JUNE 7, 1961
NEW YORK In our preoccupation with world affairs, we sometimes neglect those affairs close at home that may well affect the way people around the world feel about us. For in these days it is the way the non-Communist nations meet their moral and spiritual obligations that best demonstrates the difference between their philosophy and that of the Communists.
When we fail to face up to a moral problem, we not only harm ourselves at home but place us in a bad light all over the world.
The particular situation I have in mind exists between the United States Government and the Seneca Indians of Western Pennsylvania and New York State.
On November 11, 1794, George Washington's deputy, Thomas Pickering, signed a treaty with the Senecas which has been honored ever since. Support of the Senecas in the War of 1812 was important to us, so President Washington's deputy put the national seal to a promise which said:
"The U.S. will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneca nation."
The "same" referred to lands which today the Army Corps of Engineers has decided will be used to build the Kinzua dam, and Congress has appropriated the first $15 million for this purpose. This would put under water most of the land owned by the Senecas and would drive about 800 persons from the land their tribe has lived on for 167 years.
To an Indian, land is like a mother. Congress has a legal right to break a treaty, but only when it is necessary for the public good.
The Senecas have been most reasonable in this particular case. They agree that a dam must be built in the Allegheny River to prevent floods and to conserve water, so they engaged Dr. Arthur E. Morgan, a civil engineer with long experience in flood control, to survey the Western New York area knows as the Cattaraugus-Conewango Project.
I remember Dr. Morgan from his work with the Tennessee Valley project, and he was considered an authority in this work at that time. He believes this alternate project is far better than the Kinzua dam plan backed by the Army Engineers. It would leave the Seneca Indians undisturbed; it would flood inferior land, and the people it would dislocate could more easily be settled elsewhere.
In addition, Dr. Morgan believes this project will save the United States Government $100 million. If it is not built now, it will have to be built in the next 25 years.
The Senecas are appealing to President Kennedy for an opportunity to present their case, and their request seems modest. The president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Basil Williams of Salamanca, N.Y., wrote:
"The Seneca nation asks you (Mr. President) therefore to make an independent investigation into the merits and comparative costs of the Kinzua dam and Dr. Morgan's Cattaraugus-Conewango alternative, and that in the interim you direct that the work be halted on the authorized project." The authorized project, of course, is the Kinzua dam.
It is the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends that is helping the Senecas at the present time. Their interest in the problem is historically interesting, for in 1794 the Indians trusted the Quakers by asking them to send delegates to advise them on the treaty. Four Friends made the difficult eight-day journey through wilderness to participate in the negotiations preceding the signing of the treaty.
Today the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends is still in existence, and it voted over a month ago to undertake an emergency program to "find some satisfactory solution to this unhappy situation."
The Friends are not afraid to face up to a moral question. But the rest of us, I am afraid, have fallen into the habit of looking away from moral issues in favor of considering what we call the practical immediate situation.
As a nation, it would be a shameful thing for us to break this treaty if there is an alternative. All of us who feel it is important to keep faith with the first Americans in the U.S., the Indians, should write our representatives in Congress and ask the President to give the Senecas' representatives a hearing, for the President is still, according to the Indians, the father of everyone in the country—the "Great White Father."