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A Chance to Right a Wrong: the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Kinzua Dam

David Kimelberg
1/28/11

A mere 46 years ago, the federal government orchestrated a series of events with generational consequences that can only be described as shameful. These actions, which included the forcible relocation of Native Americans, the burning of their age-old homesteads and the submergence of a third of their territory, parallel atrocities in far off lands that Americans routinely condemn. The U.S. government now has a chance to do the right thing and at least partially right these wrongs. Talk is cheap. It’s time to walk the walk.

The Seneca Nation of Indians is a sovereign Indian nation that has existed since long before the United States was born. Our aboriginal lands are located in much of western New York State. Like all other Native American nations, our lands were reduced to miniscule slivers by force, coercion and violence. In 1794, the Seneca Nation signed a treaty with the U.S. government, which is still the supreme law concerning its lands. In exchange for a promise of peace when the U.S. was a fledgling country, and needed its help, the U.S. government promised to never claim or disturb the Seneca Nation’s diminished territory. This inviolable promise was heartlessly broken in 1964, a sad state of affairs that continues to this day.

In the 1950s, ostensibly to control floodwaters in the Pittsburgh area, the U.S. government proposed the construction of a dam on the Allegheny River. Knowing that such a dam would put a third of its neighboring territory under water, where its people had lived for centuries, the Seneca Nation made its objections known as best it could. My great uncle, Cornelius Seneca, who was President of the Seneca Nation at the time, appealed to the public and even helped commission an expert who designed an alternative that would achieve the same result without eviscerating our lands and homes. Public figures rallied to our cause, with even Johnny Cash recording a song to help publicize our plight. However, despite the public outcry against an obviously wrong abuse of power, and with little discussion, the government swatted our alternative proposals down and proceeded to exert its selfish desires by force.

What happened next is truly shocking. The U.S. government forcibly relocated hundreds of our people and burned their homes to the ground. Sacred burial grounds were uprooted and moved. The Kinzua Dam was built and a tsunami submerged much of our homeland. Such a traumatic event has left indelible scars on our people and our soul as a nation. Many of our people still cry today when they recollect those emotionally wrenching days.

Fast-forward 46 years and we find a chance for the U.S. government to at least take a step in the right direction of making things right. Unknown to us at the time of planning, a hydroelectric power plant was built alongside the Kinzua Dam. To add salt to our wounds, the ironically named Seneca Pumped Storage Facility was built and licensed to FirstEnergy Corp. Despite giving up invaluable ancient rights against our will, rights that the U.S. government guaranteed never to take, we have never benefited from the hundreds of millions of dollars in profits that the facility bearing our name has produced. The government now, however, has a chance to start healing some old wounds.

FirstEnergy’s license to operate the Seneca hydroelectric plant expires in 2015. The Seneca Nation has announced its intent to apply for the expiring license to operate the plant. It has both the capabilities and resources to do this effectively and efficiently, and bring necessary power to an economically depressed region sorely in need of business infrastructure. By granting the Seneca Nation this license, the U.S. government would take a long overdue first step in making amends and helping to bring some dignity to an immoral situation. Life offers very few chances to right past wrongs. Such chances are fleeting, and should be enthusiastically embraced when they present themselves.

David Kimelberg is an enrolled citizen (Bear clan) of the Seneca Nation of Indians. He is the CEO of Seneca Holdings LLC, the investment arm of the Seneca Nation, and the founder of nativeinvestment.com, an online forum and blog about economic development in Indian Country. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Seneca Nation of Indians or Seneca Holdings.

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