Former New York State assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who represented the Bronx for eight years, is criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomofor not including Indian nations in discussions about economic development in the state.
In an op-ed published in City and State New York in November, Benjamin underscores the valuable contributions made by tribes, which are “culturally, historically and economically bound to New York.”
Benjamin pointed to Cuomo’s “wine and beer summit” in October and “yogurt summit” in August, during which the governor toured the areas covered by the state’s 10 regional economic development councils to gauge their progress.
“It’s insulting he did not host a summit on Native American affairs,” Benjamin told ICTMN.
By not inviting Indian nations to participate in conversations about economic development initiatives, Cuomo is ignoring their significant impact as major job providers and revenue sources in the state.
“They see themselves as stewards of the environment,” Benjamin wrote in January 2012 in another op-ed for City and State New York. “All of the nations want to stimulate the state’s economy in ways that create and attract new jobs to central and western New York.”
New York’s Indian nations are not represented on the state’s economic development regional councils, despite attempts by the black and Hispanic caucuses and Sen. George Maziarz, chairman of the Committee on State–Native American Relations, to include tribal leaders, according to Benjamin.
“Treating New York’s first people as less than second-class citizens when it comes to our state being ‘open for business’ is counterproductive,” Benjamin wrote in his most recent op-ed.
Benjamin recommends Cuomo follow through on Gov. David Paterson’s promise to create a cabinet-level post on Indian Nation Sovereign Affairs. “Such a move would ensure regular, direct communications, and would signal the governor’s respect, commitment and desire to resolve outstanding issues.”
Benjamin stressed Cuomo needs to collaborate with the state’s tribes to move beyond the “current stalemate.” Numerous disputes loom over the tribal-state relationship, he said, referencing cigarette taxes, expanded gaming and more.
“The state is still spending millions on Native American land claims. Those need to be resolved. They have been in and out of the courts for 20 years,” Benjamin said. “It’s interesting the governor will voice his opinions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but he will not discuss resolving issues with Native American nations in his home state.”
In his most recent op-ed, Benjamin referenced the Seneca tribal government’s refusal to remit $460 million in gaming profits to New York State and surrounding cities because of three racinos operating in Western New York that violate the tribe’s exclusivity contract.
In addition, the Senecas claim they were not properly compensated for granting the right-of-way for the construction of a Thruway that bisects Seneca territory—an issue that could likely impede Cuomo’s plans for improvement projects.
“We shouldn’t have to go through this rhetoric every five years,” Benjamin told ICTMN. “Everything should be on the table to be discussed.”
Considering the Seneca Nation is the fifth-largest employer in western New York and it has invested tens of millions of dollars in the region, the tribe deserves to be consulted on the state's economic goals along with all business leaders.
Similarly, the Oneida Indian Nation employs approximately 4,500 people in Central New York. Since 1993, the Nation has spent over $2.2 billion on goods and services, and in fiscal year 2011, it spent more than $294 million with 3,472 vendors.
Benjamin noted the Oneidas recently became the lead investor in the Syracuse-based Hofmann’s Sausage Company. The partnership will save local jobs and "possibly enable the firm to expand nationally,” he said.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in North Central New York likewise contributes millions of dollars annually to the economy of a relatively economically depressed area.
While Benjamin said he has received little response to his op-eds prompting the governor to engage Indian nations in economic development conversations, he will be on the radio with former Gov. Patterson on Thanksgiving Day—coincidentally when the Oneida Indian Nation will host its iconic float, The True Spirit of Thanksgiving, honoring American Indians, in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City—to discuss Cuomo’s failure to follow through on Patterson’s promises to the state’s Indian nations.
“If New York is open for business, it should be open for all New Yorkers—native and non-native alike,” Benjamin said.