Doug George-Kanentiio: An opportunity for New York governor

Governor Andrew Cuomo has an ideal opportunity to create a new relationship with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, one built on partnership, mutual respect and an affirmation of the unique status of the region's native nations.

The governor can begin by appointing a permanent Native liaison to advise him on issues relevant to the Iroquois. This individual would be nominated by the Iroquois and act as an ambassador, insuring that the governor has direct access to the leaders of the Confederacy and is given accurate, reliable information as to those issues which affect state-Native relations.

This issue is a complex one, involving treaties and land claims as well as economic and environmental concerns. Periodic meetings between the governor and the Iroquois are essential to establishing trust and reliability but Native leaders have not any substantial contact with the governor's office since the Mario Cuomo's administration.

The result has been hostility and suspicion on both sides. Without effective communication the previous governors have stumbled about, unsure as to how to act or even who to call during times of crisis. State policies involving Natives are drafted without the input of the Iroquois who naturally resist any initiative by Albany to expand state authority or to qualify the economies on Native territory.

Governor Cuomo's father established the short lived Office of Indian Relations but made the fatal mistake of staffing it with former members of the New York State Police. The Iroquois reacted by refusing to work with the Office since they were convinced it was an attempt to gather information which was then used against them.

The suspicions of the Iroquois were affirmed when they learned that Mario Cuomo's most important initiative was to create a policy of trading casinos for land: the governor wanted the Natives to abandon their land claims in exchange for gambling compacts.

When the Confederacy rejected this proposal the former governor sought to deal directly with splinter groups among the Iroquois. He found one in the Oneidas, by far the smallest Iroquois community and without a traditional governing council bound by the anti-gambling rules of the Confederacy.

Mario Cuomo's plan was that casino gambling would gradually introduce State taxes on Indian lands while eliminating Native criminal and civil jurisdiction. He believed the Iroquois would become so addicted to the casino income they would surrender their lands.

Mario Cuomo succeeded in separating the Oneidas from the Confederacy but that has not negated the stance held by the other Iroquois nations that they are free of state control including the right to engage in tax free commerce as they deem fit.

In 1996 Governor George Pataki wanted to avoid fighting with the Iroquois when he agreed to negotiate a Trade and Commerce compact with the Confederacy. After nine months of intense bilateral discussions the New York State-Haudenosaunee agreement was ready to be signed. It was designed to bring order to tobacco sales on Indian lands, eliminate smuggling, secure price parity and provide the Iroquois governments with enough income as to reduce all state expenditures for Native programs.

The agreement was endorsed by the US federal government as in compliance with the Treaty of Canandaigua. It was to be the most creative and honest compact ever singed by the Iroquois and New York State only to be abandoned by Pataki when a few dissident groups staged a series of orchestrated acts of terror. Pataki was warned by the Iroquois not to cede to the gangs but he did so and thereby fostered years of economic anarchy on Native territory.

The current governor is certainly wise enough not to repeat Pataki's mistake. He should call the Confederacy to Albany then meet our leaders at our capital at Onondaga before reviving the 1997 Trade and Commerce compact. He must not threaten the use of force to collect state taxes if the Compact provides a workable alternative.

Governor Cuomo has to see the Haudenosaunee as partners in the life of New York State. He can begin by speaking with us directly, unfiltered and with respect. Or he may not and have one heck of a mess on his hands.

Doug George-Kanentiio, is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of "Iroquois On Fire". He resides in Oneida Castle with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

He may be contacted by calling 315-363-1655, via e-mail: or via surface mail: Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421

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