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Robert Odawi Porter at his desk.
Robert Odawi Porter at his desk.

Seneca president redefining native leadership

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This week, we're going to take a look around Indian Country in New York. Taxing native smoke shops have grabbed headlines lately. But we're going to look deeper at some of the political, economic, and social trends shaping New York's native tribes and nations.

Today, the Seneca Nation, south of Buffalo. Casinos and tobacco sales have turned it from an empoverished territory to one of the top ten employer in western New York.

The Nation's new president, Robert Odawi Porter, has taken a lead role in negotiating native issues with the Cuomo Administration.

Porter wants the Senecas to go beyond smoke shops and slot machines. He's a Harvard-educated lawyer and academic. And he wants to recast one of the darkest moments of the Seneca people into an economic boon. David Sommerstein has this profile.

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The Old Red House bridge [photo provided by Seneca Nation]

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

To understand the modern Seneca Nation – and its president of 9 months, Robert Odawi Porter - start here, in Allegany, one of the Seneca’s two territories in southwestern New York near the Pennsylvania border.  A paved road turns to dirt and disappears into the woods. 

DAVID: We’re standing at the end of Old Route 17 and there’s a “road closed” and a concrete bunker, but if you go down this road a quarter of a mile, there’s the old Red bridge?  And the former community of Red House?

LESLIE: Old Red House Bridge, yeah, that went through the community of Red House.  Nobody lives down there.  It’s a bridge that goes to nowhere essentially.

Leslie Logan is spokeswoman for the Seneca Nation.  Sixty years ago, this road meandered past thriving communities, with Seneca homes along the Alleghany River, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools.

[schoolchildren sing national anthem]

That’s from a video of Seneca children chanting the Pledge of Allegiance at one of those schools.  But in the 1960s, the U.S. government decided it needed the land to control flooding downriver in Pittsburgh.  The Army Corps of Engineers condemned the villages, burnt down the houses and schools and churches, and built the Kinzua hydropower dam.  The Senecas had fought the plan in Washington for years.  Johnny Cash even sang a song about it.

…Across the Allegheny River they're throwing up a dam
It will flood the Indian country a proud day for Uncle Sam…

 [fade music]

They had been burning other people’s homes, but our home, my father burned it.

Steve Gordon was 12 at the time.  He says his father wouldn’t let the federal government set his house afire.

So my dad loaded us up in his vehicle and took us down there and we watched it burn to the ground, cause if anyone’s going to burn our house, it’ll be us.

Robert Odawi Porter was two when Kinzua was built.  He says he grew up like all Senecas at the time.

No one had any money growing up.  I mean, this was on the heels of the Kinzua era.  No real jobs.  The Nation government had no economic presence.

Flash forward to today.  Rob Porter, as he’s known, has taken the helm of a native Nation awash in money.  600 million dollars in annual revenue from three casinos. 

[casino sound]

A cigarette trade worth tens of millions more.  A radio station.

[radio station]

And a fancy new administration building, where Rob Porter’s office is…

Yeah, we can sit on the couch…

Porter’s a big guy at 6-foot-4.  He has graying hair.  He’s dressed casually for a president in a striped button-down and khakis.

Porter says Senecas enjoy universal health care, college tuition assistance, subsidized day care, new sports complexes.  For a few years, there was even a program that paid Senecas 1400 dollars a year to lose weight.

In New York State, the Senecas and other native tribes are often portrayed as villains, getting rich off gambling and tobacco addicts.

Porter bristles at that criticism.

Right when we’re starting to recover from a couple hundred years of deprivation, I’ve even had members of Congress, their staff, tell us, y’know, you guys really should be getting into something else.  This is really not something you should be doing, and I just can’t believe the hypocrisy of that.

Porter says some of the largest corporations in the U.S. are in the same industries.  Almost all states raise money with lotteries.

Porter’s sued New York several times to prevent the state from taxing native tobacco sales.  He’s pressing the state to pay millions in rent for two Interstates that cross Seneca land.  Yet somehow, he hasn’t made many enemies.

I have met very few people in public office who don’t say that they are impressed by Rob Porter.

Dan Herbeck has covered the Seneca Nation for the Buffalo News for 20 years.  He says Porter’s cut from a different cloth from previous Seneca leaders.

Wealthy tobacco businessmen.  People who have scratched and scraped, not very polished individuals.  Porter is highly educated, kind of a statesman.

15 years out of Harvard Law, Porter founded a prestigious indigenous law center at Syracuse University. 

New York and its native tribes have been at each others’ throats for decades, and it’s rare for a state lawmaker to heap praise on a native leader.  But State Senator George Maziarz says Porter’s ability to communicate is recasting that adversarial relationship.

I have found him to be up front, absolutely willing to negotiate with the state of New York and yet very cognizant of some of the past wrongs that have been inflicted upon the Senecas.  He wants to move forward in a positive way.

Where Rob Porter is really making a name for himself is his desire to steer the Senecas beyond gaming and tobacco, “changing course” he says.  He envisions manufacturing, business incubators, new educational opportunities, and partnerships with non-native neighbors. 

Greg Edwards, executive of Chautauqua County, says Porter convened an innovative economic development summit with area leaders.

Never happened in the history of New York.  That many counties coming together and the Seneca Nation coming together to clearly describe how we function as organizations so that we can better understand how we can partner.

But Porter’s biggest project by far is to become the new owner of the Kinzua hydro dam that flooded the Seneca villages almost 50 years ago.

It’s definitely an element of justice for us.  It’s also just good business.  It makes a lot of money, and they’re using our land and water to make that money.

The dam license will expire in four years.  The Senecas need to convince federal regulators that they should take over the operation of the dam, instead of the Ohio company that runs it now.

Porter does have his critics.  The dam’s current operators say the Senecas don’t have the expertise to run it. 

In the city of Buffalo, gambling opponents dismiss Porter for supporting the Seneca’s casino there. 

Some Senecas say Porter’s sold out, that he’s not hardline enough on sovereignty and taxation.  They say just being a licensed attorney in New York compromises his ability to represent the Nation.

But Akwesasne-based attorney Dale White says Porter’s success so far with the Cuomo Administration could help all native nations in New York.  White’s a former general counsel for the St.Regis Mohawk Tribe and has known Porter for some 20 years.

I know one of the things he’s talking about is trying to create an Office of Indian Affairs in New York State that is sorely needed.  So he’s using his energy, his knowledge, his experience, his relationships with the state.  I could see that that could only help nations or tribes across the state as well.

[Bring up sound of wood carving]

Steve Gordon, who watched his house burn down 50 years ago, is a teacher now at the one-room Faithkeeper school in the Seneca Allegany territory.  His students carve traditional wooden masks used in healing ceremonies.  Gordon says he talks often to his students about the meaning of the Kinzua Dam today.

So I’m hoping that by me talking about the land and what we used to be, I’m hoping that they’ll think, I’m never gonna let this happen to what we have left.

Gordon says Rob Porter sets a standard for future Seneca presidents.  Porter says he looks also to past Seneca leaders, who aided colonists and negotiated treaties.

The difference today, unlike in times past, is that we are often dictating the terms and we are no longer being at the short end of someone else’s decision.  We’re making the decisions and then dictating it to others.

Porter says he wants to make the Seneca Nation so strong that Kinzua can’t happen again. 

David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio, Seneca Nation territory.

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