Relationships are everything in business, Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation representative, told state lawmakers Monday at a historic economic summit between tribal leaders and state officials.
The summit was hosted by the Senate Committee on State-Native American Relations Chairman Sen. George Maziarz and held in the state capitol in Albany on April 15. The Oneida Indian Nation and other Indian nations with homelands within the State of New York met with state and country officials and a building trades representative to talk about building economic development partnerships, creating and retaining jobs, promoting local investment, strengthening government relations and building successful community partnerships. Tribal leaders representing the Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca, and Unkechaug nations attended In addition to Halbritter, who is also the CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network.
By coincidence, the economic summit began a day before the Oneida Indian Nation launched a celebration of the 20th anniversary of its gaming compact with the state. “Clearly, it’s been very successful,” Maziarz said in his introductory comments, referring to the Nation’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino. “The nations and tribes represented here today are some of the biggest employers in our state, particularly in upstate New York and while we tend to hear many times about tobacco and gaming there is much more to what each nation brings to the table.”
Halbritter updated the summit attendees on some of the contributions Oneida Nation has made to the local and state economies since the opening of Turning Stone Resort Casino in 1993. The casino has created 5,000 jobs directly and another 6,000 indirectly, Halbritter said. The Nation’s payroll is $126 million annually for a total of $2.5 billion since the casino opened. The tribe has invested $1 billion in capital improvements to the land and does business with 1,762 outside companies and vendors in New York state, creating a ripple effect of economic growth. The Nation’s success has come despite a sometimes less than harmonious relationship with the state. “However, we’re delighted to hear there’s an opportunity for a different relationship, and a dialogue of working together rather than being at odds. It’s very significant. … There’s no question that relationships that you can work on make a key difference. Relationships are everything in business; they’re everything in making something better, (making) communities working together.”
Halbritter commended Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state for launching “New York Open to Business” campaign two years ago in an effort to persuade businesses to relocate to the state. But watching the ads on television, Halbritter said he couldn’t help thinking that the state is ignoring the assets “right here, right under its nose – and it doesn’t have to convince anybody to relocate or invest in the state – and these assets are the Indian nations. New York state will never have to spend one penny to convince us not to relocate out of the state – this is our home and it will be our home till the end of time. We are a unique partner for the state and our long term interests are inextricably linked.”
Every tribal leader played variations on the theme that each indigenous nation has existed in the place where it exists today and will continue to do so.
Unkechaug Nation Chief Harry Wallace talked about his Nation’s distinct history on Long Island, New York, and the treaties it signed with the English colonial government in 1664 and 1749. Unlike the Haudenosaunee Confederacy tribes represented at the economic summit, the coastal Unkechaug are an Algonquian-speaking people. Wallace talked about the long history of his tribe’s trading economy, particularly in wampum. In fact, Wallace said, the wampum belt that sealed the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua that other tribal leaders at the meeting talked about, was made by Unkechaug people, who still create the beautiful purple beads from the local quahog shells.
Wallace raised a few non-economic development issues which, he said, is important to his people: the protection of graves and education. “Long Island is one of the most populated areas of the state and every time they put a shovel in the ground they’re digging up one of our ancestors. It’s a major issue for us and it’s an issue we need to address.” He told the committee that the Nation should be part of the negotiations on education contracts for schools attended by Native children. “We’re the biggest minority. It should be mandatory that we are a signatory to all contracts that relate to Native students.”
The Unkechaug Nation has had its share of woes over cigarette taxes and Wallace addressed the issue with a quote from 19th century Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall on the issue of taxation. “As John Marshall once said, ‘The power to tax is the power to destroy,’ and if we give you the power to tax us you will destroy us. We’re a peaceful people. We like to live in harmony, but we will not allow our destruction without resistance,” Wallace said. (Related story: New York Appeals Court Lifts Stays on Cigarette Taxes)
Maziarz said it is more important than ever for the state to proactively partner with Native American nations and tribes on economic development. He strongly recommended that a committee on State-Native American relations be formed, and that the Governor develop opportunities for greater cooperation between the nations and tribes.
“This summit shows that Native American Nations and tribes are some of the biggest employers in our state, and that we need to work harder as a state to build partnerships with them, rather than allowing conflict to always be the order of the day,” Maziarz said in a press release after the meeting. “Today I call on the State Assembly to create a committee on State-Native American relations that can partner with our committee on finding solutions. I also ask the Governor to work with us to include the Native American Nations and tribes in his regional economic development strategy. Only through cooperation and dialogue will we be successful in creating more jobs and solving outstanding areas of dispute.”
Barry Snyder, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, noted in Maziarz release that the Seneca Nation’s economy has grown significantly in the past several decades into “a successful engine for economic growth for the Nation and surrounding communities. We applaud Senator Maziarz for his willingness to recognize that the Senecas and all New York state’s sovereign nations contribute significantly to economic growth in the state. Sovereign Indian nations have unique characteristics that can help leverage advantages with the state’s economic activities that should be explored and not ignored.”
St Regis Mohawk Tribe Sub-Chief Michael Conners said, “I was proud to represent the Mohawks at this summit. I was able to reinforce how the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is the major economic driver in Northern New York, through our direct employment numbers and benefits offerings, as well as the amount of direct wages we are pumping into both Franklin and St. Lawrence counties. I also touched on how our sovereignty leads to major, direct economic benefits for the surrounding area and New York state as a whole. The financial earnings and savings achieved in Akwesasne lead to more disposable income for consumers, which is then spent in the area economy, benefitting all involved.”
Clint Halftown, Representative of the Cayuga Nation of Indians said, “On behalf of the Cayuga Nation, we welcome the opportunity to participate in this Summit. Our Nation has made significant strides over the last 10 years in pursuing economic development, both on and off our 64,000-acre reservation granted to us by the Treaty of Canandaigua. While in 2003 we had no commercial enterprises, today we own a dozen businesses ranging from convenience stores to our own federally licensed cigarette manufacturing facility. We went from having two employees in 2003 to now employing 100 Cayuga and non-Native local citizens. And we have used some of the revenue from these businesses to develop housing for our people on our reservation. Unfortunately, the growth our Nation has enjoyed has not been achieved with the cooperation of state and local governments, who have opposed several of our initiatives. The Nation would prefer to work with, rather than against other governments, and we appreciate the effort this Committee is making to achieve this goal.”
The Senate Select Committee on State-Native American relations will hold two additional forums in the coming months to address education issues, veterans issues as well as law enforcement and tribal courts.
The summit can be seen below: