurs move quickly and powerfully into the void left vacant by the absence of Indian regulatory structures? Most assuredly. But the resolutions were for the Indians to determine within democratic forums, Indian-to-Indian negotiations and through the activation of independent processes to achieve a verifiable degree of community consensus and across-the-board accountability-before negotiations ever commenced with the state.

In this regard the state has either cleverly manipulated or stumbled beneficially into the internal divisions of the Iroquois in particular. In Tuscarora, the business owners were not informed that some of their people were about to agree with the state to destroy their gas businesses outright. Even more remarkable, the state informs the public that the Cayuga Nation also signed the agreement. The Cayuga Nation owns not a single square inch of territory within the state at this time and, therefore, not a single gas station or tobacco store is operated by a Cayuga within its national realm. Frank Bonamie, a traditional Cayuga Chief who is highly respected, even in state circles, first learned his nation had signed the agreement when reading the newspaper. The Cayuga agreement appears to be wholly illegitimate.

Additionally, on the American side of the affair both state and federal legislators are now questioning Pataki's undemocratic tactics. Rep. John LaFalce writes, "I have been amazed to find that New York State has chosen to make the document completely unavailable to state legislators, the media, or anyone else." He also states that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribal Justice Division of the Department of Justice have been unable to obtain a copy of the agreement. Assemblyman Sam Hoyt goes further by stating: "Governor Pataki is handling this situation poorly. His policy seems based on the notion that New York is hemorrhaging potential tax dollars to Native American businesses. This is simply not the case."

Dealing directly with the state as a way to circumvent this much-needed consensus-building process may have only ensured that great trauma and even more complete hostility would follow for the Indians. Ire, greed and the drive to control their own communities without open consultations will now all appear part of the Indian signatories' decision - placing them in the precise position they had accused their detractors of occupying. Given the recent New York history of intra-tribal virulence, the signatories' objectives can perhaps be understood. Pataki's negotiators, however, should have known better.

It was a poor decision and the game is now erupting into a slow-motion brawl. While the negotiating parties anticipate initial protests to be followed by resignation and compliance, they may instead realize a protracted conflict. The two largest Indian nations, the Seneca and the Mohawk, representing nearly 20,000 citizens, have yet to capitulate. The teams are falling out of the dugout and even the spectators are joining the fray. Pataki has not yet seen an Indian war. But his much-heralded ill-gotten compact threatens to give him the experience.

Tim Johnson is executive manager of the award-winning Native Americas Journal, published by the American Indian Program at Cornell University.

Akwe:kon's Journal of Indigenous Issues

Brendan White
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