It’s been a long, bumpy road between the Seneca Nation and New York

A sign for Seneca reservations.
A sign for Seneca reservations.
David Duprey/AP/Shutterstock

It’s been a long, bumpy road between the Seneca Nation and New York

The fight over fixing I-90 is just the latest pothole.
September 17, 2019

The Seneca Nation of Indians is once again barring the state from repairing the dilapidated I-90 thruway – and New York is “frustrated.”

Because the thruway is on the nation’s Cattaraugus reservation, the nation must grant permission before the state can begin to rehabilitate the road. The Seneca Nation, however, is refusing to grant the state permission to reconstruct the thruway until a larger conversation regarding transportation issues within the nation’s territory is had, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. But that’s hardly the full story. Disagreements over how the thruway came to be on Seneca territory, disputes over casino profits, and over 150 years’ worth of bad faith are also at play here.

Since 1993, the nation has maintained that the state did not acquire proper approval when it acquired an easement to build its thruway in 1954. The nation said it was pressured into providing the state with access to 300 of its acres to build this stretch of highway in exchange for $75,000 – about $715,000 today. 

In 1999, the nation sued New York, claiming the state did not gain proper approval, and though the judge sided with the nation, the case was eventually thrown out, as a state under the Constitution cannot be legally sued. But just last year, the nation sued New York again, this time suing Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials over the thruway’s toll road – arguing they didn’t get federal approval to build it, and saying that the nation is entitled to a share of the tolls collected on the stretch of highway on the Cattaraugus reservation. The case has yet to be settled. 

But long before the back-and-forth fight over the thruway began, the nation had issues with New York – which hasn’t always worked in the Senecas’ best interests. 

The Fort Stanwix Treaty, the first of many treaties granting the Senecas and other nations the right to land separate from land owned by the United States, was signed in 1784. All remained relatively peaceful until the introduction of the Treaty of Buffalo Creek in 1838. The treaty attempted to remove the Seneca people from their land by selling the nation’s four reservations, and providing provisions to send the Seneca people to Kansas. Two of the reservations, Allegany and Cattaraugus, were not ultimately sold, and though some of the Seneca people did head to Kansas, most stayed put. The treaty also included a measure that would prevent the nation’s activities from being taxed.

In the 1990s, however, New York decided that cigarettes and gasoline sold by the nation to non-Native Americans should be subject to a New York sales tax, resulting in multipleprotests. In 2011, a federal appeals court ruled in New York’s favor, stating that collecting taxes would not violate the nation’s sovereignty. The Seneca Nation then decided to circumvent the tax by selling cigarettes made by them and other tribes.

Despite the bad blood between them, the Senecas entered into a compact with New York in 2002 to open casinos in Niagara Falls and Buffalo on Native American land, in an attempt by the state to recoup financial losses after the 9/11 attacks. The 14-year agreement was expected to result in billions of dollars worth of revenue for the Seneca Nation and hundreds of millions for the state. 

And just over 14 years later, in 2017, the nation stated that it would no longer be sharing its casino revenue – about $110 million a year – with New York, even though the nation had reached an agreement with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration in 2013 to continue payments to the state. In January, an arbitration panel ruled in the state’s favor, stating that the nation needs to hand over its witheld casino revenue — but the nation has not yet agreed to do so. 

So it might be a little while before you can drive on I-90 without blowing out a tire.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is a staff reporter at City & State.