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Whites on N.Y. reservation fume over tougher lease


SALAMANCA, N.Y. -- This small town in the scenic Allegheny Mountains was settled by whites in the early 1800s and is like no other place in the nation. It is the only U.S. municipality that lies almost entirely within the confines of a recognized Indian reserve: the Seneca Nation's 30,469-acre Allegany Reservation.

For most of the history of this community, whose present-day population is about 6,600, this unique arrangement presented few problems. Whites and Indians managed to coexist in peace and harmony, particularly after a federally negotiated agreement 1890 resolved a series of often acrimonious disputes over land ownership.

That accord, known as the Seneca Nation Settlement Act, permitted the Senecas to retain ownership in perpetuity of the land on which the town is built, while Salamanca's residents and business owners were granted 99-year leases on favorable financial terms. In some cases, rents were set as low as $1 a year for the life of the lease.

"This will aid you to build up this beautiful village and make it a large city . . . and benefits us by enhancing the values of our lands about here," Harrison Halftown, a Seneca Nation leader, was reported to have said at a civic celebration in 1892 to mark the start of the 99-year lease agreement.

But two years ago, nearly a century of peace and goodwill between Salamanca's residents and the Seneca Nation was shattered as the agreement's expiration neared and as the Senecas imposed tough new terms on the townspeople.

Rents were sharply boosted, rising by an overall average of more than 1,200 percent. Leases were limited to 40 years, with an option to renew only for another 40. And, in perhaps the most contentious step of all, the Senecas claimed title not only to the land itself but to all the homes and buildings on Indian land.

Now, outrage among the residents of this town, about 60 miles south of Buffalo, has grown so strong that one irate resident jacked up his house from its foundation and moved it a mile off the reservation. Fifty other townspeople have obtained city permits to demolish their homes with dynamite rather than let the Senecas gain title to them.

And angry voters last fall ousted the old City Council, which had approved the new lease agreement, and swept into office an entire slate of members, each a sworn enemy of the hated land pact.

"It's the most unfair, unjust and unconstitutional thing I've ever seen," said the new council president, Phyllis Paquet, a Salamanca businesswoman whose family roots go back to the town's earliest days.

In one of its first acts after taking office last January, the five-member council attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to stop payment of the $751,313 check representing the town's annual lease payment.

Before the new lease agreement went into effect, the annual payment amounted to only about $57,000.

The Senecas justify their tough stance as a means of rectifying almost a century of exploitation by whites. They say that it is part of a growing national trend among American Indians to redress historical inequities and to expand and strengthen tribal sovereignty.

In the dispute over the new lease agreement, both sides see themselves as victims fighting to preserve their way of life and attempting to redress the wrongs done to them by outsiders.

But many townspeople point out that the Seneca Nation, whose 6,200 members are spread out over three reservations in western New York, also received $60 million from the federal and New York state governments as financial compensation for the discriminatory nature of the old lease pact. The money went into tribal funds after expiration of the 99-year lease in 1991.

"We need to renegotiate this lease so that we have something that everybody can live under," said City Council President Paquet. "The Senecas have got us stuck between a rock and a hard spot, and I don't know how to get out of it."

Salamanca was once a prosperous railway hub that was renamed in the 1860s for the Spanish marquis who financed construction of the railroad line that helped transform the town from a small way station called Hemlock Mills. The town has stagnated economically and lost almost a quarter of its population since the decline of the railroad industry in the 1950s and '60s.

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Sept. 9.

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