Senecas under siege

The Seneca Nation gaming dispute, with over $2 billion to New York State, has prompted relentless media attacks by the Buffalo News

A Native Viewpoint opinion/editorial by Leslie Logan, Seneca, Cattaraugus territory.

If the Buffalo News were a president, they’d be Andrew Jackson — the president with a cruel Indian removal policy, nicknamed by Natives as “Indian killer.” Native people view him as an Indian hater. 

Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, which legalized ethnic cleansing, catalyzed the Trail of Tears in which 4,000 Cherokee died and removed nearly 50,000 Natives from 25 million acres of Native land. Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown wrote, that Jackson’s actions “were a study in gross inequality and premeditated ruthlessness…he swept through Florida, crushed the Indians and violated nearly every standard of justice.”

The Buffalo News – the largest newspaper in the Buffalo-Niagara region – in its present iteration, may not have engaged in the physical removal or slaying of Native people, but its overt editorial stance is viewed by some in the Seneca Nation as a steady, racist, unadulterated attack on the Nation. 

Andrea White, a Seneca Cattaraugus resident, wrote in a social media post about the Buffalo News’ coverage, “The Buffalo News always paints the nation in a crappy light. The editors are racist and they’re willing to do whatever to further silence our voices.”

Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is minority or marginalized.

The Buffalo News editorial board has, with deliberation, antagonized and excoriated the Seneca Nation again and again. 

The attacks on the Senecas have centered on a gaming dispute that dates back to 2017, when the Nation stopped making revenue share payments to the state. The Nation-State Compact, signed in 2002, covered a 14-year term, with a seven-year renewal period.

Nation-State compacts are required by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the federal law governing tribal gaming — but revenue share payments are not a given. Casino revenue share payments from tribes to states arise only if there is a “substantial and quantifiable” concession to the tribe. 

The original 2002 Compact provided 25 percent of gaming revenue share to the state in exchange for a wide swath of exclusivity of the gaming market. The Seneca maintain the exclusivity has always been hollow and returned nothing to the tribe, yet the tribe will have turned over more than $2 billion to the state by the close of the compact in 2023.  

Councilor Ross John, a Cattaraugus business owner, said, “It must be acknowledged that the revenue sharing provision did not meet the test of federal law; that the concession made by the state for revenue sharing was neither ‘substantial’ nor ‘quantifiable.’ As such, it exists in violation of IGRA and federal policy.”

Further, the compact was silent about the continuation of revenue share payments in the extension period. The dispute went to arbitration and the three-man panel decided in favor of the state, 2-1, in 2019. 

When the arbitration decision came down, Kevin Washburn, one of the three arbiters, former assistant secretary of Indian affairs and tribal gaming law expert, wrote that the ruling effectively amended the compact. 

Amended compacts require review and approval by the Secretary of the Interior. The nation repeatedly requested the review, but it has never been conducted. 

The review has not been conducted because the regulations were interpreted to require two-party consent, and the state refused. By extension, the revenue share payments in that extended renewal period also require federal determination.

Disagreeing with the 2019 arbitration decision, the Seneca Nation took their case to court. Several court cases and millions in attorney fees later, the Nation was ailing on the wrong side of justice, having all rulings go in favor of the state. 

The last decision came in December 2021 when the federal district judge again ruled against the Nation, leaving only one last chance to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Nation’s team of attorneys advised the Seneca Council and executives that the odds of winning were slim. The administration heeded that advice, failed to file an appeal, and with that, closed the door on further litigation. 

For the Seneca, the question of both an empty exchange for billions, and a federally unapproved renewal term, has been at the heart of the dispute.

March 2022, the Seneca Nation releases more than half a billion to NYS

Fast forward to March 2022, when the Seneca Nation — after the five-year dispute with the state and three-months of intense internal clashes among the Seneca themselves — finally released more than half a billion in disputed payments to New York State.

The Buffalo News advised the Seneca to “stop grumbling” and wrote that the Seneca’s “fingerprints were all over this mess.”

