Emslie Horniman Award – Emily Levitt

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Award Holder: Emily Levitt
University: Cornell University
Title of Research: Fiscal Citizenship and Sovereignty in New York State

This project took place in a small upstate New York town, where I examined the interplay between the members of the Cayuga Indian nation and the other residents of the municipality. The main focus of my project was the Cayuga nation’s refusal to pay local taxes, which is deeply entangled with its claims to sovereignty. Over the course of this research, I examined the ways in which members of both the town and the nation debated about what was at stake for them in these fiscal disagreements.


In the town of Seneca Falls, the Cayuga Indian nation has bought a substantial chunk of land over the past decade. This land sits in the middle of Cayuga traditional homeland. It also sits within the 64,000 acres that briefly constituted the nation’s reservation in the late 18th century. Over the last 35 years, the nation has been engaged in trying to regain some version of sovereign control over some or all of this land, although no Cayuga people have lived here for over two centuries. After a 25-year long land claim trial, in which the nation demonstrated that New York State had broken federal laws in making treaties with the Cayuga nation hundreds of years ago, a federal appeals court decided that the 200-year time lag made it “inequitable” to remedy this illegal treaty today. After the nation lost this long and difficult case in 2005, its members began to pursue a new strategy for gaining sovereign control of this land.

Immediately after the land claim trial was dismissed, the nation began to buy land within its land claim area on the open market. Today the nation owns about 1/16th of the municipal acreage of the town of Seneca Falls in central New York, which sits in the middle of the Cayuga land claim area. The nation has expressed its sovereign claims through primarily its fiscal practices. In the USA, Indian reservations are considered distinct from states, and therefore they stand outside of states’ taxing jurisdictions. In that vein, the nation established on one of its parcels a gas station/smoke shop where gasoline and cigarettes are sold untaxed. Additionally, the nation has refused to pay property taxes on almost all of the thousand acres it owns within the municipal limits of the town. In New York State, property taxes form a significant source of funding for local budgets, including the highly localised school districts. Sales and excise taxes on cigarettes and gasoline also go to the county and the state, and so the nation’s refusal to charge these taxes or to remit them back to the government potentially affects a large number of people. Moreover, the profits from this gas station/smoke shop are recycled into buying more acres, which join the nation’s list of properties on which it refuses to pay taxes. These tax refusals fall into the legal gray area that characterizes much of Indian law in the USA. Each attempt by local law enforcement to raid untaxed cigarettes or foreclose on delinquent properties has been thwarted by an injunction based on the nation’s sovereignty. Today the Cayuga nation continues to refuse these taxes, and local officials continue to pursue new ways to make it comply. 

When critics demand that the Cayuga nation pay these taxes, they mostly do so in the name of “citizenship.” These people talk about the equal protections that all citizens are granted, funded by the equal (in spirit if not in absolute amount) contributions of the taxpayer. This talk of citizenship invokes a model in which neighboring property-owners are subject to the same jurisdiction, and pay taxes to the same common base, which ultimately benefits everyone. On the other hand, when tribal members and the nation’s substantial non-native customer-base argue that the Cayuga need not pay those taxes, they do so in the name of “sovereignty.” Tribal spokespeople describe the importance of the tax-free revenue stream to the members of the Cayuga nation, as well as the benefits that the proximity of a tax-free zone offers to the town of Seneca Falls, including increased savings for the customer-base, new job opportunities, and subsidized housing for employees. This idea of sovereignty embodies a model in which individuals and groups benefit from negotiating the borders between neighboring but distinct fiscal jurisdictions. At this interface where the Cayuga nation and the municipality of Seneca Falls encounter each other in a struggle over taxes, “citizenship” and “sovereignty” have come to stand for two different political and economic models of how a community should operate. The ways in which these models are discussed and invoked in struggles over this tax base are the subject of my dissertation.

Conducting Fieldwork

This project was based around a particular debate, which hinged on whether the Cayuga Indian nation should pay these local taxes or not. This meant that a primary methodological concern of mine was to establish who argued what. For the first three months after I arrived in the autumn of 2013, I spent time with the most accessible and outspoken people who were involved in this debate: local politicians. I attended the monthly meetings of the town and county governments, and met with the individual officials. Crossing the Democrat/Republican divide that colours American politics even at the local level, these individuals almost entirely agreed when it came to their narratives about the Cayuga tax refusals; the nation lost its land claim, therefore the Cayuga people have no further rights to this land than other American citizens, therefore they should pay taxes.

In the meantime, I was also attending the regular meetings of other civic groups in town. These included small “non-profits,” such as the various privately funded museums and historic sites, as well as the county-wide Chamber of Commerce and more local business-promotion groups. The members of these groups had much to say about the proper order of how to encourage growth in a small community. They had a similar refrain to the politicians regarding the Cayuga nation’s fiscal behaviour. We all pay our taxes, they often said. We want to see the town grow. Why should they be allowed to reap the benefits of municipal services, without investing in the town in any way?

