Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


The Indians had friends, in and out of Congress, but not enough of them. Dr. Morgan produced still another alternative proposal—a dam site that would not involve any Indian lands—but a study sponsored by the engineers concluded that Dr. Morgan’s dam would cost more money and take longer to build. Morgan and the Senecas did not agree, and sought an independent comparison, but the engineers prevailed on the Senate to turn aside this request. Treaty or no treaty, the engineers were not going to risk a reversal of their plan, which now, it was revealed, would necessitate the condemnation of slightly more than 10,000 acres of the Indians’ habitable land (leaving them only 2,300 on which they could live); the moving of 134 families, or about 700 people, more than one third of the population of the reservation; the relocation of about 3,000 Seneca graves; and the inundation of the Cornplanter grant in Pennsylvania.

Falling back on the 1794 treaty, which promised that the United States would never claim the Senecas’ land and guaranteed that it should be theirs until they chose to sell it, the Indians, in a case against the Secretary of the Army, now sought to halt construction of the Kinzua project, hoping to force the adoption, instead, of the Morgan plan. On April 14, 1958, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the engineers could take reservation land, the same as any other, by the right of eminent domain, implying, in effect (although the court did not condone it), that the government of the United States, which could make a treaty, could also break it if it wished to do so. The case went on to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and to the Supreme Court, but the judgment stood. Whether by their own ignorance or by the withholding of information from Congress, the engineers had maneuvered Congress into a position of voting, in the 1950’s, to break still another Indian treaty, which it had the constitutional, if not the moral, right to do. By the time Congress realized what it had done, it was too late. The engineers had too many friends on Capitol Hill, and there was no one strong enough to induce the bureaucratic wheels within the corps to reverse themselves.

That this was true became painfully clear to the Senecas when, as a last desperate measure, they appealed to President Kennedy in 1961, hoping that he would use his prerogative to withhold funds appropriated for the dam. On August 9, 1961, Kennedy replied to Basil Williams, the president of the Seneca Nation: “I have now had an opportunity to review the subject and have concluded that it is not possible to halt the construction of Kinzua Dam. .. . Impounding of the funds appropriated by the Congress after long and exhaustive congressional review, and after resolution by our judicial process of the legal right of the Federal Government to acquire the property necessary to the construction of the reservoir, would not be proper.”

And so the dam was built. In his letter to Williams, President Kennedy had added that he would direct federal agencies to assist the Senecas by considering the possibility of finding new land to exchange with the Nation for the area it would lose; by reviewing the recreational potential of the reservoir and methods by which the Senecas could share in that potential; by determining the special damages suffered by the Nation’s loss of so much of its land; by aiding those Senecas who had to give up their homes; and by preparing recommendations for whatever legislation might be required to achieve those ends. The White House sent a copy of the letter two days later with a covering memorandum to Major General William F. Cassidy, director of civil works, Corps of Engineers, ordering the corps to “look into these questions without delay.”

The letter was bucked down through the corps, and although meetings, begun two months later, were held with other government agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as with representatives of the Senecas, the corps behaved as if it were thoroughly irritated with the Indians and had no intention of doing anything for them. The corps did pay the salary of an able and dedicated representative of the B.I.A., Sidney Carney, a Choctaw Indian who was sent to work among the Senecas. But except for that, two full years later, with the dam nearing completion and the Indians still living in their old homes that were threatened by the reservoir, so little had been done by Cassidy and the engineers to carry out Kennedy’s order that some congressmen, moved to anger, introduced bills authorizing payments for the relocation and rehabilitation of the Indians. “Apparently you don’t want to try to do anything for this Indian tribe,” Congressman John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania berated a stony-faced corps witness. “Apparently you have become so calloused and so crass that the breaking of the oldest treaty that the United States has is a matter of little concern to you. … the Corps of Engineers has never intended to do anything whatsoever with regard to the Seneca Indians, and they have intended from the very beginning to treat this as just any other dam and leave the Indians only their recourse in the courts.”