Category Archives: Haudenosaunee

Above the mist

I have sometimes considered where in New York (or the Northeast) I might like to live if I weren’t living in Syracuse. It might seem crazy, but in addition to the usual factors (jobs, politics, weather etc), I find myself considering the history of a place. To me, it’s like the character of the landscape, or the atmospheric conditions. Just like you probably wouldn’t consider moving somewhere sight unseen, I wouldn’t feel like I’d done my homework if I didn’t have a sense of what was what, then – as well as what is what, now – since it’s all connected. (This is probably why, if you forced me to choose between Rome and Ithaca, it would be quite a dilemma: Rome isn’t the most congenial spot for me in terms of the physical landscape or the political zeitgeist, but I know the historical landscape fairly well. Ithaca’s history, I don’t have a feel for at all, and I would feel somewhat disoriented.)

And then there are the Finger Lakes, which are so very beautiful and appealing. But for me, it is hard not to breathe in the heavy historical smog there. This was, after all, the scene of a massively destructive military campaign. Some today would call it a national security mission, others would call it ethnic cleansing. The atmospheric conditions there today are neither overtly “bad” nor “good” from a moral standpoint, but those clouds of history are still thick. And nowhere do they seem thicker than along the big lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, and particularly between them, in Seneca and Schuyler counties. This is where I was this past week.

One of the curious things about this unnamed land between the lakes is how laden with U.S. government presence it was and still is. Outside of New York City and Fort Drum, this has been the most federalized plot of land in the Empire State. One can’t trace a clear path from the Sullivan-Clinton days to the 20th century in this regard, but it still seems like somewhat more than a coincidence that a Naval base (later an Air Force base), a heavily guarded munitions depot, and (improbably) a National Forest took form here. Indeed, the two long lakes make ideal strategic barriers… but, these being the first lands that the newly minted U.S. government took from the native inhabitants by force, one must wonder if on some deep echoing level, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

On a human level — today — I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to make that point. Nowhere in New York is organized anti-tribal sentiment more vehement than in Cayuga country. The prospect of the landless Cayugas putting 125 acres into trust has thrown the local chapters of UCE into high alert. “No Reservation, No Sovereign Nation” signs are still up everywhere. It’s a distinctly different vibe than even in the Utica-Rome area. There are any number of socioeconomic factors driving the rancor. Down on the shorelines are the sumptuous wineries with their newly surfaced parking lots, and up in the hills are the prim white farmhouses with their shaggy coats of peeling paint. But I think history’s miasma hangs heavily too. The land is beautiful, but it was acquired expressly by sword and fire. And that stone fact cannot balance lightly on any psychic sense of safety and permanence.

However, up in the hills between the two lakes is a strange, peaceful little oasis called the Finger Lakes National Forest. I went camping and hiking there this past weekend. This is New York’s only national forest, and the second smallest national forest in the country. It’s also probably the only one that has pastures (with cows!), neatly labeled with brown-and-white U.S. Forest Service signs. Originally a land reclamation experiment, it’s a patchwork of forest and farm lands that seems like a depopulated, idealized vision of the New York countryside — what it would look like if the state were a large outdoor museum. Because the land has hardly been touched by development since the 1930s, the plant diversity is pretty amazing. I counted at least 20 different species (not including shrubs and trees) bordering my campsite alone.

Needless to say, the views from the top of the forest are incredible. You can see Seneca Lake, and almost see Cayuga Lake as well… and you can almost feel that you’re above the mists of the past and present, too.


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

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.

Top New York stories of the year

Last December, I made a list of what I thought were the top 10 statewide stories of the year. Last year’s list appears so undramatic compared to 2008, truly a tumultuous year in New York’s politics and economy. And most of the stories spawned other important stories, a chain of events that is far from over. The challenge this year was not finding high-impact happenings to list, but deciding what should be ranked where.

1. Wall Street implodes. “Hoocoodanode?” The failure of investment banks and hedge funds, a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, the collapse of industries directly or indirectly dependent on obscene bonuses in the financial sector… most of it had already been predicted by cannier observers who saw where mortgage failures would eventually lead, but it apparently came as a big shock to a lot of people who should have known better. And even though Gov. Paterson tried to inject a note of alarm several months before things fell apart, there’s still a great deal of whistling past the graveyard throughout New York. It’s no ordinary recession, and impacts have yet to be felt not just on Wall Street, not just in manufacturing and real estate, but in medicine and higher education (the economic engines of many Upstate New York communities). There is no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes, or what the effects might be on New York’s economic and political structures in years to come.

2. Spitzer implodes. It’s a strange year indeed when a story like his isn’t the New York story of the decade (maybe even the century). In less than seven days — I’d almost say just three — his political career was over, his law-and-order reputation in tatters, and New Yorkers, who have pretty much seen it all at this point, choked back their disbelief, raised their eyebrows and carried on. Although his first (and only) year in office was hugely disappointing, “hoocoodanode” it would have ended up like this.

