Six Nations and the Empire State: Who owes whom?


It's ''day two'' in New York state. That is, last year's campaign rhetoric by now-Gov. Eliot Spitzer promising change beginning on ''day one'' has come and gone. He is now learning why his predecessors have never been successful at enforcing commerce laws, specifically the collection of gasoline and cigarette taxes, on Indian reservations. Stubborn will, inherent in Six Nations Iroquois people, has been the strongest weapon in support of tribal sovereignty. It is unlikely that Spitzer, a former hard-line state attorney general, will find the political success he seeks in his dealings with New York tribes, especially if the end-goal continues to be tax collection from Haudenosaunee people.

The key to tribal economic survival is sovereignty and the inherent ability to regulate commerce, so it follows that taxation is not a matter of simple economics as legislators and activists for ''equality'' would have us believe. New York state's blood thirst for tax revenue from Indian gas and cigarette sales is famously unfulfilled. The money has become the elusive brass ring for politicians who insist that Indians pay their ''fair share'' of taxes, theoretically leveling the economic playing field. The hole in this argument is that the field has been systematically graded in the state's favor for generations through both crude and sophisticated methods of dispossession. It is only common sense that tribes fight to protect a basic element of sovereignty: the power to tax, which, understood by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall nearly 200 years ago, ''involves the power to destroy.''

Destruction of Indian cultural and economic resources is at the heart of the classic New York tax fight. The state barely acknowledges historical damages done to the Haudenosaunee people and lands as a result of political betrayal between sovereigns and land swindles instigated by both officials and civilians. A comprehensive examination of Indian lands illegally ceded or taken by eminent domain by the Empire State is due, perhaps as a strategic effort to persuade non-Indian supporters (read voters) to take up the anti-tax cause. Here is a brief tour, summarizing each nation's ''contribution'' to the enrichment of New York state.

Begin in Mohawk country, at the Eastern Door of Six Nations territory in New York state. The community of Akwesasne sits along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Called Kaniatarowanenneh or ''big waterway'' by Mohawks and the ''Gateway to the Fourth Coast'' by industrial developers, the river proved an integral tool for building the economic wealth of the United States and Canada. The St. Lawrence Seaway, a massive system of navigation locks and hydro-electric power dams, opened a manmade inland waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. It is one of the most lucrative industrial corridors in the world. It is estimated that the seaway system serves 40 percent of U.S. manufacturing. Although the massive development projects initially created economic opportunities for Mohawks, their lasting effects have been all but devastating to traditional Mohawk lifeways by attracting polluting industrial plants shortly upriver. Widespread contamination of natural resources and deterioration of community health ensued until the efforts of the people forced remediation.

Down Interstate 81 to the Onondaga Nation, just south of Syracuse, sits the central fire of the ancient Iroquois Confederacy. Onondaga Lake is sacred ancestral territory, the place where in the early 12th century, the evil-minded Tadodaho was persuaded by Ayonwenta (Hiawatha) and the Peacemaker to accept the great message of peace and unity among nations. It is also the site of a violent confrontation in 1997 between state troopers and Indians protesting tax collection negotiations with former Gov. George Pataki. The rebellion occurred atop I-81, a symbol of environmental racism that cuts directly through Onondaga territory. Today Onondaga Lake is among the most polluted bodies of water in the world, largely due to salt mining since the mid-19th century and modern desecration from neighboring Syracuse, which dumped untreated municipal sewage directly into the lake for years. Despite its classification as a hazardous waste site by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a $500 million cleanup project of the county, the water remains part of the Onondaga land claim to give the nation more influence over the its environmental restoration.

Nearby is Oneida territory, just east of Onondaga. The People of the Standing Stone (whose Four Directions Media enterprise publishes Indian Country Today) once controlled some 6 million acres but saw it gradually whittled down to just 32 acres, a result of fraudulent transactions. The swindling began when the English exerted a presence along the inland parts of the Oneida Carry, a portage between the Mohawk River near Albany and Oneida Lake near Oswego and the Great Lakes shore. Six Nations people used this route regularly, but it became a necessity when Dutch and English took up fur trading with the French in Canada. Today the Oneida land claim includes land illegally taken during the American Revolution. Iroquois warriors of the region, most of whom fought alongside the colonists, returned to find their homes given to colonial soldiers by the fledgling U.S. government. Violations of the subsequent 1790 federal Trade and Non-Intercourse Act form the basis of the Iroquois land claims in the state.

Just west on the NYS Thruway, another highway paved over an Indian route, is Cayuga country, or what remains of it. After a devastating 2006 Supreme Court decision in which the high court refused to review a ''deeply flawed'' lower court ruling, the Cayugas rebounded in negotiations with Spitzer, agreeing to limit their land reacquisition to 10,000 acres in exchange for the ability to build a casino in the Catskills and share its revenue with the state (a common ploy of both Spitzer and Pataki is to negotiate ''trade agreements'' in which tribes collect taxes on goods sold on reservations or institute a payment in lieu of taxes to the state). Returning land to the Cayugas is too ''disruptive,'' say the courts. Reading between the lines, the message is that the lush soil of Finger Lakes wine country is too valuable to simply return to Indian hands, even if it is agreed that it is rightfully theirs.

In western New York, the Tuscaroras still deal with the legacy of economic ''progress.'' In 1957, as the New York State Power Authority gained political power, it won a Supreme Court decision for the right to expropriate a sizeable portion of the Tuscarora reservation to advance the Niagara Power Project, later renamed the Robert Moses Power Generating Station after its architect. The Mohawks are familiar with Moses, too, as another of his power dams is situated immediately upstream from them.

Finally, the Senecas at the Western Door have led the resistance against state taxation in the past, and the nation is suggesting creative ways to turn the table on the state. Mentioned by name in the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, which guaranteed the United States would not ''disturb the Seneca Nation,'' or take its land, that treaty was broken in 1960 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by eminent domain flooded 10,000 acres of the Seneca's Alleghany Reservation to begin construction of Kinzua Dam.

After rescinding a 1954 right-of-way agreement, the Senecas recently billed the NYS Thruway Authority more than $2.15 million for vehicular passage on the portion of I-90 that passes through Seneca land. In a recent press release, the nation said it should ''initiate the process of developing options for obtaining payment from the state for past and ongoing illegal possession and use of nation lands ...'' This remedy might appeal to the other nations, for each has significant cause for seeking redress from the state for its empire building activities.

The message of peace promulgated in the geographic and spiritual heart of the Six Nations territories - indeed, in the center of New York state - should serve as the basis of survival during this time of defending sovereignty. The powerful symbol of the Hiawatha Wampum Belt, which long predates the incorporation of New York state and the establishment of the United States, said our former executive editor, Tim Johnson, is ''a living message that serves to reinforce our collective identity and to underscore the freedoms our sovereign nations hold dear.'' It's imperative the nations keep this sentiment alive now; a divide-and-conquer strategy by a common enemy will only bear success if the leaders allow it to block the path of peace between their nations.