MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. In New York, casino and tobacco sales have transformed the Seneca nation of western New York state from an impoverished territory into the buffalo region's fifth largest employer.
But the nation's new president, Robert Odawi Porter, wants the Senecas to go beyond slot machines and smoke shops. The Harvard educated lawyer is working hard to recast one of the darkest moments in Seneca history into an economic boon for his people.
North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein has this profile.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: To understand the modern Seneca nation and its president of nine months, Robert Odawi Porter, start here in Allegany, one of the Seneca's two territories in southwestern New York state.
A paved road turns to dirt and disappears into the woods. The road's blocked off with concrete slabs. A quarter mile down is an abandoned bridge.
LESLIE LOGAN: Old Red House Bridge. Yeah. That went through the community of Red House.
SOMMERSTEIN: Leslie Logan is spokeswoman for the Seneca nation.
LOGAN: Nobody lives down there. It's a bridge that goes to nowhere, essentially.
SOMMERSTEIN: Sixty years ago, this road meandered past thriving communities with Seneca homes along the Allegany River, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible...
SOMMERSTEIN: That's from a video of Seneca children chanting the Pledge of Allegiance at one of those 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.
STEVE GORDON: They had been burning other people's homes, but our home, my father burned it.
SOMMERSTEIN: Steve Gordon was 12 at the time. He says his father wouldn't let the federal government set his house afire.
GORDON: So my dad loaded us all up in his vehicle and took us down there and we watched it burn to the ground because he thought, if anybody's going to burn our house, it'll be us.
SOMMERSTEIN: Robert Odawi Porter was two when Kinzua was built. He says he grew up like all Senecas at the time.
ROBERT ODAWI PORTER: No one had any money, you know, growing up. I mean, this was, you know, on the heels of the Kinzua era, no real jobs, you know. The nation government had no sort of economic presence.
SOMMERSTEIN: Flash forward to today. Rob Porter, as he's known, has taken the helm of the Seneca government, awash in money: $600 million in annual revenue from three casinos.
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SOMMERSTEIN: A cigarette trade worth millions more, a radio station...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language) It's time for the Seneca word of the day.
SOMMERSTEIN: ...and a fancy new administration building where Rob Porter's office is.
SOMMERSTEIN: Porter's a big guy, six foot four. 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.
PORTER: Right when we're starting to recover from a couple of hundred years of economic deprivation, I've even had members of Congress, their staff, you know, fellows, you guys really need to be getting into something else. It's really not something you should be doing. And I just can't believe the hypocrisy of that.
SOMMERSTEIN: Porter says some of the largest corporations in the US are in the same industries and almost all states raise money with lotteries.
Porter 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.
DAN HERBECK: I have met very few people in public office who don't say that they are impressed by Rob Porter.
SOMMERSTEIN: Dan Herbeck has covered the Seneca nation for the Buffalo News for 20 years. He says Porter's cut from a different cloth from previous Seneca leaders.
HERBECK: Wealthy tobacco businessmen, people who have scratched and scraped, not very polished individuals. Porter is highly educated, kind of a statesman.
SOMMERSTEIN: 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 Senator George Maziarz says Porter's ability to communicate is recasting that adversarial relationship.
State Senator GEORGE MAZIARZ: 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. He wants to move forward in a positive way.
SOMMERSTEIN: Where Rob 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 operator of the Kinzua hydro dam that flooded the Seneca villages almost 50 years ago.
PORTER: It's definitely an element of justice for us. It's also just good business. It makes a lot of money and they're using our land and water to make that money.
SOMMERSTEIN: 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's a sellout, 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.
PORTER: (Unintelligible). It literally could be used as cheesecloth, I think, you know, it's so thin.
SOMMERSTEIN: Then his legal mind kicks in. He jokes, his ancestors certainly negotiated for better cloth than this. But at the podium, Porter's serious. The treaty guarantees Senecas' sovereignty, he explains, and even if it's old, it still matters.
PORTER: This cloth symbolizes on the foundation of that promise made by the United States.
SOMMERSTEIN: Porter says he sees himself in a long line of Seneca leaders who aided colonists, crafted treaties and negotiated with white neighbors.
PORTER: The difference today, unlike in times past, is that we're often dictating the terms and we are no longer being at the short end of someone else's decision. We're making the decisions and then dictating it to others.
SOMMERSTEIN: Rob Porter says he wants to make the Seneca nation so strong that Kinzua can't happen again.
For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein.
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