A peaceful demonstration at Cattaraugus called the Honour Indian Treaties Rally to protest the imposition of New York State taxation on Indians turned into a violent confrontation with State Police.
Over 1,000 Seneca and their supporters, including non-Natives, were marching along Routes 5 and 20 on Sunday, April 20, with placards, flags and a drum along with an Iroquois Colour Guard of war veterans.
When the demonstrators turned onto the Interstate Thruway 90, which passes through the reservation, four New York State troopers, one major and three captains, approached the parade. There were another 50 troopers further behind wearing helmets and carrying batons.
There are conflicting reports of what happened next, but an altercation took place and the officers were knocked to the ground. Several police cruisers raced up to assist the officers, some cars banging into each other.
Troopers fought with protesters while trying to help the officers. Pepper spray was used on some protesters and the police claim the protesters used pepper spray on them. Police commanders ordered the troopers to back off because they were still outnumbered, leaving their cars behind.
Some protesters entered the cars, took a police radio, books of tickets and police Stetsons which they wore for the rest of the day. The troopers advanced in three different maneuvers to retrieve the cars. They then withdrew some distance down the highway.
During the initial melee, 12 State Troopers were reported injured, none seriously. No serious injuries were reported by the protesters. The demonstrators continued to occupy the Interstate and at nightfall, they burned tires on the highway until morning.
On Monday morning, State Troopers returned in force and, with heavy machinery, removed the burning tires and other debris from the road. The police then entered the reservation, sealed off all access roads and would not let anyone in or out of the reservation.
Scott Snyder, manager of Seneca Hawk gas station, blamed the troopers for starting the violence. “We weren’t armed. All we wanted them to do was leave our territory,” said Snyder. The Senecas were angry, over not only the embargo of gasoline and cigarettes, but also the denial of home heating oil and propane for cooking. A judge had to pass an injunction ordering the state police to allow home deliveries of propane and heating oil.
“Act of war”
“Governor Pataki is violating the sovereignty of the Seneca Nation of Indians and has imposed illegal embargoes on heating and cooking fuel,” said a press release from Susan P. Abrams, on behalf of the Seneca Nation.
“He has overstepped his authority by preventing motor fuel to the Seneca Nation of Indians for governmental services to our people and prevented tribal members access to motor fuel even though the court orders have stated the court ruling only applies to the resale of motor fuel and cigarettes to non-Indians.
“This aggression was tantamount to an act of war bringing aggression directly into Seneca Territory.
“Pataki has attempted to strongarm and intimidate the Seneca Nation of Indians to enter into an agreement with New York State. On April 21, 1997, as of 5:00 am, well over 150 New York State Troopers have been directed by Governor Pataki to put this Nation under siege.
“Blockades have been put up preventing egress and ingress to our land. Tribal members have been unable to get proper medical attention, dialysis patients were stopped from going to the hospital for services at the borders, endangering their lives, several women were assaulted without provocation, an unknown number of tribal members were assaulted and arrested earlier this morning.
“At 7:00 a.m., several eyewitnesses revealed one woman, Angle Steeprock, was brutally beaten into unconsciousness and denied medical attention while NYS troopers slammed her into a back seat of a trooper vehicle and was observed as not regaining consciousness. Her condition is still unknown.”
Police have made over two dozen arrests on Monday and Tuesday, April 21 and 22. More than 100 troopers in riot gear stood sentry Monday night at the intersection of Routes 438, 5 and 20, a main entrance to the reservation.
Scores more lined the state thruway in the vicinity of Route 438 while a State Police chopper circled overhead.
2nd rally planned
The State of New York agreed to pull out most of the troopers ringing the Seneca reservation in return for the resumption of talks on the tax dispute at a meeting on Tuesday, April 22.
Removing the riot-clad troopers and reopening reservation roads was a top priority of the Seneca leadership.
A second rally was planned in Albany, the state capital, a few days after the first protest.
Reprinted from The Eastern Door.