DAILY DEBRIEF: Seneca Nation talks pandemic response, economic fallout of casino closures

It has been difficult to escape the economic and social fallout of the Coronavirus Pandemic. When the Seneca Nation learned about the Coronavirus, non-essential staff were sent home, and a COVID-19 task force was created.

The Nation with its sprawling territories in Allegany, Buffalo, Cattaraugus, Oil Spring and Niagara has combatted the coronavirus across its entire reservation.

Jason Corwin, the executive director of the Seneca Media & Communications Center located in Salamanca, candidly spoke to these obstacles, especially how his community has dealt with shutting down their tribal casinos.

Despite closing the doors to their casinos, the Nation has continued to overcome harsh adversities as they historically had, even now in the brief aftermath of the pandemic with a renewed resurgence in advancing food sovereignty efforts.

Closing the Casinos: A Crushing Financial Blow 

The closure of the Nation’s owned casinos amid the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging to calculate.

The Nation manages three casinos, each located on separate territories: the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel on the Niagara territory, the Seneca Allegany Casino in Allegany territory, as well as the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo.

Even though the Nation already started taking precautionary steps to increase sanitation at their facilities, eventually the risks and gamble ended when their leadership definitively closed down the sites.

“Once it become apparent just how serious the pandemic was becoming, our leadership made the decision to shut down the casinos,” Corwin told FingerLakes1.com.

Without these once reliable sources of income, their revenue streams have remained stagnant until recently reopening under new COVID safety precautions and social distancing procedures.

Recently, the National Congress of American Indians crafted a federal COVID relief aid package for recognized tribal nations across the continental United States, which had been initially stumped by the Trump Administration.

Eventually, the Seneca Nation received their promised allocation, but there are several other communities who haven’t obtained their federal assistance, which is still owed and now outstanding – forcing several Nations to file legal suits for retribution.

“Fortunately for the Seneca Nation it has not been as delayed as it has for some other nations who were allocated money and basically had to go to court to fight to get that money coming in,” Corwin admitted.

A Communal Front: Confronting Loss from COVID

Beyond the economics, the crippling social costs have been incurred by the entire community while grieving the loss of Seneca Nation members on the reservation.

While the Nation cannot track all COVID cases among their 8,000 enrolled members that span across the globe, Corwin has kept count of the deaths that occur on the reservation itself.

“We have no way of tracking statistics for all Seneca Nation members. There are ones who probably live in all fifty states. There are ones who are overseas in the military. We’ve been only able to really track deaths that have occurred on our territory,” Corwin explained.

The process of enrollment, which establishes membership criteria and can based on customs, traditions, language, or tribal blood counts, which is also known as blood quantum.

However, the criteria for membership range depending on each Nation, but membership into the Seneca Nation is determined exclusively through matrilineal lineage.

With nearly half of their enrolled members claiming residency throughout the five territories, only six deaths out of the estimated 4,000 inhabitants who call the reservation their home.

“We have had a minimal amount of fatalities. Of course, any one of them is a tragedy for the community,” he added.

Corwin identified the deceased as five Nation members including a first-language speaker and instructor who taught at the Allegany Language Department as well as a non-Seneca Nation member elder, who had been married to a woman from the Nation.

The well-respected elder who served as a mentor and had been beloved by his fellow neighbors, according to Corwin.

A Future Filling to the Brim: Food Sovereignty in Indian Country 

Two years ago, the Nation unveiled a new department, the Seneca Nation Agriculture Department under Gakwi:yo:h Farms, which aims at centering traditional Haudenosaunee agricultural practices.

The Food is Our Medicine grassroots initiative started across the reservation to promote community gardening.

But now, in the aftermath of the pandemic, Corwin disclosed that even a herd of American bison were brought to be raised on the property, all in an effort to advance food security and sovereignty initiatives among the Seneca.

In the spirit of a revitalized resurgence in creating spaces for enhanced health and nutrition, Gakwi:yo:h Farms has been coordinating a mobile farmers market since mid-July.

The mobile farmers market, which lasts throughout the rest of the summer has designated stops 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays in Allegany and Thursdays in Cattaraugus territories.

Like elsewhere, even the isolated territories and total reservation of the Seneca Nation is not exempt from the presence and impacts of the novel coronavirus.

However, the Nation now seems stronger than ever because of it, according to Corwin.

The pandemic has tested their resolve and only strengthened their community in the days, weeks, and months that followed since the deadly virus ravaged the United States and rest of Indian Country, especially with a revitalized interest in expanding food security measures.

“I think an upside to the pandemic has been a lot of people in the native community, and I see a lot of people in other communities talking about food security issues and returning to having a garden and our traditional agricultural ways,” Corwin concluded.


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