A striking phenomenon was that twice on our vacation, we left the country, kind of. The green highway signs we saw along Route 17/Interstate 86, for a time, were in both English and in the language of the Seneca.
Check out the timeline of the dispute between the Indian tribe and the federal and state governments. A key turning point is described here:
“In the 1990s, the Senecas won a prolonged court battle to assume ownership of all land on their reservation, including that owned by private non-Seneca. (This was particularly contentious in Salamanca, where non-Native landownership had been tolerated for decades. State and local officials said that this is the only United States city located on Indian reservation land; under the recognized law of the time, the underlying land remained Seneca owned, but “improvements” on that land were not subject to lease and were still privately owned.) The city had been developed under a 99-year federal lease arrangement with the Seneca Nation. It had provided land to railroads to encourage development, which the railroad developed for workers and their families, and related businesses. This arrangement was confirmed by acts of Congress in 1875, 1890 and 1990.”
The Seneca became exempt from taxes on their lands, notably the money from their successful casinos, but it’s all remained a negotiation. Back in 2011, it was a highway fight over who was responsible for repairs. In 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an agreement between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians “that resolved a multi-year dispute between the State and the Nation.”
“The State of New York recognizes and reconfirms the exclusivity of Seneca casino operations in the Western New York region, and the Seneca Nation agrees to resume payments and to make pro-rated repayments for past amounts that were in dispute.”
On the return trip, when we took a more northerly route, off the major highway, the signs were more interesting. These purple road signs implore people to drive carefully but have a more folksy feel than your usual directives. More than one said “Drive safely for our children. Drive safely for our elders.” This one is the only one I could find a visual for online, alas.
Here’s a factoid for you: Although the population is small – 8,000 enrolled members – the Seneca Nation has become the fifth-largest public employer in Western New York.