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Oneida safety checks spark confrontation, arrest

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ONEIDA HOMELANDS, N.Y. ? A dispute over Oneida Nation safety inspections flared into a physical confrontation with the arrest of a long-time opponent of the tribal government amid charges of excessive use of police force.

Members of the Shenandoah family, relatives and political foes of Oneida Nation's Representative Ray Halbritter, mounted a vigil shortly after the incident to obstruct further home inspections.

The opponents have fought the housing regulations in the Oneida Nation Court for nearly a year, but judicial rulings so far upheld the nation's power to conduct home inspections to enforce the measures.

The dispute centers on two ordinances enacted in July 2000 to upgrade some older housing on Territory Road, in the 32-acre core of the Oneida reservation. A number of Territory Road residents, including Maisie Shenandoah and her daughters, charged that the ordinances were designed to force them off reservation land.

Maisie Shenandoah, a clan mother of the Wolf Clan, is Halbritter's aunt and a longtime critic of the Men's Council and Clan Mothers administration. The confrontation centered on a furnace in the mobile home owned by her daughter, Danielle Patterson.

The Patterson furnace broke down earlier this month. Patterson said she applied to the Madison County Department of Social Services to install a new one. But the nation told the county agency not to put it in until an Oneida official inspected the home and issued a building permit.

Oneida Nation spokesman Mark Emery said that late afternoon Nov. 17, officials obtained an emergency inspection order from tribal judge Stewart Hancock. When Nation Public Safety Commissioner Arthur Pierce attempted to enforce it, a physical confrontation followed, although the two sides give greatly different accounts.

A press release issued by the Shenandoah family said Danielle "was forcibly and violently removed from her home and arrested." It said she confronted "approximately 30 armed Oneida Nation Police officers" standing in front of her door.

"The police officers attacked her physically when she asked why they were there. They yanked her mother, 69-year-old Wolf Clanmother Maisie Shenandoah off the porch while 5-7 of the officers shoved Ms. Patterson repeatedly against the door. They grabbed her from all sides and forced her off her porch while they yanked on her arms, back and neck and pulled out chunks of her hair."

Patterson charged that officers pried her door open with a crowbar, breaking it beyond repair. She said that during the inspection officers "ripped open her bedroom drawers, throwing her clothes all over the floor, broke a lamp, dismantled her kitchen pipes and ripped out a triangular door in the bathroom."

She said she was taken to the Oneida Nation Police headquarters in Canastota and charged with contempt of a court order and resisting arrest. She said she then went to the Oneida City Emergency Room and was treated for severe bruising, neck and back injuries and emotional trauma resulting from the arrest.

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Emery, on the other hand, said that it was Patterson who began to fight the police. He said the number of officers involved was exaggerated, adding that Pierce arrived with Nation Codes Officer Mark Sternburg and nine nation police. Four Oneida city police officers came along as backup, but were not involved in the confrontation.

Oneida city police chief David Meeker told local reporters Patterson resisted arrest and that he did not see nation officers using excessive force to subdue her. He said that when she physically resisted, two or three officers restrained her. He said he did not recall any confrontation involving Maisie Shenandoah.

Emery added that the inspectors did not ransack the house or do any damage.

He said the order was enforced out of concern for the safety of Patterson's three children, aged 10, 8 and 7. Patterson said the previous week she had sent her children to stay with her sister while she remained in the trailer.

Diane Shenandoah said Nov. 19 that family members and friends planned to camp in front of the mobile home because they feared an attempt by the nation to demolish it. The press release said the family feared that the Patterson home "would face the fate of 11 other homes on the Oneida Indian Territory, all of which were inspected, condemned and immediately demolished."

Emery confirmed that 11 homes had been demolished, but he said that half of them were voluntarily taken down by their owners in advance of an inspection and that the others were destroyed after failing an inspection. He said all of the occupants had found alternate housing on Oneida Nation Territory and that some individuals had expressed intent to rebuild on the original sites.

The Ordinance to Redevelop Housing on Territory Road states that many of the buildings there are "old, dilapidated and apparently unsafe for human habitation, and the Nation has embarked upon a program to develop housing on Territory Road and to eliminate any housing there that is not or cannot be made safe for people to live in."

The ordinance mandates inspections of all houses there, "to require rehabilitation of any house determined to be unsafe, and to remove with fair compensation (of not less than $1,000) any house that cannot be rehabilitated or is not rehabilitated within a reasonable amount of time."

Pierce said the ordinance grew out of painful memories of a trailer fire on June 25, 1976, which took the lives of Samuel Winder, 48, and his sister-in-law, Janice Winder, 45. The Winders, he said, were Halbritter's aunt and uncle.

A couple at another Territory Road dwelling, Elizabeth and Raymond Robert, challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance in the Oneida Nation Court, but in a ruling in August, Chief Judge Hancock said the nation had the power to order inspections without the occupants' consent. His ruling is currently being appealed to the Tribal Appeals Court.

The Roberts' attorney Barbara J. Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, has represented the Shenandoahs and their allies in a series of suits challenging the legitimacy of the Oneida tribal government. She told a local newspaper she is researching what legal recourse might be available to the Territory Road residents.

Olshansky and representatives of the Shenandoahs could not be reached by press time.