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Oneida dissidents take case to tribal court

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ONEIDA, N.Y. - Opponents of Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter brought additional complaints against him to a hearing of the Oneida Tribal Court.

Tribal Judge Stewart F. Hancock Jr. and an audience of about 70 tribal members, heard a largely familiar case from the plaintiff's attorney, Barbara J. Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional rights in New York City.

The 18 plaintiffs, including members of the Shenandoah family, long-time adversaries of Halbritter, argued they were denied their civil rights and tribal membership benefits when the Oneida Men's Council and Clan Mothers declared they had lost their voice in tribal affairs after a series of disputes dating to the late 1980s.

They argued that Halbritter usurped his position as leader of the Oneida Indian Nation and that several of the plaintiffs constituted the true traditional government. The same charges were unsuccessfully raised in federal courts in the past.

The main source of the new complaint centered around the Oneida Indian Nation's housing initiative announced last May. The Shenandoahs claim it would force them from their homes on tribal land.

This newest element was explained to the court by nation attorney Peter D. Carmen. The program was adopted by the Men's Council and Clan Mothers under the Health and Safety Ordinance and targets allegedly unsafe mobile homes on Territory Road within the original 32 acres of reclaimed Oneida territory.

It requires safety inspections and repair or demolition of substandard housing, he said.

The nation was to pay the cost of demolition and fair-market value for the trailer. Relocated families, tribal members or not, would receive moving expenses and six months' rent. Only members, however, would be eligible for a home ownership grant of $50,000 to rebuild on Territory Road or build or buy a new home on other nation-owned land.

The reason for the program lies within the memory of a fire in one of the trailers in 1975 that claimed two lives, said Mark Emery, nation spokesman.

The plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit that the burden of the program would fall most heavily on several long-time opponents of Halbritter, notably Maisie Shenandoah, Clan Mother of the Oneida Wolf Clan, and other members of her family. Since, as they claim in the written brief, they lost their voice and membership benefits they would be denied the home-ownership grant and claim they would be forced to leave their indigenous land.

Carmen said the Shenandoahs were not notified they would have to evacuate their property. The structures had not been inspected because they and other plaintiffs refused to allow the housing inspector access to the property. He added their possible damages were still a matter for speculation and not yet "ripe" to come to court.

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Olshansky argued her clients still suffered from the uncertainty created by the program.

That charge is not supported by other tribal members who live on the same road. Clint Hill, a member of the Men's Council, said his trailer was condemned under the program and he plans to rebuild on his lot in the spring.

The safety program was one of a number of improvements requested by residents of the Territory Road. Street lighting, a playground and a gymnasium have already been built.

Carmon moved to throw out the entire case with the argument that the ordinance that set up the court three years ago specifically denied it jurisdiction over questions of tribal membership.

Olshansky said her case attacked Halbritter as a private person, since his allegedly illegal acts exceeded his powers as a tribal official. If the court dismissed the case, she said, it "would cloak serious civil rights violations under the guise of a membership dispute."

She also brought up an argument that claimed ordinances passed by the Men's Council were void because they violated due process. Judge Hancock interrupted to ask if she included the ordinance that set up the tribal court. "If the nation had no authority to create the court, then I would go home. We would have no authority to do anything," he said.

Olshansky admitted her argument was "over zealous."

She continued to argue that because Halbritter exceeded his powers as stated in the plaintiffs' motion, he could not claim sovereign immunity because they were suing him as a private person and the court had to suspend the sovereign immunity portion and hear the case to decide if any of the charges were valid.

"This charge raised a well-established legal fiction," she said, citing a string of cases from federal and tribal courts.

"We have grounds for the suit because we made the charge," she told reporters after the hearing.

She said she hoped for a fair ruling from Judge Hancock.

Judge Hancock said he would study the arguments and the case law and issue a written decision later this month.