Salena Zito

SALAMANCA, N.Y. – In a valley that curves along the Allegheny River is a tract of land built on opportunity, greed, and the bureaucratic nightmare of being one city in two nations.

According to state and local authorities, Salamanca is the only U.S. city located on an Indian reservation.

Toward the end of the 19th century, it was a flourishing railroad town of laborers, families and industrious entrepreneurs, all striving for the American dream.

It was named for a Spanish aristocrat who was convinced by Erie Railroad speculators (with an introduction from an American president) to invest in a rail line to prevent Pennsylvania firms from dominating the raw-materials market.

The only thing standing in the way was Seneca Indian land which, it turned out, could be technically bought through leasing.

A precarious relationship began.

The land the railroads wanted to lease – basically a swamp – was then of little use to the Native American inhabitants, so striking an agreement was relatively easy to accomplish.

With the building of the rail line came laborers. With laborers came families. With families came homes and daily necessities such as doctors, lumberyards, barbers, grocers, feed stores. Thus, the city was built.

Three Acts of Congress in 1875, 1890 and 1990 created a landlord-tenant relationship between the Seneca Nation and Salamanca’s homeowners and businesses.

The homeowners and businesses occupied their properties in accordance with a 99-year lease originally granted by the Seneca Nation in 1892. It expired on Feb. 19, 1991 – and the mutual distrust that had plagued the city since the first railroad was surveyed came to a very public boil.

For reasons ranging from rejecting pricier leases to demanding control over the land, 15 property “owners” eventually were evicted by the Seneca Nation.

Today, shabbiness blankets what could be a quaint town bounded by a river, a New York state park and a national forest. Garish “Nation-owned” cigarette outlets and gas stations produce a city drawn by Norman Rockwell but touched-up by Jackson Pollock.

“I had a professor who once said, ‘Simple way to understand the importance of private property: Have you ever washed a rental car?’ ” says political science professor Lara Brown. Salamanca, she says, “strikes precisely at the issue. When you don't own, most people don't care.”

The discount-cigarette shops attract bargain-seeking smokers from several states. The shops’ cheaper prices are due to the state never collecting sales taxes on reservation lands – until now.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.