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
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
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
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
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:
Kanentiio@aol.com or via surface mail: Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421
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