Matthew Ricchiazzi, who leads the investment group that plans to launch a new Niagara Gorge Ferry attraction, has told Artvoice that he would prefer to have a cooperative relationship with New York State, and Maid of the Mist operator Jim Glynn.
Ricchiazzi is Haudenosaunne and derives longstanding treaty rights codified in the Treaty of Amity, Navigation, and Commerce (known more colloquially as the John Jay Treaty, who with Alexander Hamilton, were the Treaty’s chief architects).
Article III reads, “It is agreed that it shall at all times be free… to the Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary line, freely to pass and repass by land or inland navigation, into the respective territories and countries of the two parties, on the continent of America… and to navigate all the lakes, rivers, and waters thereof, and freely to carry on trade and commerce with each other.”
The inherent sovereignty of the Haudenosaunne over their inland waters, lakes, and rivers has never been lost, Ricchiazzi argues. While the Jay Treaty makes it clear that Haudenosaunne people have a right to navigate waterways, Ricchiazzi argues that, while a succession of treaties have abrogated sovereignty over specific tracts of land, sovereignty and aboriginal title over waterways has never been abrogated by treaty, and is often enumerated as a right explicitly reserved.
Article V of The Treaty of Canandaigua has even more compelling language, in which the United States recognizes the inherent sovereignty of the Haudenosaune over their waterways: “… the Six Nations, and each of them, will forever allow to the people of the United States, a free passage through their lands, and the free use of the harbors and rivers … for the passing and securing of vessels and boats, and liberty to land their cargos where necessary for their safety.”
“It would be a huge accomplishment to initiate this case here, because the Supreme Court has not had to speak to this specific clause of Article III of the Jay Treaty, regarding indigenous rights to inland navigation,” he explains. “And with the right group of young, forward thinking, Ivy-educated Indian lawyers, we will be able to make a convincing case that sovereignty over the Great Lakes has never been ceded.”
Much of federal Indian law stems from the Court’s construction of it in case law that has been rewritten wildly by subsequent compositions of the Supreme Court, often on the most racially biased and Anti-Indian sentiments of the day. The early Court found that Congress has a ‘plenary power’ (meaning total and unlimited authorities over Indians). That plenary power is the legal basis of the “right of Christian Discovery,” upon which American property law is construed, Ricchiazzi explains.
With a more conservative, Trump-era Court, Ricchiazzi sees hope.
He points to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in U.S. v. Bryant (2016). Thomas wrote, “Congress’ purported plenary power over Indian tribes rests on even shakier foundations. No enumerated power—not Congress’ power to ‘regulate Commerce … with Indian Tribes,’ not the Senate’s role in approving treaties, nor anything else—gives Congress such sweeping authority. … [T]he Court has searched in vain for any valid constitutional justification for this unfettered power.”
“It will be a conservative Court – and likely Justice Thomas himself – who liberates indigenous people in the Untied States,” Ricchiazzi predicts. “We need more textualists on the Court — and fewer jurists who believe the Constitution to be ‘a living, breathing document,’ that they are entitled to reinterpret over the decades.”
He intends to assert these Treaty rights in the Canadian courts, at the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous People, and with the Governor General of Canada, the Queen’s representative to Parliament.
Ricchiazzi wants to cooperate rather than fight
Ricchiazzi wants to do his part to help turn Niagara Falls around, and desires a cooperative relationship with New York State and, in particular, with Governor Andrew Cuomo. He says that he would gladly pay 8% of gross revenues to New York State (what he would have otherwise paid in state sales tax) in exchange for a lease agreement on storage space at the docking facility that the Cuomo administration recently built for Maid of the Mist.
The Maid of the Mist currently pays 8% of its gross revenues to the state for the same lease agreement. The Maid of the Mist does not charge sales tax, either.
“I hope to engage in negotiations with the Cuomo administration shortly,” Ricchiazzi explained. “My preference would be for the entire 8% to go to the City of Niagara Falls – or to a park conservation organization, so that the monies can benefit the community most directly.”
Ricchiazzi is open to making that payment in the context of a community benefit agreement with community stakeholders, or as a compact with New York State.
Gov. Cuomo recently announced plans to develop large areas of the lower Niagara gorge for hiking trails. In a speech to more than 200 local residents and officials, the Governor called on Empire State Development to “step up to the plate” in Niagara Falls. The ribbon-cutting event at that event (celebrating the recent renovation of the DoubleTree by Hilton on Rainbow Boulevard) was used to announce the administration’s efforts cultivate the tourism industry. The state financed much of that $37 million project.
Ricchiazzi is not asking for a dime of public money.
“Niagara Falls is a natural gem here in New York State and this is exactly the type of project that will attract even more people to discover the wonders of this treasure,” Lieutenant Governor Hochul said then.
Ricchiazzi thinks he can contribute to that shared goal.
Sanctity of environmental concerns
Ricchiazzi said his ferry service will not require any new development inside the gorge, nor detract from its natural beauty. There is plenty of excess off-season storage space already developed in the gorge. The plan requires only temporary floating docks that will be removed each season.
“Niagara Falls is a sacred space – not only to Haudenosaune people — but to all humanity that respects the environment and creation.”
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978) codified into federal law a policy that entitles Indian access and use of sacred sites, and directs federal agencies to accommodate that access and use. The US Customs & Border Patrol is subject to that Act of Congress.
The ferry service will provide Indians and non-Indians alike a transit option that they don’t have to places that are inaccessible today. For both Indians and non-Indians who wish to pray upon the rocks at the base of the Falls, it will mean newfound access to the mythical geography. Ricchiazzi hopes to transport people to the base of Goat Island under Terrapin Point, on rocky lands between the two cataracts. It may become one of the State Park’s most natural and aweing spaces. Naturally beaten paths will emerge organically.
At another destination, Ricchiazzi projects that he will be dropping off 500,000 tourists each season at the base of the gorge, only a couple hundred feet below Main Street. Visitors will be able to walk the gorge trails to the Whirlpool State Park, and will be able to wander Main Street near the city’s new train station.
“The revival of old Main Street can come much sooner than we think,” he argues. “When we make it cheap and easy for tourists to wander the city, they will begin to explore – making the economic impact that much more broad based, while transforming the streetscape.”
Ricchiazzi aspires to work collaboratively with Glynn
Ricchiazzi explains that he doesn’t want to disrespect Jim Glynn’s accomplishments, but is dismayed that the company hasn’t been more innovative. Ricchiazzi suspects that Glynn may be disinclined to encourage state park visitors to take longer extended excursions inside the gorge because it would tie up parking in the park’s three vast lots, which he considers ‘backwards thinking.’
“The Niagara region can become a weeks-long tourist destination, not just a four hour one,” Ricchiazzi explains. “We need to move beyond the mindset that thinks that parking lot turnover drives revenue.”
“I would prefer to work with Mr. Glynn. I’ve reached out, and I hope we can work together collaboratively,” Ricchiazzi explains. “I think there are a lot of potential synergies that I’d love to talk to him about, from better tour offerings, a fuller experience for guests, and more innovative branding opportunities.”
“I think I can be helpful to him,” he suggests.
Ricchiazzi holds an MBA in Finance and Private Equity from Cornell University’s Graduate School of Management; and a Bachelors of Science in Urban Planning from Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art & Planning. In 2007 he was a Public Policy & International Affairs Fellow at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
He has worked as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation in New York; in legislative affairs with the National Congress of American Indians in Washignton, DC; with Seneca Holdings, the private equity arm of the Seneca Nation of Indians; and as a tribal administrator with Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest First Nation in Canada.