3. New York’s first black governor. Paterson’s installation into office deserves its own item. A qualified and experienced politician who almost surely could never have been elected “cold,” he is, to say the least, a very interesting figure called (or doomed?) to serve in very interesting times.

4. Bruno exits. Almost as soon as Spitzer’s political body was cold, Bruno got the hell out of Dodge (with federal indictment rumored to be near – and still rumored). Not only did he knock the props out from under the Three Men in a Room, but also from under the Upstate GOP establishment, with Long Island (in the form of Dean Skelos) taking over a Senate majority that would turn out to be short-lived… (or not)…

5. Darrel Aubertine wins the 48th District. Skipping back in time to February: when the special election in the North Country gave the district to Democrats for the first time since the 19th century and heralded a decisive step in the long-cherished plan to institute one-party rule in Albany. Unlike the three-way race in the 49th district in 2004 (which David Valesky won almost by default), this was supposed to represent a sea-change for Democrats in Albany and maybe even for Upstate Democrats too.

6. Gang of Three. As Bruno exited and Democrats made gains in the Senate, three right-of-center rogue Democrats held the Senate Democrats hostage with some hardball demands, showing a great deal of disarray evident in the party. This story is still going on and it doesn’t seem clear who will be in charge of the Senate (and therefore the Legislature) in 2009.

7. New York moves in on Indian tribal commerce. Not only the upstate Haudenosaunee, but the downstate Unkechaug/Poospatuck, have come under more aggressive treatment from state and NYC authorities on the tax-free sale of cigarettes. The issue of Native taxation in New York has a very long and tangled history, but until now, New York authorities preferred to pretty much ignore the situation. Although not much of a news item in NYC, Paterson’s signing of a tax enforcement bill — and local law enforcement raids on Cayuga-owned businesses — will undoubtedly have deeper reverberations throughout Upstate communities in 2009. How serious those reverberations, is hard to tell.

8. Gay marriage debate on deck. After years of remaining on the back burner of progressive politics in New York, gay rights activists finally were poised to get the issue of gay marriage on the state agenda, only to run smack into all of the items just listed: an economic meltdown leaving politicians reluctant to commit to controversial issues, not to mention one of the members of the Gang of Three (Ruben Diaz) trying to use his opposition to gay marriage as a crucial bargaining chip in the already bizarre power struggle among the Senate Democrats. But it is unlikely that this issue will recede again as it has in past years, perhaps adding a contentious ingredient to the newly unstable atmosphere of New York politics.

9. Hillary’s empty Senate seat. Yes, She has left us, as we all knew she would… and it’s really a sign of how explosive this year has been when I can rank the jostling to fill her seat as #9 on a list of 10.

10. Container shipping coming to Oswego. After the preceding items, this one may seem absurdly prosaic, but I think of it as “the quiet story” whose impact could be felt even after 2009… or maybe even 2019. It’s the one news development I heard this year that opened a new potential window on New York’s place in world commerce (for background, see this post on “Atlantica”). It’s also the one story on this list that will probably still retain its relevance after the current economic drama has played out — not to mention the drama of all of the aforementioned political personalities.

The moral of this year’s story: History never comes neatly packaged as a single person or a single event. It is a cascade of events uncontrolled by any one force. “When it rains, it pours.”

That didn’t take long

Paterson folds like a cheap suit on Native cigarette taxes.

Gov. Paterson to sign law today in Utica to collect taxes on all cigarettes (but see also this report)

Along with a host of other sin/luxury taxes and fee-raisings on everyone but the very wealthy. Then again, after the Madoff Ponzi revelation, the very wealthy may be even poorer than you and me.


Let’s say you’re a successful businessman who has managed to earn $10 million this year, but who also had $10 million invested with Bernie Madoff. Obviously, you’re not happy about seeing your savings wiped out — but if I’m reading this WSJ article correctly, since your loss is a “theft loss”, the whole thing is deductible, and you basically get to keep all your income tax-free! And it gets better: because of Madoff’s high-turnover investment strategy, you probably paid as much as $500,000 in taxes in each of the past three years on fictional trading gains. All those can now be refunded as well…

On the other side of the ledger, of course, the IRS was expecting $4.4 million from you this year, but now is going to have to pay out $1.5 million to you instead. Which works out at $6 million less money available for the public fisc. I haven’t seen estimates of the total cost of the Madoff fraud to the US government, but it’s surely in the billions, and quite possibly in tens of billions.

There’s no way all this can end well.

Updated: Sean Kirst has a terrific column on Paterson and Native issues today. Go read it.