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Seneca Seeks Obama’s Help on Illegally Occupied Thruway

The Seneca Nation Of Indians has called on President Barack Obama to help to resolve the issue of the New York State Thruway Authority’s illegal occupation of Seneca lands on a section of the state’s main highway.

Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter petitioned Obama on July 26 “in accordance with the complaint mechanism” provided for in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua,” which provides for complaints of misconduct to be made by “the Six Nations or any of them, to the President of the United States ... and such prudent measures shall then be pursued as necessary to preserve our peace and friendship unbroken.”

An easement signed October 5, 1954 authorizing four lanes of the New York Thruway to run through 300 acres of the Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory was ruled void by both a federal magistrate in 1999 and the Seneca Nation of Indians Peacemaker Court 10 years later, because it lacked the required approval by the federal government.

Porter wrote to Obama that the Nation is “seeking the United States’ involvement and assistance in resolving the nearly 60-year unauthorized occupation of 300 acres of the Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory by the State of New York for purposes of constructing and maintaining the New York Thruway. Because the United States did not consent to an October 5, 1954 conveyance of an easement to the state for the Thruway, made under duress by the Seneca Nation, the easement obtained by the state violated the federal Non-Intercourse Act … and was void from its inception. The state’s continuing occupation of Seneca land for purposes of the Thruway for nearly 60 years is a continuing violation of federal law that must be resolved.”

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The Seneca Nation Council rescinded its authorization for the easement on April 14, 2007, and imposed a $1 per vehicle toll, which it has continued to bill to the state. The state has rejected the bills, which now total more than $80 million. State officials have ignored the Nation’s appeals over the past 10 years to address the voided easement, Porter said. The state claims the arrangement is legal because it paid the Seneca Nation $75,000 for easement rights to the property in 1954.

Porter invoked President George Washington’s words to Seneca chiefs and councilors during the treaty-making. “Here, then is the security for the remainder of your lands,” Washington said. “No State, nor person, can purchase your lands, unless at some public treaty, held under the authority of the United States. The General Government will never consent to your being defrauded, but it will protect you in all your just rights.”

He also cited Article 37 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements concluded with States or their successors and to have States honor and respect such treaties agreements and other constructive arrangements.”

And he quoted Obama’s own words, spoken at the 65th Annual Convention of the National Congress of American Indians on October 21, 2008. “I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law,” Obama said.