The “mess” that is referred to relates to the fitful twists and turns in the gaming dispute. The Buffalo News weighed in on the series of recent events including the settlement agreement that the Seneca Nation agreed to on January 12 to make the disputed payments — without the prior, informed consent of the Seneca people, and was stopped, due to community opposition; the February halting of the payments; the March freezing of Seneca Nation and Seneca Gaming Corporation bank accounts as a result of a subpoena issued by Governor Kathy Hochul, and the ensuing release of the monies, prompted by the state’s squeeze.

Mothers of the Seneca Nation

The Mothers of the Nation, an entity provided for in the Seneca constitution, rose up on January 13th, following the Seneca Nation’s announcement of its decision to release the disputed gaming payments. 

The Mothers of the Nation were then integral in halting the disputed payments to the state in February. The Mothers submitted a petition of more than 200 signatures of Seneca mothers opposing the settlement agreement and prompted the council to pass a resolution requiring federal determination of the legality of the revenue share payments. 

The Mothers called upon the Nation, in its preamble to the petition, to exhaust all federal remedies before submitting payment to the state, to ensure state compliance with federal gaming law.

The primary sticking points, inadequately reported and overlooked by the News, is that the compact was not approved as required and, given the lack of Secretarial approval, the revenue share to the state in the seven-year renewal period, is illegal. 

To be clear, the compact extension — and the exclusivity payments that fall under it, are still an unresolved federal issue. Given this, the Seneca contend, how can they be held to payments that are not in line with federal Indian gaming law approvals?

A March 11 letter from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) to the Nation, penned by Thomas Cunningham, provided no concrete answer. The NIGC letter raised more questions than it answered, yet informed that it was “closing this investigation” — frustrating the Senecas who have argued for a more comprehensive determination. 

The agency conceded that their review still ignored the seven-year extension, questioned the value of the tribe’s remaining exclusivity, and overtly stated the issues required further analysis.

Significantly, Cunningham wrote, “It is clear that the State has benefited substantially more than anticipated under the Compact and the Nation has received less.”

The Seneca point to the letter and the still outstanding federal determination. The Seneca further maintain that “exclusivity” granted to the Seneca is meaningless. 

Cunningham remarked upon the matter questioning the diminished value of the exclusivity writing, “Whether the remaining exclusivity is still worth the bargained percentage of slots revenue would require further analysis.”

Councilor John has nothing but disdain for the state, which he says has delivered nothing to the Seneca Nation in return for the tremendous revenue share. “There was never a concession of any value given up by the state,” said John. 

John has no love either for the federal agencies that regulate gaming, the Department of the Interior or the National Indian Gaming Commission. “The Interior has failed to fulfill their ‘trust obligations,’” John said. “They’ve failed to weigh in on the two significant issues that this case turns on; they’ve turned their backs on us.”

Since January 2022, when the Seneca Nation announced it had entered into a settlement agreement with New York State over the five-year gaming compact dispute, there have been six scorching editorial page pronouncements, two in the last two weeks.

Judging from the persistent onslaught of razor-sharp missives, it’s difficult for the Senecas to view those opinion-makers of the Buffalo News editorial board as anything but Indian haters.

Say what you will, but the media, the news, and who controls it, shapes thinking. David Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley and Joshua Kalla of Yale University published a paper on the effects of cable-news coverage. The pair documented an experiment, spanning years, that revealed how the media shapes the understanding of the world by both framing the news — how it is presented, and filtering the news — what news, what facts are shared.

Those high up in the ranks of the Buffalo News, with the critical ability to shape perceptions of Western New Yorkers, use fighting words to describe the Seneca, and their actions relating to the dispute. In recent months the board has written that the Senecas “acted in bad faith,” called the Seneca “greedy,” suggested the Seneca be “good losers,” among other things; wrote that the Seneca have been “looking for loopholes to avoid paying their obligations for years,” and effectively called the Seneca weasels.

A January 13 editorial board opinion declared, “It was already long past time for the Senecas to stop trying to wiggle out of paying the money they owed.” They continued, “…it tried over and over to exploit a carelessly worded extension of the original 2002 compact.”

