For outdoor lovers, the area around the Kinzua Reservoir, just north of here an hour or so, is a real gem. But for some, it is like a stone in a shoe; a reminder of a painful betrayal by democracy.
After an hour of watching “Lake of Betrayal,” a new documentary available at the Meadville Public Library, you’re not likely to see the Kinzua area, or think of it, in the same idyllic way you might usually contemplate when hiking through the woods or waiting quietly for a fish to bite.
The story has many beginnings: The earliest settlers who step by step pushed the Indians to other places. The Treaty of Canandaigua, signed by President George Washington and the Council of Six Nations, an agreement to never disturb the lands of these Indians. The idea of Indian Reservations, which started in 1758. The Indian Removal Act of 1830. Or, the more recent policy of Indian Termination.
The history of our nation’s treatment of those who were here before the Vikings and the Europeans provokes many reactions, many of them are of shame. But human nature being what it is, actions toward the Indians have not changed much.
In the Kinzua chapter, Indians may not have been killed physically in battle, but in the taking of their land for “progress,” their spirit was certainly put on life support.
Specific precedent was set in the 1930s and ’40s when tribal lands were taken to build dams to control the Columbia River System, breaking previous treaties. More locally, the 1936 great flood in Pittsburgh made flood control a major topic in this region. Even the Potomac overflowed, getting the topic even more attention within the federal government.
That began the planning for the construction of the Kinzua Dam to be built in the heart of Seneca Indian lands, protected from disruption by treaty since 1794. Using the tools of democracy, Seneca leaders fought hard to preserve their land and way of life.
They were not against preventing the so frequent damage to lives, property and business that came from horrendous floods.
The Seneca even secured the services of the highly regarded flood control expert Arthur Morgan, the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, who surveyed land and proposed a different site for the reservoir, one that would flood inferior land, displace less people and cost less.
“They took democracy more seriously than the government,” says one speaker on the documentary. The Seneca believed that reason and discourse would prevail.
However, the various government agencies and influencers had already decided that the reservoir would be on Seneca lands. The Indians would just have to be removed.
A glimmer of hope came during John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency, when he pledged to help the Seneca. But politics often sails in other winds. Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was said to have sealed the nomination for Kennedy by delivering his state’s delegation. Lawrence wanted to hear no alternatives for the Kinzua location. President Kennedy said it was out of his hands.
The result was another removal of Indians, this one commemorated each September by current Seneca Indians.
There’s more to the human side of this story, of course. The termination of tribal rights and treaties continues to be an issue that never has been fully dealt with by Congress. If you drive the New York State Thruway near Irving, you will see signs about treaty disputes between the Seneca and the state. There also is the benefit of selling tax-free gasoline and cigarettes on Route 5 while on the Seneca Reservation, considered to be a tribal right.
While many of today’s Seneca acknowledge that they have made some good out of the betrayal, such as casinos and other businesses, there is a segment who remember first-hand the pain of having their spirit quashed by promises not kept. A reservoir of tears.