tell Robert Odawi Porter that he can't go home again.
fall, Porter returned to Syracuse University, his alma mater, where
he was hired to develop the College of Law's new Center for Indigenous
Law, Governance & Citizenship.
opening of the center dovetails with the bubbling up of festering
Native American issues over land claims, Indian sovereignty and
gambling across the Central New York landscape.
to Syracuse also underscores a spiritual homecoming for Porter,
a Seneca Indian, since Onondaga County is the heart of the Iroquois
Nation Confederacy, which binds the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga
and Seneca nations.
family's here, my (two) children (from a previous marriage) are
in Albany and my nation is down the road. This is the historic capital
of our confederacy, and these are issues that I've studied and have
been concerned about all my professional life," said Porter,
who was wearing a bolo tie with a replica of the Iroquois wampum
was a natural in so many ways and I'm thankful that it happened,"
he said in a recent interview at his law school office.
wife, Odie, who is also a Seneca Indian, was hired at the same time
to be the university's assistant provost in charge of planning and
analysis. They have two children.
40, Porter appears to possess the whole package for the job. Besides
his Native American heritage, he earned a law degree from Harvard
in 1989, practiced corporate law in Washington, D.C., became the
Seneca Nation's first attorney general in 1991 and went on to teach
Indian law at Kansas and Iowa universities.
think Rob has an incredible mind which he has applied with great
rigor. . . . He's very disciplined, very creative - enormous qualities
that allow him to build connections," said Hannah Arterian,
dean of SU's law school.
really likes to have a discourse . . . in the best tradition of
an academy. He creates an environment in which people who disagree
feel safe in their discussion," Arterian said.
was evident two weeks ago when Porter put together a Nov. 10 symposium
to discuss why Native American tribes want to return to their homeland
in Central New York. About 125 people attended the forum, which
included presentations by representatives from four Indian nations
with local roots, and from tribal law scholars and local and state
Howard, chief of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, was in attendance
and said he thought the symposium was a good starting point for
more dialogue on the issues.
tribe is trying to build a $25 million bingo hall in western Cayuga
County, but is locked in a court fight with local officials over
his nation's attempt to exert sovereign nation rights on the building
is already thinking about sponsoring a public forum in March on
the state's controversial plan to try to force Indian businesses
to collect sales taxes on cigarettes, gasoline and other goods sold
to non-Indians, starting sometime next year.
symposium we did (this month) is exactly the kind of thing we want
to do at least once a year where we're taking a prominent issue
and we're creating a forum in which people with divergent views
can come and talk about it," he said.
trying to provide knowledge and understanding about historic, political
and legal things so that those who are involved in the issues can
better formulate resolutions," he said.
brings plenty of ambition to developing the center. Besides offering
community programs and advanced education on Indian law for practicing
lawyers, Porter wants to continue his research on Native American
citizenship and political participation issues in relation to trade-offs
for gambling and sovereignty. He is writing a book on that subject.
also wants to involve law school students in finding ways to provide
legal expertise to Indian nations struggling with administrative
and governance challenges.
think we will wind up with an exciting center that will have a lot
of interest for many people," said Arterian, who hopes the
center will become a magnet for Native Americans who want to become
Indian issues commanding attention across Upstate New York, Porter
said the university is seizing a golden opportunity by developing
area is now very much a hotbed of activity, so I think it is an
opportunity for Syracuse and they moved," he said.
grew up in Salamanca, south of Buffalo, the only city in the country
on an Indian reservation, he said. The nation, which has about 7,000
members, owns about 90 percent of the city and leases land to non-Indians.
the mid-1980s, he decided to become a lawyer after reading a local
news story in which his nation's president said Senecas need more
of their members practicing law to better protect the nation from
was kind of moved by that with the idea that I would become a lawyer
and help the nation," Porter said.
graduating from Syracuse in 1986 and from Harvard Law School in
1989, Porter joined a corporate law firm in Washington, D.C. He
practiced there until he persuaded the Seneca Nation to create the
position of attorney general and put him in the post.
was 28 at the time.
his nearly four years as attorney general, he said he helped reform
the nation's constitution, established an appellate court and separated
the judicial and general elections to depoliticize the election
of judges. The Senecas have a democratic government.
quit the position in mid-1995 as violence erupted on the nation
over a number of issues. At the same time, his first marriage was
coming unglued. The University of Kansas hired him to establish
a tribal law and government center.
was a lot of growth and reflection for me, but it was a long way
from home," said Porter, who married his current wife in Kansas.
2001, he took a law school teaching job at the University of Iowa
and stayed there for a year until Syracuse came calling.
Porter says he has "orange in his blood from way back,"
he did not rule out the possibility of returning to his native homeland
and becoming president of the Seneca Nation.
think I'd like to have the chance to lead the nation and find ways
that we can solve some of the big problems that face us. It's not
going to happen tomorrow, but it would be something in my life that
I would like to try," he said.