On April 15, the Mothers of the Nation rallied against the state’s economic injustice in downtown Buffalo, pointing out that the Compact and its exclusivity provision has delivered more than $2 billion to the state, with the tribe getting nothing in return.

On April 19, the editorial board titled a piece in response to the rally: “Take a deep breath”— as if to say, calm down, relax, you’re too worked up. The first line suggested that Seneca “drop hyperbole about casino debt,” clearly contending that the Seneca’s claims that recent strong-arm tactics are undertaken by the state, which froze the Nation’s bank accounts — ultimately resulting in the release of the funds, were exaggerated.

Time and again, the Buffalo News editorial board picks up its poison pen to rail against the Seneca, no matter how the Nation has attempted to explain their case in the complicated dispute. But not only does the editorial board malign the Seneca, they also leave out salient facts to suit their own bias.

The Buffalo News has referred to the Seneca calls for federal review as simply “complaints.”

In a March 15 board editorial, they wrote “this shiftiness comes at a price…” They refer to the Seneca’s reasonable demand for a federal review of the compact extension, that would ensure federal compliance, as a “complaint,” writing, “…including one that guarantees the tribe to be the “primary” beneficiary of its casino operations”— as though such a federal requirement should be minimized and reduced to a complaint. The editorial board suggested that the Nation’s reputation was in question and wrote, “The Senecas should keep it in mind as they continue down the path of delinquency.”

At every turn, when the Seneca seek to defend their position, the Buffalo News is ready with another untempered attack, frequently ignoring key facts at issue, focusing only on those points that make the state appear virtuous.

On its face the showdown between the Seneca Nation and New York State has long been about money; specifically, the nearly half a billion in disputed gaming payments.

For the Seneca, it’s about fairness and principle.

What onlookers may fail to understand in this complicated arena, is that the laws and agencies governing tribal gaming more often benefit states than they do tribes and therein lies the problem. 

Tribes were recognized with the right to game on Native territories with the 1987 Cabazon v. California Supreme Court ruling. Indian gaming brought economic development to tribes. While the Seneca have indeed prospered, so too has the state — to a far greater degree than anticipated under the Compact, and perhaps, more than the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) intended.

The state has always wanted the Seneca’s resources — first, it was land, and once the tribe got into gaming, it was a disproportionately large share of the casino profits pie. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires a Nation-State Compact, but the Seneca argue that neither of the qualifiers for a substantial and quantifiable concession has been actualized.

The Seneca Nation had been embroiled in an internal tug of war for three months — some wanting to pay the state to jumpstart new compact negotiations — and community members, wanting unresolved issues addressed by gaming law. The payments were only finally made under duress, after Gov. Hochul froze all of the Nation’s accounts, throwing the Seneca Nation economy into a state of paralysis.

What is ignored is the twist of problems and layers of issues resulting in an extraordinary economic injustice from a federal governing gaming house that consistently makes tribes the losers. 

In an April 21 Gambling Compliance article, Kathryn Rand, a University of North Dakota law professor said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was diluted by a 1996 Supreme Court ruling that tipped the already precarious scales of justice in favor of states and debilitated tribes’ negotiating power.

Rand said, “There is no ‘referee’ to help tribes and states determine what amounts and types of revenue sharing are within the bounds of good-faith negotiations.”

The Seneca would take that analogy one step further — not only is there no referee, but there’s also no level playing field, and the regulations favor the home-state team.

The federal gaming law, IGRA, is disadvantageous to tribes — perhaps not all gaming tribes — but in such a detrimental way as to severely limit tribal revenue interests, protections, and in no way guarantees “good faith” compact negotiations with states.

States lobbied for and wanted IGRA and they prevailed; tribes got saddled with laws and a regulatory system that provides few protections and left them scrambling when the Supreme Court wiped out the ability of tribes to sue states for bad faith.

When “good faith” on the part of states is not guaranteed, one could argue, “bad faith” has a better foothold — and Congress, which could fix federal gaming laws, is not inclined to do so.

These important elements are completely left out of the narrative drawn by the Buffalo News.