Emphasizing this argument even more strongly was the local grassroots anti-Indian sovereignty activist group. Established in the 1990s when the land claim trial was gaining steam, this group consists of landowners who lived in the land claim area, who were convinced that they might lose their property if the Cayuga nation won its suit. The group today consists of perhaps a dozen regular members. Although it is a small group, their presence around town is extremely visible. The group’s motto is “No Sovereign Nation, No Reservation.” Large signs in red, white and blue which proclaim this message are found on many properties around Seneca Falls. Tellingly, the group’s name is “Upstate Citizens for Equality.”

For the first three months of my fieldwork, I attended these meetings and conducted interviews with the members of these various groups. During this phase, I perceived that the main divide in opinion about Cayuga fiscal behaviour was that between “the town” and “the nation.” In the second phase of my fieldwork, I learned that the mix of opinions about these fiscal disagreements was far messier that I had earlier believed.

The second stage of my fieldwork entailed working as a cashier at the Cayuga-owned gas station. Through working at this store, I encountered first-hand many of the dimensions of what Cayuga sovereignty means in this time and place. These aspects of sovereignty included negotiating which state regulations the store would follow, the decision-making process for establishing the price of nation-produced cigarettes, and the chain of command for the store’s daily operations. Through this experience, I also learned about a large demographic of Seneca Falls that I had previously not thought about: the customer-base of this gas station/smoke-shop. Customers, many of whom lived within the town’s borders, often called the store “the rez.” They were largely loyal and fond of the nation’s tax-free status. Customers would chat with me at the cash register, explaining that all the state did was “take, take, take,” and that they were glad that “the Indians could get away with something.” This section of my work complicated the neat nation/town divide that I had previously thought existed.

Just as I learned that the non-native populace of Seneca Falls does not present a unified group regarding these issues, I also learned through the course of my fieldwork about a strong split between members of the Cayuga nation. On what was to be the last day of my time at the nation’s store, a different group of Cayuga chiefs and members forcibly took over the business. This ushered in the final stage of my fieldwork, in which I focused on the aftermath of this leadership crisis. Through interviews, attending court dates, and constant attention to local media representations, over the following months I learned about some of the internal Cayuga political tensions. These largely pertained to the nation’s controversial “Federal Representative,” who, many members of the nation claim, has taken too much power. While my research did not focus on the internal workings of Cayuga leadership, the ways in which the town of Seneca Falls and Seneca County were brought into this struggle over Cayuga leadership came to be one of the main conceptual sites where the relationship between taxes, sovereignty and citizenship is constructed and reflected.

The two groups wanted the town and county to support their respective sides, and so they both engaged in PR campaigns around the area, explaining that they wanted to contribute more to the local governments as long as their support could be expected in return. Importantly, both groups said that they would not pay “taxes,” as that conjures up the relationship between a subject and government. One group offered a “compact” between governments, and the other side instead offered tally after tally of all of the ways in which the nation has contributed to the town’s wealth over the last ten years (e.g. allowing citizens to spend less money on gas and cigarettes, and therefore spending more money locally; the creation of 100 well-paying jobs; the provision of subsidized housing for many employees). In response, some of the town politicians slightly changed their arguments. “We are all citizens, and we should all pay taxes,” became “If the nation is a distinct sovereign entity, it should pay fees for the services its members use.” This distinction reveals important dimensions of what taxation means, and how it can be invoked in different ways to create different models of political belonging and the production of value.


This project responds to a gap that Cattelino and other North American anthropologists have identified: “The anthropology of the United States and the anthropology of Native North America have been maintained largely as separate anthropological traditions” (2010:283). I was interested primarily in the interface between these two parts of the community, as a way of addressing this divide. In the end, I learned that it is not so much a case of one side and another with an “interface” between them, but an emerging, complicated set of interactions where borders are constantly built up and taken down. This presents a helpful approach to all “mixed” anthropological subject groups, especially those that are all too often depicted in a dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed, good and bad.

On a more general level, foregrounding taxation allowed me to highlight a ubiquitous and under-studied phenomenon that is a vital part of how people in most countries come to understand the boundaries of their communities, both social and geographic. Taxes also feature as an important part of people’s narratives of the proper order of political cohesion and economic production. Rather than serving as something prior to the more important acts of spending public revenue, collecting that revenue to begin with is one of the most important politically and economically symbolic acts that most individuals encounter, both in the USA’s native and non-native communities and beyond.


Cattelino, J. 2010. Anthropologies of North America. Annual Review of Anthropology. 39: 275-292.