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Seneca Nation lawsuit 'looking for redress' of 60-year-old wrong

Mike Desmond

It is back to federal court for the Seneca Nation and New York State, this time over three miles of state Thruway running across the Cattaraugus Territory.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Seneca President Todd Gates

"This transgression has been going on since 1954 and we're just looking for redress."

Backed by many tribal councilors in the Council Chamber, the Seneca president said the Nation is going back to court over an issue that has been the subject of debate for decades -- really since construction started on the Thruway in the early 1950s.

The legal circumstances of that construction have been litigated for years. In 1992, Seneca protestors shut down the road in a flareup of this fight and in 1997 there was a massive brawl between State Police and Nation protestors.

That was back when the Nation did not have the massive cash flow from casinos to hire top lawyers to fight, Gates said. He said this time, he is not trying to shut down the superhighway, just get a fair deal for Senecas.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"More than 60 years ago, the state pressured the Nation leaders of the time to grant an easement for the construction and operation of the Thruway across part of our territory," Gates said. "Under serious threat, including further threats against our land, our predecessors relented. However, in defiance of federal law, the state proceeded without ever receiving the necessary approval of the federal government for the easement."

There is a sign when travelers enter the Thruway section on Seneca land that says the Nation is owed $675 million for the continuing traffic. Gates said the Nation files Freedom of Information Law requests every month to monitor that section of traffic and said he wants compensation for that traffic.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"We're not looking to disrupt anything," he said, "but we are looking for recognition of our ownership of the land, probably to be compensated after that."

Letting Seneca construction companies make Thruway repairs on Nation land is not enough, he said.

"There's requirements that they have to go through to get on the federal jobs or state jobs even, the bonding, all these other requirements that they require," Gates said. "It's hard for us to do that here on Seneca land. The banks won't give us normal financing like they do outside because of our sovereign status. So either creating our own bank and creating our own economy and getting bonding, that's accepted outside of our jurisdiction."

The Senecas are also involved in a fight over splitting the revenues from the Nation's three major casinos, but Gates said that fight has nothing to do with this lawsuit.
"These are all separate issues," he said. "We have always said that. These are all distinct issues that we have. We're a government and this is just one of the issues that we have."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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