White Woman's Slaying Unites Reservation Town

SALAMANCA, N.Y. - The only U.S. city built almost entirely on Indian land has erupted in anger in recent years over tax and land issues that have pitted Indians and whites against each other.

Many in town braced for more trouble when a white woman was found raped and strangled near a wooded running path and a teenage member of the Seneca tribe was charged with her murder.

But the killing - the first in Salamanca in 27 years - seems to have had the opposite effect.

Salamanca, population 6,500, has come together in mourning the victim, 39-year-old Penny Brown, a nurse and midwife who had delivered many of the town's children. The town even closed its schools for a day in honor of Brown.

Her killing was Salamanca's first major crime in memory involving a white victim and an Indian suspect. Prosecutors were so worried about interracial violence that they asked a judge to seal all court records in the case.

Among the documents is a statement that the suspect, Edward Kindt, now 16, allegedly gave police after his arrest, possibly containing a motive. Several news agencies have gone to court seeking the release of the documents.

But instead of dividing over the case, Salamanca's residents seem to have put the tensions of the past behind them.

Several people, both Senecas and non-Indians, gathered outside the municipal building when Kindt, described as a troubled boy with a mean streak, was taken into custody May 11, two days after Brown was killed.

"She was our friend!" they shouted as Kindt was led inside.

Later that week, in a remarkable outpouring of sympathy, the town declared a day of mourning. About 2,000 people - Indians and non-Indians - wept, hugged and prayed during a service at Veterans Park.

"Help us as we heal, help us be a unified community," the Rev. Mike Peters prayed before the crowd.

Salamanca is built on the Seneca Nation of Indians' Allegany Reservation, in a picturesque valley between a ski resort and a state park. Lumber and furniture are the main industries.

Its unique setup is a result of a 1892 treaty. Since then, the Senecas have collected rent from non-Indians who live here and the races have lived, worked and gone to school side by side.

It hasn't always been easy. Tempers flared a few years ago over a decision to raise the rent non-Senecas pay to live in town. While most agreed to the new terms, 16 families loudly refused and were evicted from their homes in 1997.

About the same time, non-Indian gas-station and convenience-store owners were crying foul at the tax-exempt status of their Indian competitors. Indians burned tires and felled trees across roads as state lawmakers temporarily considered requiring Indian businesses to tax their non-Indian customers.

At one point, state troopers were called in to keep the peace in town.

Things have been very different this year. Brown was well-known throughout the community because she worked at a reservation health center and in a hospital off the reservation.

When she didn't return home after a jog on Mother's Day, 100 volunteers helped her husband and two daughters with the search.

The search ended the next day near the well-worn jogging trail Brown had set out on with her two dogs. Her body was found partly buried beneath leaves and branches. Her last breaths had been taken with a dog leash pressed to her neck.

One of her dogs had returned home. The other had stayed by her side.

As Kindt, now 16, awaits trial on murder, rape and weapon charges, Seneca Nation President Duane Ray and Mayor Carmen Vecchiarella say they haven't sensed any rise in racial tensions since the killing.

Many residents echo their sentiments.

"We have a mutual respect," said tribe member Tracie Brown.

In fact, townspeople want to pay another tribute to Penny Brown - more than 200 residents have signed a petition asking that her street be renamed Penny Brown Drive.