A gunbattle erupted at dawn Saturday between factions feuding for control of the Seneca Nation of Indians, killing three people.
Tensions have been high since Dennis Bowen was elected Seneca president in November, then refused to step down when the tribal council impeached him in February.
Council members accused him of refusing to hold meetings, barring opponents from meetings he did hold, and kicking two people off the council. They also appointed Karen Bucktooth president.
“We’re on the verge of a civil war,” said Rose Patterson, a Bowen aide. The Cattaraugus and nearby Allegany reservations have been the scene of recurring conflicts. In 1992, Senecas clashed with state police and blockaded highways to protest New York state’s effort to tax cigarette and gasoline sales on the reservations.
Saturday’s shooting at a tribal government building, occupied by Bowen supporters for more than a month, began when a group fired into the building and its occupants fired back, Erie County Sheriff Thomas Higgins said.
Patterson said five Bucktooth supporters stormed the building after a night of drinking. Tim Clark, a spokesman for Bucktooth, said those who were killed attempted to enter the building after their tires were shot out by Bowen supporters.
All three dead were Bucktooth supporters, according to both sides. A fourth man, a Bowen supporter, was shot in the hand and leg.
It’s not their first clash. Two people were beaten up and another was shot in the arm before a meeting of Bucktooth supporters last month.
Bowen and Bucktooth each called for peace but said they could not guarantee their supporters would comply.
“Three lives have been taken from us,” Bucktooth said. “Would you say, ‘OK, let’s go home now? They killed them? Fine, that’s it?’ I don’t hear anybody saying that.”
Two U.S. Justice Department mediators arrived Saturday.
The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = CATTARAUGUS INDIAN RESERVATION, N.Y.