SALAMANCA, N.Y. - By mid-June, Seneca Nation members will start to apply for tribally funded home mortgages.
Soon after, elders in the last stages of diabetes will be able to receive
dialysis treatments on their territory, rather than having to leave their
homes at 6:30 a.m. for an hour-and-a-half drive and a day's wait.
Promising young professionals will have tribal support in earning advanced
degrees, provided they return home to put their new skills at the service
of the nation.
Youngsters in the earliest grades will have access to private training in
reading, to counteract a major source of their frustration in later
These are but a few of the new social programs the Seneca Nation is
beginning to offer even before it receives the full pay-off from its daring
gamble on Class III casinos. As pressure mounts, both from inside and
outside the tribe, for tangible benefits from the nearly half billion
dollars going into the new casino properties, President Rickey Armstrong
Sr. describes his social agenda at nearly every available opportunity.
Sometimes his audience isn't willing to listen. A week-long Buffalo News
critique of the Seneca Nation's new prosperity devoted less than 150 words
out of more than 15,000 to its social investment programs, less than 1
percent of the series. And this, said Armstrong, came after a two-hour
personal interview and what the paper advertised as a year-long
Much of the criticism focuses on the Seneca leadership's strategic decision
to plow the early casino cash stream back into further improvements, which
generate more revenue. The strategy has proved highly popular with Wall
Street. The nation was able to float a $300 million bond issue at one of
the lowest interest rates of its type, allowing it to reduce dependence on
an early high-interest loan from the Malaysian investor Kok Thay Lim. (The
Lim family put up money for the Mashantucket Pequot's Foxwoods Casino
Resort when no one else would, and they were the only financing available
for the Seneca's accelerated construction timetable.) The privately placed
bond issue this spring generated intense buzz in financial circles and drew
four times the bids that it needed.
But for a nation split between a thriving entrepreneurial class and
families still mired in generations of poverty, an overriding question,
said former Seneca President Cyrus Schindler, has been, "Well, where's our
share?" As an answer, the tribal council diverted $25 million from the bond
issue to jump-start the social programs.
The mortgage-lending program, for instance, is capitalized at $10 million
and will start taking applications as soon as the tribal council gives
final approval to the by-laws and paperwork. President Armstrong said he
expected the vote at its June 12 meeting. "It's been reviewed three times
now by our professional people," he said. "Now it's just a matter of
For the first year, he said, the program would concentrate on loans to
build or buy new homes. "The main thrust of it now is to get people into
their own homes," said Armstrong, "out of trailers and out of rentals into
their own properties."
"And the reason for it is that conventional banks won't lend to members on
our territories because of the collateral issue. They can't foreclose, more
or less. It's been a hindrance to our people all this time in getting
After 12 months of operation, he said, the council would decide whether to
go on to phase two, home equity loans to improve existing property or
refinanced mortgages at lower interest rates. "The idea is not to make
money," said Armstrong. "It's to give people the ability to buy a home."
The program has strings, he added. "One of the requirements is you have to
work. You have to work to get a loan."
On the health side, he said, the nation is providing two Wellness Centers,
including the dialysis program for the final stages of diabetes. "There's
been discussion about how we should handle that," he said. "Maybe we should
put more money into prevention rather than into the final stages, but at
the same time we didn't want to disregard our members' final stages either.
There's going to be a mixture of prevention as well as the dialysis
He said one concern was the distance members had to go now for treatment.
"A lot of them get up at 6:30 in the morning and travel an hour and a half
and wait all day," he said. "And they're in a weakened state as it is.
We're trying to make it more dignified for them too."
For the young, he said, the nation is looking into contracting with private
services that teach reading, such as Sylvan or the Huntington system. "It
was identified that our kids have a reading problem," he said. "A good part
of our education problem was an inability to read. A lot of failure later
on is the frustration at the inability to read.
"We're trying to correct that and furnish that for all our kids."
The nation is also providing scholarships for advanced learning. Two
members are already studying for master's degrees, and Armstrong said that
two more would receive support at the second annual award shortly. "That's
an effort to get our Senecas educated at those levels and have them come
back to work for us," he said. "That's one of the requirements of the
award, to have them come back and intern for us."
As a final element, he said, the nation is looking into expanding one of
its current benefits, the burial program. The nation now pays $5,000 toward
funeral costs, he said, but it is looking into meeting the national average
cost of $7,200.
"It's been widely accepted and used," he said, "even though there's been
jokes about it. You only get it when you die. That kind of thing."
Armstrong emphasized that this was just the beginning. "Most things are in
a process," he said. "We've only been in operation with the casinos for
maybe 13 months, 14 months, and in that kind of business you have to
recapitalize and reinvest but we've still managed to do that little bit
there, based on only 13 months operation."