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Oneida court Dissidents challenge leader, judge exempts landowners

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ONEIDA HOMELANDS, N.Y. - Dissident Oneidas renewed their simmering challenge to Oneida Nation leadership with a civil suit in tribal court charging the nation government with trying to take their homes in the guise of enforcing a new tribal housing code.

The 20 plaintiffs include Maisie Shenandoah, a Clan Mother of the Wolf Clan, her daughter, noted singer Joanne Shenandoah, and residents of Territory Road on the 32-acre Oneida Nation Territory as well as other longtime opponents of the Oneida Nation leadership.

"The only response I had to give," said Oneida Nation spokesman Mark Emery, "is that (the suit) is very similar to a case already dismissed by the federal court."

Meanwhile, in the U. S. District Court in Syracuse, Federal Judge Neil McCurn removed 20,000 individual homeowners as defendants in the Oneida land claims suit, leaving New York state as the defendant. His decision caused an audible sigh of relief, both from homeowners and tribal officials. Inclusion of the homeowners by the Justice Department lawyers had fueled vehement anti-Oneida organizing by a statewide citizens group.

The tribal court suit continues an internal dispute dating to the early 1990s. This split, led by anti-casino "traditionalists," has so far produced an appeal to the BIA to remove Halbritter's federal recognition as leader of the Oneidas and a federal court suit against construction of the Turning Stone Casino and Hotel. Both complaints were rejected by federal authorities.

The appeal to the BIA against the nation's current recognition was considered and dismissed on the grounds that the nation's government enjoys decisive support from its membership.

The leadership includes several Clan Mothers and a Men's Council which chose Ray Halbritter as nation representative.

The new issue in the tribal suit centers on a Health and Safety Ordinance for the 32-acre territory announced by the nation March 30. The ordinance requires inspections of all homes on the 32 acres and mandatory repairs of safety hazards. The ordinance, stipulates that homes "beyond repair" will be condemned, with reimbursement for fair market value and assistance for the move to alternate housing.

Plaintiffs contend they have been told "by nation officers" that some of their homes will be condemned and destroyed.

Most of the Oneidas on the 32 acres live in new housing built with tribal and federal assistance. Maisie Shenandoah, some of her family and other residents of Territory Road, however, still occupy old mobile homes. As a result of earlier disputes with Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation's Council and Clan Mothers declared in 1995 that members of this group had "lost their voice" in the nation and would no longer receive its benefit payments, including housing assistance.

Without this assistance, say plaintiffs, they will be unable to afford to build new homes or pay rents on apartments on the Oneida Territory and will be forced to leave.

"Halbritter's new housing initiative is intended to, and will also have the effect of, banishing Oneida citizens who have lost their voice from the 32-acre territory," says the suit.

In the past decade several Iroquois governments have banished tribal government to little effect as the families continued to reside in the communities, leadership supporters said.

The suit asks the tribal court to enjoin the Oneida Nation from condemning or destroying the plaintiff's homes or making housing inspections against their consent. It also asks for an end to their punishment and a restoration of their privileges "including but not limited to quarterly distributions, treaty cloth distributions, educational scholarships, legal services, health and life insurance, pension benefits, income tax protection, housing opportunities, nation mailings, unrestricted access to ceremonies and events and unrestricted access to Nation properties."

Emery notes that so far no homes have been condemned under the Housing Initiative. Although inspections had begun, he said the plaintiffs refused to allow them in their homes.

The case will be heard by Oneida Indian Court Judge Stewart F. Hancock Jr., retired judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. No hearings have yet been scheduled. The tribal court was created by the Oneida Nation in 1997 as a independent body.

The plaintiffs are represented by Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City who also brought the federal court suit in 1996. Olshansky was unavailable for comment.

Plaintiff Joanne Shenandoah refused to speak to an Indian Country reporter when approached at the Indian Summer 2000 festival at Hunter Mountain, N.Y, Labor Day, where she was performing.

"I have no comment for that newspaper," she said.