SALAMANCA, N.Y. — This small town in the scenic Allegheny Mountains was settled by whites in the early 1800s and is like no other place in the nation. It is the only U.S. municipality that lies almost entirely within the confines of a recognized Indian reserve: the Seneca Nation's 30,469-acre Allegany Reservation.
For most of the history of this community, whose present-day population is about 6,600, this unique arrangement presented few problems. Whites and Indians managed to coexist in peace and harmony, particularly after a federally negotiated agreement in 1890 resolved a series of often acrimonious disputes over land ownership.
That accord, known as the Seneca Nation Settlement Act, permitted the Senecas to retain ownership in perpetuity of the land on which the town is built, while Salamanca's residents and business owners were granted 99-year leases on favorable financial terms. In some cases, rents were set as low as $1 a year for the life of the lease.
"This will aid you to build up this beautiful village and make it a large city . . . and benefits us by enhancing the values of our lands about here," Harrison Halftown, a Seneca Nation leader, was reported to have said at a civic celebration in 1892 to mark the start of the 99-year lease agreement.
But two years ago, nearly a century of peace and goodwill between Salamanca's residents and the Seneca Nation was shattered as the agreement's expiration neared and as the Senecas imposed tough new terms on the townspeople.
Rents were sharply boosted, rising by an overall average of more than 1,200%. Leases were limited to 40 years, with an option to renew only for another 40. And, in perhaps the most contentious step of all, the Senecas claimed title not only to the land itself but to all the homes and buildings on Indian land in the community.
Under New York state law, they contended, any improvements on leased property belong to the landlord. And in Salamanca, they declared, they most decidedly are the landlord.
Now, outrage among the residents of this town about 60 miles south of Buffalo has grown so strong that one irate resident jacked up his house from its foundation and moved it a mile off the reservation. Fifty other townspeople have obtained city permits to demolish their homes with dynamite rather than let the Senecas gain title to them.
And angry voters last fall ousted the old City Council, which had approved the new lease agreement, and swept into office an entire slate of members, each a sworn enemy of the hated land pact.
"It's the most unfair, unjust and unconstitutional thing I've ever seen," said the new council president, Phyllis Paquet, a Salamanca businesswoman whose family roots go back to the town's earliest days. "You lose all your assets, all the equity in your home. I'll take my house to the ground too before I let that happen."
In one of its first acts after taking office last January, the five-member council attempted--unsuccessfully, as it turned out--to stop payment of the $751,313 check representing the town's annual lease payment.
That payment is made each February under a 1950 federal law requiring the town's approximately 3,300 homeowners and businesses to pay their annual rentals to the city, which in turn delivers a lump sum check to the Senecas. Before the new lease agreement went into effect, the annual payment amounted to only about $57,000.
(For the owner of a two-story, three-bedroom home on an acre of land, the annual rent is about $600, a fee that is in addition to local and state property taxes.)
In April, in a move whose legality still remains in question, the council took the offensive again. The five members voted unanimously to declare the new lease agreement null and void on the grounds that it had been improperly negotiated. The mayor vetoed the move, but was promptly overridden by another unanimous vote.
The Senecas justify their tough stance as a means of rectifying almost a century of exploitation by whites. They say it is part of a growing national trend among American Indians to redress historical inequities and to expand and strengthen tribal sovereignty.
"We're on a par with modern times now," said Calvin John, the Seneca Nation president. "In 1890, we didn't have any legal assistance and, as witnesses testified in a congressional investigation in 1920 or '30, the Indians were plied with liquor to coerce them into signing. The old agreement was unfair to both sides, really."
Although he has made statements at other times to the contrary, John also maintained that any Salamanca resident or business owner who has signed a lease with the Senecas has nothing to worry about in regard to the title to their home or business.
"I made it clear in a letter in April that, as long as they have a signed lease, it's their property," he said. "We won't interfere. It'll be just like it was under the old agreement. But if they don't have a signed lease, well, that's another question."