Seneca Nation officials are asking President Obama for his help in dealing with the New York State Thruway Authority.
The nation's officials said treaties with the United States, along with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples led them to seek federal intervention in their dispute with the state in which they allege the Thruway's "illegal occupation of a three-mile swath of land" across the nation's Cattaraugus Territory.
"Top state officials have consistently refused for at least the last five years to meaningfully discuss the issues involving the Thruway easement," said Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter. He said the nation has asked state officials to discuss what he called long-standing, legitimate grievances the nation has involving four lanes of highway running through nation territory.
Porter contends a 1954 easement for the highway is void because federal law required the secretary of the interior's approval of the easement, which, he said, never happened.
The nation's governing body, the Tribal Council, he said, rescinded authorization for the easement in 2007 and imposed a $1 per vehicle toll - billed to the state - for each motorist passing through its territory. Porter said the state continues to reject the bills that he said total more than $80 million.
"In various court actions, repeated letters and multiple public statements, three Seneca presidents in the last five years made it clear to New York Thruway and government officials that the voided easement for the 300 acres of land the Thruway uses needed to be subject of discussions with the nation," Porter said.
"Top state officials have consistently refused for at least the last five years to meaningfully discuss the issues involving the Thruway easement."
Robert Odawi Porter
Seneca Nation president
The nation president said he wrote Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January, listing a series of topics the two needed to discuss, including the Thruway right-of-way. He therefore asked Obama and his administration to "intervene to start fruitful talks with state involvement."
Porter said its remaining territories have taken on an elevated importance as the Seneca homeland and the most critical part of the tribe's sovereignty.
"The nation is therefore left with a clear right, but no remedy that the nation can effectuate itself," he said. "The state's continuing occupation of Seneca land for purposes of the Thruway for nearly 60 years is a continuing violation of federal law that must be resolved," he said.
"The United States' involvement is urgently needed to protect the Seneca Nation's land against this continuing violation of federal law by the state of New York, and the continuing unauthorized occupation of its lands by the state," wrote Porter.
Neither spokespeople for the Obama administration, New York State Thruway or Cuomo's office could be reached to comment Monday.
"The Seneca Nation calls upon President Barack Obama, on behalf of our treaty partner, the United States, to act on the commitment made by President George Washington over 200 years ago to 'protect' the nation in all of its 'just rights,' and to honor the commitment made in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua to protect the Seneca Nation in the 'free use and enjoyment of its lands,'" Porter said. "The president's assistance is essential to finally bring about a resolution to New York's longstanding illegal use of Seneca Nation lands."
Porter then pointed to what can happen when governmental agencies work together.
The Center Street bridge in Salamanca opened Monday after more than a year of work.
"When the nation, state, city and county talk and join to reach consensus, good things happen for all Western New Yorkers,'' Porter said. ''That is my firm belief, especially when it comes to the state, and I hope this is an example of more productive cooperation to come."