Seneca Nation's New Chief Seeks To 'Change Course'

Aug 18, 2011

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he's "actively" considering legalizing gambling in the state to raise revenue. That would create competition for casinos owned by New York's native nations.

Casino and tobacco sales have turned the Seneca nation, south of Buffalo, from an impoverished territory to the fifth-largest employer in the region.

But the nation's new president, Robert Odawi Porter, wants the Senecas to go beyond smoke shops and slot machines. Porter, a Harvard-educated lawyer and academic, wants to recast one of the darkest moments of the Seneca people into an economic boon.

One Of Seneca Nation's Darkest Moments

In Allegany, one of the Seneca's two territories in southwestern New York State, there's an area where a paved road turns to dirt and disappears into the woods. The road is blocked off with concrete slabs. A quarter mile down is an abandoned bridge.

"Old Red House Bridge — that went through the community of Red House," says Leslie Logan, spokeswoman for the Seneca Nation. "Nobody lives down there. It's a bridge that goes to nowhere essentially."

Sixty years ago, the road meandered past thriving communities, with Seneca homes along the Alleghany River, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools.

But in the 1960s, the U.S. government decided it needed the land to control flooding downriver in Pittsburgh. The Army Corps of Engineers condemned the villages, burnt down the houses and schools and churches, and built the Kinzua hydropower dam. The Senecas had fought the plan in Washington for almost two decades.

"They had been burning other people's homes, but our home — my father burned it," says Steve Gordon, who was 12 at the time. He says his father wouldn't let the federal government set his house afire. "So my dad loaded us all up in his vehicle and took us down there and we watched it burn to the ground, cause if anybody's going to burn our house, it'll be us," Gordon says.

Porter was 2 years old when Kinzua was built. He says he grew up like all Senecas at the time.

"No one had any money growing up," he says. "I mean, this was on the heels of the Kinzua era. No real jobs. The Nation government had no economic presence."

Few Enemies

Today Seneca Nation is awash in money — $600 million in annual revenue from three casinos, a cigarette trade worth millions more, a radio station and a fancy new administration building, where Rob Porter's office is.

Porter took the helm of the Seneca government nine months ago. He's a big guy at 6-foot-4. He has graying hair. He's dressed casually for a president in a striped button-down and khakis.

He says Senecas enjoy universal health care, college tuition assistance, subsidized day care, new sports complexes. For a few years, there was even a program that paid Senecas $1,400 a year to lose weight.

In New York State, the Senecas and other native tribes are often portrayed as villains, getting rich off of gambling and tobacco addicts.

Porter bristles at that criticism.

"Right when we're starting to recover from a couple hundred years of economic deprivation, I've even had members of Congress, their staff, tell us, you know, you guys really should be getting into something else. This is really not something you should be doing," he says. "And I just can't believe the hypocrisy of that."

Porter says some of the largest corporations in the U.S. are in the same industries. Almost all states raise money with lotteries.

Porter has sued New York several times to prevent the state from taxing native tobacco sales. He's pressing the state to pay millions in rent for two Interstates that cross Seneca land. Yet even so, he's made few enemies.

"I have met very few people in public office who don't say that they are impressed by Rob Porter," says Dan Herbeck, who has covered the Seneca Nation for the Buffalo News for 20 years. He says Porter is cut from a different cloth from previous Seneca leaders, like wealthy tobacco businessmen and "not very polished individuals."

"Porter is highly educated, kind of a statesman," he says.

Twenty years out of Harvard Law, Porter founded a prestigious indigenous law center at Syracuse University.

New York and its native tribes have been at each others' throats for decades, and it's rare for a state lawmaker to heap praise on a native leader. But state Sen. George Maziarz says Porter's ability to communicate is recasting that adversarial relationship.

"I have found him to be up front, absolutely willing to negotiate with the state of New York but yet very cognizant of some of the past wrongs that have been inflicted upon the Senecas," Maziarz says. "He wants to move forward in a positive way."

Holding On To History

Where Porter is really making a name for himself is his desire to steer the Senecas beyond gaming and tobacco, "changing course" he says. He envisions manufacturing, business incubators, new educational opportunities. But his biggest project by far is to become the new owner of the Kinzua hydro dam that flooded the Seneca villages almost 50 years ago.

"It's definitely an element of justice for us," Porter says. "It's also just good business. It makes a lot of money, and they're using our land and water to make that money."

The dam license will expire in four years. The Senecas need to convince federal regulators that they should take over the operation of the dam, instead of the Ohio company that runs it now. The dam's current operators say the Senecas don't have the expertise to run it.

Porter has other critics, too. In the city of Buffalo, non-native gambling opponents dismiss Porter for supporting the Seneca's casino there. Some Senecas say Porter is a sell-out — that just being a licensed attorney in New York compromises his ability to represent the Nation.

Porter held an event recently that was more history lesson than press conference. It recognized the United States' annual delivery of a bolt of cloth, a ritual dating back to a 1794 treaty. Porter looks at the cloth and chuckles.

"[It] literally could be used as cheesecloth, it's so thin," he says.

Then his legal mind kicks in. He jokes his ancestors certainly negotiated for better cloth than this. But at the podium, Porter is serious. The treaty guarantees Seneca sovereignty, he explains, and even if it's old, it still matters.

"This cloth symbolizes the foundation of that promise made by the United States," he says.

Porter says he sees himself in a long line of Seneca leaders, who aided colonists, crafted treaties and negotiated with white neighbors.

"The difference today, unlike in times past, is that we are often dictating the terms and we are no longer being at the short end of someone else's decision," he says. "We're making the decisions and then dictating it to others."

Porter says he wants to make the Seneca Nation so strong that Kinzua can't happen again.

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