So while the struggle appears to be about nearly a billion dollars — for the Seneca, it’s about far more than that. It is about the Nation seeking to right injustices with a state that has its own history of breaking agreements and a federal agency that has neglected to address questions that even they say require further analysis, but appear in no hurry to conduct one or amend the laws that subvert tribes. 

The struggle has been about a full and fair federal determination, but it is also about getting the full, fair, and a comprehensive story told.

On the surface, it may appear as though the conflict between the Nation and New York State was just an intense tug-of-war over a sizable pot of money. It may have looked like a bitter internecine battle over some Seneca’s will to fight the state and the official’s resolve to end a costly dispute. It was more than that.

For the Mothers of the Nation, it was about fighting for economic justice, protections, and equality.

Seneca banners in New York on April 15 (Courtesy image)
Seneca banners in New York on April 15 (Courtesy image)

The nearly nine figures in disputed casino payments released to the state represent just one slice of a large pie of Seneca resources — that historically included millions of acres of land — that the Seneca maintains the state has absconded with. 

The Seneca have been in an unbalanced, always down, no-win battle with the state. The scales of justice have not gone in the Nation’s favor for nearly 250 years. The state and the federal government have sought to keep Native people thwarted and contained to their small fragments of reservation land, using laws and unfair court rulings that abrogated treaties and favored the state, always chipping away at our resources; limiting and diminishing our economic gains.

Indian gaming was geared to give tribes an economic engine igniting development when — only 25 years ago — most Native communities resembled destitute developing countries, peppered with ramshackle homes, few resources; sinking in impoverished conditions.

Today, with three casino properties in Western New York, the Seneca have been able to supplement and provide more services for its citizens, including housing, early childhood education, higher education, elders, disability and veteran services. According to the most recent Taylor economic report, the Nation has paid nearly $220 million in wages to more than 5,800 employees. The report indicates that on average, $1.1 billion a year of New York’s gross state product can be attributed to the Seneca Nation.

Through its public skewering, the Buffalo News consistently vilifies and rebukes the Nation, diminishes its reputation, and discounts the Seneca’s significant economic imprint in the area.

John Kane, Mohawk, a talk radio commentator with a local radio show “Let’s Talk Native” has frequently commented on how the Senecas have been disparaged in the press and marginalized by the state. Kane said, “It’s not just the recent editorials. The Buffalo News has been on a multi-year smear campaign against the Senecas for over a decade.”

The Buffalo News doesn’t even attempt to mask its contempt for the Senecas

As an eye-opening case in point, the Mothers of the Nation submitted a letter to the editor of the Buffalo News. The letter was in response to the board’s latest editorial lambasting in which the board suggested the Mother’s statements in a rally against economic injustice were exaggerated. The News wrote, “its leaders should tone down the rhetoric.” (Some of the same language in the letter is used in this article and will be familiar.)

Kevin Walter, editorial page editor of the Buffalo News responded, bludgeoning the letter. The letter, with the News’ strikethrough edits, is shown here:

Letter to the Editor

I’m convinced from the steady stream of editorial attacks by the BuffNews editorial board against the Senecas that there is a strong, persistent, and irrefutable oppositional stance against the Seneca. Time and again, the Buffalo News editorial board picks up its poison pen to rail against the Senecas, no matter how we attempt to explain the complicated gaming dispute.  

Those high up in the ranks of the News, with the critical ability to shape perceptions of Western New Yorkers, use fighting words. They call us greedy, state that we acted in bad faith, said we looked for loopholes in the compact to avoid paying, and effectively called us weasels.

One wonders if such verbiage, aimed at any other ethnic, racial or minority community in Western New York—that is also a significant job creator and economic generator, would be tolerated.

At every turn, when the Senecas seek to defend their positions, the News is ready with another attack, frequently ignoring key facts to the Seneca’s case, focusing only on those that make the State appear righteous.

Tesla got the “Buffalo Billion” in tax subsidies for creating 1460 jobs — most, according to reports, were not the high-paying high tech jobs promised. According to the Taylor economic report, the Senecas, never in receipt of any investment for its casinos, have generated 9,500 jobs in the region and have pumped more than $2 billion into the economy — yet we get called down.

