Annapolis Filmmaker Features Seneca Indians On Mpt

Free-lancer Showstwist On Treaties

July 02, 1991|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

Tiring of what he called as the "cloistered" life of a college film instructor in Ohio and Virginia, Michael Allen moved back to Annapolis in 1986 to experience some real life for a while.

While developing ideas for free-lance documentary film projects, he got his real estate license and started restoring a home in the city's historic district.

But the fruit of his creative labors pays off tonight with the airing of "Honorable Nations," a documentary premiering 10 p.m. on national and Maryland Public Television's "Point of View."

Allen said the documentary, on which he was associate producer, details the end of a 99-year lease between the U.S. government and the Seneca Indian Nation -- the "Honorable Nations" referred to in the title, and the renegotiation of the terms under which the whites and the Senecas lived together in upstate New York.

The lease established the city of Salamanca in 1851, originally the Seneca village of Bucktooth, as theonly city in the United States built within an Indian Reservation. Aformer railroad boom town, the city has declined in recent years

The Senecas retained ownership of the land, but whites owned their own homes in Salamanca.

Until earlier this year, residents paid a ground rent that Allen described as "a laughable amount of money," fixed at about $1 per home annually. This was a rate considered small even by late 19th-century standards.

Born in Washington, D.C., and educated in both Annapolis and Switzerland, Allen first became interested in film-making as a drama major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He moved behind the camera when he realized that wasthe best way he could control what he wanted to say and do.

The documentary took from five to six years of planning and filming to complete. It was finished this year, supported by $65,000 in grants fromthe New York Councilfor the Humanities and the New York State Council for the Arts.

The project was originally created by filmmakers Chana Gazit and David Stewart, a graduate film school colleague of Allen's from the State University of New York in Buffalo.

"David wenton to become an editor of some repute in documentary circles," Allensaid, "and I went on into teaching, first at Dennison University in Ohio, and then at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va. But I always felt that I wanted to get more involved in production, so I took the plungein 1986."

They spent some time in Salamanca, doing research and monitoring the situation over four years. Serious filming began two years ago and wrapped up earlier this year.

The documentary outlinesanold story, familiar to those who have studied the troubled historybetween the United States and American Indians. But there is a a ironic contemporary twist: The whites were in danger of losing their homes because of an unfair treaty.

Over the years, Allen said, the "Indian tax" as it was called, wasfrequently ignored, for up to 20 years in some cases. "At one point, the Senecas even sued a business for non-payment of annual rent," he added.

The leases expired this year, and the Senecas announced they wanted to renegotiate a more equitable rent, offering figures, between $150 to $300 annually, depending on the value of each white-owned home.

But, Allen said, to the whites who had been paying the token rate, "it was an effrontery. It wasa reminder of something they didn't choose to remember, and that wasthe rather ill-gotten (acquisition) of the land in the first place."

The towns people -- mostly unemployed, on welfare, elderly or retired -- protested they would find even the compromise figure difficult to pay.

The town itself is so poor that essential services over the years, such as the hospital, had been cut back. Residents asked why theyshould accept an increase for something they weren't getting.

Finally, both sides agreed to take the problem to the state and federal governments for resolution. They agreed to give the Senecas $60million, the first time the government has paid any kind of reparation to an Indian tribe.

On its part, the city of Salamanca will play an annual lease of $800,000. To help the city with this increase, the Senecas will place $3 million in escrow and loan it the interest over 10 years.

"In that resolution," Allen said, "I think the righthas been served, ultimately, as we will see in the film, but both sides hurt (during the process), and the hurt is real."

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