Crossroads

Last month, I came up with a list of what I thought were the top 10 New York State stories in the very eventful year of 2008. Item No. 7 concerned the State’s moves to collect taxes from Indian-owned businesses. It could have surprised no one that the Senecas were going to communicate their alarm by playing the Thruway card again. This has inspired a lot of comment even outside of western New York, such as this long thread at Syracuse.com.

The history of New York and Indian taxation is a long and tangled one. There is no broad public support tipping toward either side of the taxation debate. This is in part because New York’s government avoids bringing up the issue in front of the public at all. But for every few forum commenters you can find who say that the they should pay taxes “just like we do,” you can usually find someone who feels New York’s tribes ought to be given some rein because they were screwed over “just like we are.”

One wonders if the Upstate man-on-the-street is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts. When he no longer feels in control of his own economic destiny; when his own people have thinned out and lost influence (with all those high school and college grads who move South); when his former livelihood is disappearing in front of the relentless march of globalization; when politically he doesn’t have much to bargain with; when he’s feeling controlled by corporations, or by Albany, or by unions (or by whichever group he believes has too much power)… really, how far away is his own situation and his own experience now, from the past experiences of the Senecas (or the Oneidas or the Cayugas or the Onondagas)? Reading these comments, one sees hostility, but also detects an undercurrent of sympathy, even if it is grudging.

Whatever their views, New Yorkers seem far more willing to talk about Native American relations than their government does. Some weeks ago, Sean Kirst wrote an excellent column on Gov. Paterson’s signing of a tax collection bill (as yet unenforced by the state) and asked the key question: What is New York’s official policy toward the nations within its borders, and when is Paterson going to reveal it?

Apparently, Governor Paterson had prepared remarks about this planned for his State of the State speech, but never spoke them:

The state of New York and the Indian tribes of this state have suffered for far too long from a debilitating and unproductive relationship. Together, we can forge a fundamentally different government-to-government relationship, one grounded in mutual respect and with common purpose. I intend to work together with the tribal nations across this state so that together we can create a brighter future for all of our citizens.

This is an unprecedented almost-statement, but not surprising: only those with no sense of history at all are enthusiastic about the prospect of state troopers marching onto the territories of the Six Nations to collect taxes. However, Paterson has yet to stand up in front of all New York and say his position out loud. Whatever the political consequences to him personally, he owes it to every New York resident touched by this ancient controversy to move the conversation forward.

There’s the possibility that an already-existing, racism-tinged hardliner attitude will spread, if the Senecas follow through on their Thruway plan. But at a time when people are beginning to feel that our government is not living up to its social contract with its own citizens, some might become more inclined to re-examine the troubled state of our government’s contracts with Native nations here in New York. If we’re not at a crossroads in public attitude on this issue now, it appears we will be soon.