Commentary: A chance for a new relationship with New York’s Native peoples


Article originally featured in the Times Union

It was recently reported that several hundred Tonawanda Seneca Nation citizens were not counted during the U.S. census of the New York population last year. The undercount of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) citizens statewide was surely even higher.

Generally, we do not consider ourselves citizens of the United States and refuse to participate in the American political process through voting or other means in order to protect our status as treaty-recognized Indigenous people.

Despite this, the census is intended to count all persons in the United States, whether they are Americans or not, whether here legally or illegally. The 2020 census revealed that New York lost a seat in the House of Representatives by only 89 people. Had the state a better relationship with the Haudenosaunee, perhaps more would have allowed themselves to be counted and New York’s representation in Congress would not be shrinking next year.

Which is another reason why having a good relationship with the Haudenosaunee and the Indian nations of Long Island is critical to the state’s future. Few New Yorkers seem to know this, but over 400 years, first as a colony and then a state, New York has waged war against Native peoples to take our lands, our wealth, and our cultural identity. We fight tenaciously to preserve our sovereignty against endless state attacks for good reason. If we didn’t, we would surely be penniless and absorbed into the state population.

The state’s hostility towards the Haudenosaunee reached a new low during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. He rarely met with our leadership and only begrudgingly addressed long-festering problems such as the state’s illegal occupation of our treaty-protected lands. Occasionally, problems were resolved, like the settlement of the $500 million gaming compact dispute between the state and the Seneca Nation ten years ago. But mostly, with Cuomo it was conflict, denial, and neglect.

The state’s failed “foreign policy” towards the Haudenosaunee is apparently an occupational hazard for state officials. Even Attorney General Letitia James got into the act within just a few months after taking office. The Shinnecock Nation has been constructing electronic billboards on its lands near a state highway in Southampton to generate much-needed revenue. The state Department of Transportation has fought aggressively against this important exercise of sovereignty and self-determination. The attorney general was personally briefed on this dispute. But rather than respecting tribal sovereignty and solving the problem, she simply picked up the war club of the litigation effort no differently than her predecessors.

It is unclear what approach Gov. Kathy Hochul will take during her time in office. As a Western New Yorker, she has seen firsthand that respecting tribal sovereignty is a win-win solution for all. In 2002, Gov. George Pataki joined with the Seneca Nation to sign a casino gaming deal that led to a $1 billion investment and the creation of 4,000 jobs. She also no doubt saw the burning tires on the Thruway in 1997 after Pataki tried to tax our commerce in violation of our treaties.

Governor Hochul would do well to try a new approach and turn the state’s swords into ploughshares for the good of all.

Robert Odawi Porter is a former president of the Seneca Nation and a visiting professor at Cornell Law School.

Capitol Hill Policy Group