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Tribal Court prevails in Patterson case

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ONEIDA NATION HOMELAND, N.Y. - In a deal that ended criminal action against Danielle Patterson on Oct. 21, the Oneida dissident agreed to cease resistance to the demolition of her house trailer on Territory Road. As a number of Patterson's supporters looked on the next day, the Oneida Nation Public Safety Department razed the 20-year-old dilapidated trailer, previously condemned as unsafe by a Nation building inspection. Although city and state police had to push some of the spectators back behind a police cordon, no one was arrested.

In return, the Oneida Tribal Court on Oct. 21 accepted a guilty plea from Patterson on a misdemeanor charge of contempt of court and dismissed a more serious charge of assault. Two days later, after demolition of the trailer, Tribal Court Judge Richard Simons sentenced Patterson to time already served, ending the case.

Oneida Nation Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carmen said the plea bargain constituted a recognition of the legitimacy of the tribal court, which Patterson and her near relatives had until recently denounced as a "kangaroo court." Patterson's mother Maisie Shenandoah and other family members have bitterly opposed the Oneida Nation government for the better part of a decade, charging that Ray Halbritter usurped his position as leader of the Oneida Indian Nation and created a series of illegitimate institutions. They charge that a Nation ordinance requiring annual building inspections and the demolition of unrepairable structures was an attempt to drive them from their homes on the original 32-acres of the Oneida reservation.

Maisie, who is Halbritter's aunt, and Patterson, who is his first cousin, are among a small group of dissidents who were declared by the Men's Council and Clan mothers to have "lost their voice" in Nation affairs after a protest march in 1995. In that status, they say they are not eligible for Nation homebuilding grants that would assist them in replacing housing that failed the safety inspection.

(Indian Country Today is owned by Four Directions Media, an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation.)

Carmen said of Patterson: "By pleading guilty to civil contempt, she necessarily had to acknowledge the validity of the inspection order and the Court in which it was issued. That was important."

The Patterson case had lasted for nearly a year. In recent weeks, as the Tribal Court upheld the condemnation order and set a deadline of Sept. 15 to carry it out, a number of outside supporters of the Shenandoahs set up a "Peace Camp" around the trailer to protect it. All traces of the camp were removed along with the trailer.

Although the deal closed most aspects of the case, heated rhetoric continued. Syracuse Attorney Joseph Heath, who represented Patterson, complained in an interview with Indian Country Today that he was not allowed to complete his statement to the Tribal Court during the sentencing hearing. "What I really wanted to say," he said, " was that the government should back off. Governments do not gain legitimacy by raw power. They gain legitimacy by compassion and by winning the confidence of the people. This use of raw power does not inspire loyalty."

Heath, a non-Indian, said he has also represented the Onondaga tribal government for 27 years. He was its counsel in 1998 when the tribal council ordered the demolition of several convenience stores on the Onondaga reservation near Nedrow, N. Y. that were privately owned by Onondaga tribal members.

Carmen said that Judge Simons had asked Heath if he had anything to say on the issue of sentencing but cut him off when "he started to give a political speech, talking about Vietnam."

"A courtroom is not a political forum," said Carmen. "It's a court of law."

The resolution of the immediate crisis began with the arrest of Patterson at her home on the afternoon of Oct. 18. She had been charged with assault on an Oneida Nation police officer last November during the safety inspection of her trailer and refused to show up for a Sept. 24 trial date. Patterson did not resist the Oct. 18 arrest, her sister Diane Shenandoah told the Oneida Daily Dispatch after witnessing the event.

At a late afternoon hearing at the Nation police headquarters in Canastota, Judge Simons revoked bail and ordered Patterson held over the weekend for trial on the next Monday. Nation police had arranged to hold Patterson at the Cambria County prison in Ebensburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh, over 300 miles away. Nation police took Patterson on the more than six-hour drive about 5 p.m. Friday and returned her by chartered plane Monday morning.

Carmen said that the Oneidas turned to the Cambria County jail after Patterson's attorneys had raised questions about the legality of the Oneida Nation's existing contract with the Lewis County jail in New York. The objections caused the State of New York to shy away from holding Patterson, even though, said Carmen, it did not decide whether they were right or not. The Oneidas made arrangements with the Cambria County facility after learning that it was used by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut.

The long commute to the jail, ironically, finally decided Patterson to accept the plea bargain. Heath said she made up her mind Monday morning Oct. 21 after realizing she would face the long round-trip for the duration of the trial and possibly afterward. The charges carried a possible six-month sentence. Patterson agreed to the guilty plea on contempt, a less serious charge than assault, and further promised that she would not interfere with the demolition of her trailer. She was given 24 hours to remove personal belongings. The court postponed sentencing until Oct. 23 to see that she carried out her side of the bargain.

Shortly after 1 p.m. Oct. 22, Patterson's deadline for removing her belongings, Oneida Nation police set up checkpoints at the intersection of Territory Road and New York State Route 46. Reporters were not allowed down the road, but the headlights of heavy equipment were visible. The next day, the site was empty.

Police from New York State, Madison County and Oneida City were on hand in case of incidents with the non-Indian supporters of Patterson, which included representatives of a Christian Peacemakers group. But aside from apparent observer line at the police cordon, nothing serious was reported.

Patterson and her two children were reported to be staying with relatives. Her long-term plans are not yet known. During negotiations before her arrest, the Oneida Nation had offered her the rental of a house in its White Pines development a little to the north of the 32-acres. But Patterson refused, saying it would make her dependent on the government. While declining to say outright whether the offer had been withdrawn, Nation spokesman Mark Emery said, "The offer was made and she rejected it."

Emery was also unable to say what would happen to the land previously occupied by the trailer. According to lawyers on both sides, the land is owned by the Oneida Nation although the homes are privately owned. Other homeowners on Territory Road have rebuilt on their sites after demolition of substandard housing.