Yet again New York state bureaucrats and elected officials misunderstand and underestimate the determination of the Seneca Nation of Indians to resist what they see as challenges to their sovereignty.
Deliberately or simply out of ignorance, state bureaucrats and elected officials deal with the Senecas as if intransigent negotiating or flat out government bullying will win the day - as it does sometimes in other arenas.
The issue this time is the need to rebuild the deplorable 11.5-mile section of the Southern Tier Expressway that passes through the Seneca's Allegany Territory in Cattaraugus County. Just last week we told readers about a woman from Corning whose tire rims were bent when she hit the deep potholes in the highway.
The state has $28.5 million from the Federal Highway Administration to rebuild the road and expects to award contracts for the work in a few weeks. However, Robert Odawi Porter, president of the Seneca Nation, has announced that the Department of Transportation commissioner and the executive director of the Thruway Authority have said the state will not comply with a nation's law regarding projects on its territories. Because of that, the project, he said, cannot go forward as planned.
In turn the state DOT has sent a letter saying "the new demand for paying the nation a fee for routine roadway maintenance is a significant change in policy by the nation. This is an unprecedented demand."
The 19-year-old Seneca law requires a project-specific agreement between the state and Senecas as well as a 3.5 percent fee on construction contracts - which amounts to about $1 million for the I-86 work.
What the state does not understand is that the Senecas' insistence on adhering to the old agreement is not about the money.
It is about what the Senecas see as their inviolate right to sovereignty within their territories.
As we noted a few years ago, the recent history of our Senecas has resulted in a collective psyche that is unique among Native Americans in New York. State officials continue to err in ignoring the historic inertia that has created a generation of Senecas that includes social and political leaders who were children when their families were forcefully relocated, their homes bulldozed and their land flooded by the federal Kinzua Dam project in the 1960s.
Whether dealing with the Senecas over the issue of collecting sales taxes on cigarettes sold on the Indian territory, or an exclusivity agreement in the gaming compact, or a two-decade-old understanding of how highway projects on Seneca land are to be handled - the state makes an irreparable mistake in disregarding how very seriously members of the Seneca Nation of Indians protect what they call their sovereignty.
Right or wrong, that is a fact.
Right or wrong, it is based on a visceral, immutable belief in the certainty that if they do not protect their sovereignty, they will lose it, just as they lost their homes and their land.
Senecas do not have it in them to back down.
Meanwhile, I-86 needs to be fixed before someone is killed.
Seneca President Porter has suggested a way around the impasse with the state. He proposes the Federal Highway Administration deal directly with the Seneca Nation of Indians to handle the contracting for the highway work.
Just leave the state out of it, he says.
Right or wrong, without serious and sincere negotiations between the state and the Senecas, that may be the fastest, and perhaps only, way to get the highway rebuilt.