Seneca Nation's New Chief Seeks To 'Change Course' Casino and tobacco sales have turned the Seneca nation into an economic powerhouse. But the nation's new president, Robert Odawi Porter, aims to steer the Senecas beyond smoke shops and slot machines.
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Seneca Nation's New Chief Seeks To 'Change Course'

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

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

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein has this profile.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: 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: 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.


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.

ODAWI PORTER: (Unintelligible)

SOMMERSTEIN: 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.

ODAWI 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 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: 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.

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.

ODAWI 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: 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.

ODAWI 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.

ODAWI 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.

ODAWI 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: For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein.


BLOCK: This is NPR News.

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