Sound fair?

What is not mentioned in the News is the simple fact that the “exclusivity”, that we paid more than $2 billion for, got us nothing in return. It is hollow, lacking in the legally required “substantial and quantifiable” benefit to the Senecas; it is something for nothing. 

But the News would have you believe we are just greedy.  That is racist and wrong. 

The Buffalo News sits on swindled Seneca Buffalo Creek territory and persists in offending the 12,000 Natives in the region. Good for business?


Mothers of the Seneca Nation

The hacked letter shows how Buffalo News has minimized the Mothers’ message. The Buffalo News has shown that their criticisms and written assaults on the Seneca are fair game, but it takes editorial liberties and control when it comes to the Seneca perspective, taking a surgical knife to those views they disagree with.

The Buffalo News sits on swindled Seneca Buffalo Creek territory, soils the Seneca’s reputation, and persists in offending the 12,000 Natives in the region. Apparently, they don’t care whether their public swipes at the Seneca are good for business, Native relations or community engagement; they just march on with their suppression of the facts, convenient half-truths, biased narratives, and cutting attacks.

It is clear to the Seneca that the Buffalo News is no friend to the Seneca people; our truth is twisted, our stories are subverted, and the value we bring is diminished. It is impossible to look past their hostility, animosity and overt bias.

But still, the Seneca fight

The Mothers of the Nation have relentlessly fought to bring their issues to the fore of the gaming dispute. But we have also had to fight our own people.

Seneca Banner from April 15 rally (Courtesy image)
Seneca Banner from April 15 rally (Courtesy image)

In March, the month declared as Women’s History Month, an article on Seneca women’s grassroots efforts throughout history that has effected meaningful change was submitted to the Seneca Nation newsletter. The article chronicled important events including a 1970s door-to-door health needs assessment that led to the expansion of health services and the establishment of clinics in both the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories.

Inclusion of the 2022 Mothers of the Nation’s efforts to protect the Nation’s assets, halt the payments and the call for a required federal review in the article was deemed “too political.” The administration censored the story and prohibited the newsletter from running the piece. The Seneca women’s historical contributions were “canceled” during Women’s History Month and the Mothers of the Nation’s voices were squelched.

The Seneca Nation, the Seneca people, and the Mothers of the Nation have taken a thrashing in the pages of the Buffalo News by the editorial board. The Mothers of the Nation have had to fight the state, the media and our own Council and administration. It often feels like we are under siege from all corners, with no way out.

I look back on history and consider all of my ancestors, the grandmothers and mothers who fought to retain our scraps of land, and keep what’s ours. 

I think of the Seneca mothers who were run out of the villages in 1779 in what is now central New York, children at their breast, and survived. I think of the Seneca mothers who were run out of the Genesee Valley in 1797, children at their feet, and survived. I think of the Seneca mothers who were run out of Buffalo Creek in the 1840s, babies in their bellies, and survived. 

I think of the Seneca mothers, over 400 years, who blistered their feet, ran, and fought to survive — those mothers who enabled the Seneca mothers of today to be here to continue the fight for survival in a world that still seeks to level us through words and spurns.

Today the Mothers of the Nation massage the earth with our feet and derive strength from our ancestral mothers of the nation. We will exercise our constitutional authority, we will fulfill our role as protectors of the children and the future; we will not be thwarted by Jacksonian editorial attacks, suppression, and censorship.

The Seneca Mothers of the Nation will continue to rise up, carrying the voices of the Seneca mothers who have come before us. We Mothers take our roles seriously because we also carry a torch that will be passed on to those who are watching, listening, and learning — the mothers of tomorrow, who will continue to fight and defend our nation.

A Native Viewpoint opinion/editorial by Leslie Logan, Seneca, Cattaraugus territory.

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One thought on “Senecas under siege

  1. Would like to explore the provision of free standing and financed self contained Med-surg units and staffed by licensed volunteers.
    I’m an Allegany Co and love your area and heritage.

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