Cayuga Nation’s division leads to a ‘human rights catastrophe’
A federally-recognized Cayuga Nation leader’s decision to tear down 12 properties with the assistance of newly-sworn in tribal police officers has sparked a series of protests and altercations between supporters of the traditional Cayuga Council of Chiefs, members of the Iroquois Confederacy, the federally-recognized Cayuga Nation, and the Cayuga Nation police.
At a press conference, scheduled to address destroyed Cayuga properties, Cayuga Nation police, armed with pepper spray, tasers, and batons — and backed by local sheriffs, state police, and other law enforcement armed with a range of weapons, including AK-47’s and AR-15’s — violently clashed with protesters this weekend resulting in a number of arrests and injuries to tribal members within the Iroquois Confederacy who joined in the protests.
Those detained by Cayuga Nation police included members of the Oneida, Seneca, and Onondaga nations.
Justification for destruction
The conflict between different groups of the Cayuga people has been simmering for nearly two decades. The nuclear flashpoint came last week when Clint Halftown, the federally-recognized leader of the Cayuga Nation of New York ordered the destruction of 12 properties.
At approximately 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 22, Halftown’s Cayuga Nation police first raided the properties. Cameron Seneca, Cayuga, was one of the eight people thrown to the floor at gunpoint, zip-tied, dragged off-premises, and put in a Cayuga Nation Police unit the night of the demolition. He said Cayuga Nation police showed up in ski masks, armed and pointing AR-15s. He was forced to watch the bulldozers ravage the buildings.
A platoon of Cayuga Nation Police, local and state law enforcement and the FBI were on scene as Halftown’s Cayuga Nation of New York toppled a compound of buildings with a bulldozer. The Cayuga Nation issued a public statement proclaiming the demolition a matter of public safety and justified the destruction to avoid “further friction.”
Friction has been the prevailing force for more than 15 years within the Cayuga Nation.
Halftown ordered the demolition and seized the property which had been operated by the Unity Council, a separate Cayuga faction, that is opposed to Halftown’s leadership.
There are three primary Cayuga factions, with as many as two or three more splinter groups, that are bitterly divided over which entity should be the proper leadership or governing body of the approximately 500-member Cayuga Nation — and more importantly, which body can claim possession of land and resources.
The Cayuga Nation developed a police force and criminal justice system with federal funds that include a judge, prosecutor, public defender, and jail. According to Dan Hill, a Cayuga "seat warmer" with the Council of Chiefs, the entirely non-Native police force was deputized by the feds.
Multiple calls to the Cayuga Nation Police, the Seneca Falls Police, the State police and local sheriffs to identify which entity granted the Cayuga Nation Police force authority over the Cayuga lands were not returned. The Cayuga Nation Police is comprised of all non-Native retired and semi-retired Sheriffs and local police.
A local news report quoted Seneca County Sheriff Luce stating, “Accepted legal opinion is that this police force can enforce tribal law on tribally-owned property on tribal members.”
After Halftown leveled the Cayuga properties, attorneys for the Cayuga Nation of New York stated that they had “regained possession of the properties peacefully and without injury.” Dave DeBruin, one of the Barclay Damon attorneys for Halftown, defended the mass destruction — which included a cultural center where children were taught the Cayuga language — stating: “The goal was to try to reduce tension in the community.”
Asked for a reaction to DeBruin’s statement, Chief Roger Silversmith, a condoled snipe clan chief with the traditional Cayuga Council of Chiefs, just shook his head and said, “I don’t even know how to respond to that.”
The Cayuga Council of Chiefs — the traditional Haudenosaunee leadership that extends back to the formation of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy — issued a statement calling Clint Halftown’s actions inexcusable. “Traditional Cayuga Nation citizens do not commit acts of terrorism on their own people or desecrate buildings used for traditional ceremonies,” said Silversmith. “These buildings were used to teach language to our children. What he did was an attack on our children. What he did was not peaceful.”
A written statement by the Cayuga Council of Chiefs compared Halftown’s destruction to the Sullivan campaign of 1779, when Cayuga villages were burned and destroyed, driving the Cayuga people from their homelands in the Finger Lakes, never to return for more than 220 years.
The history leading to the tearing down of buildings by the BIA-recognized Cayuga leader
Historically, the Cayugas were pushed into Canada and some were taken in by the Seneca. They were denied a land base up until the current plots of land surrounding Cayuga Lake at Seneca Falls and Union Springs was bought in 2005. Those lands are “fee simple” and are still on the tax rolls, not yet put into trust status.
The Cayuga people themselves concede that the struggle, at its core, has to do with the struggle for power and control over land and resources.
The struggle for control of the land began in 2005 when land was bought back, but Dan Hill, a “seat warmer” for the Council of Chiefs says the struggle for leadership began in the late 90s when Veron “Deucey” Isaacs, a long-standing chief with the Cayugas, lay on his deathbed.
At the time, Clint Halftown was described as a well-respected and trusted traditional young man, who was given the title of “eyes and ears” by Birdie Hill, the Cayuga heron clanmother.
Though Halftown was “put up” within the Confederacy to serve the Cayugas, Halftown has since been criticized for “turning his back” on his responsibilities to the traditional people and sought out negotiations to settle the Cayuga land claim dispute in exchange for a casino in the Catskills — something the Cayuga Council of Chiefs were diametrically opposed to.
Karl Hill, Birdie’s son said, “Those steps were an act of betrayal.”
To this day, neither party recognizes the leadership of the other, or the legitimacy of the opposing governing body to lead the Cayuga people. “It’s like a cloak-and-dagger Game of Thrones; neither trusts the other,” said Hill.
The leadership struggle is tied to the fight for control of the land, thus the responses from the community for tearing down of buildings.
Up until 2005, the Cayugas had no land base at all. The 2005 Supreme Court decision in the Sherill v. Oneida nation case slammed the door shut on all Six Nations Iroquois land claims cases. The only option left for the landless Cayugas was to purchase their land back parcel by parcel; and that is what they started to do in Seneca Falls and Union Springs. The Cayugas have purchased and repossessed roughly 1200 acres; but 64,000 acres, part of the Canandaigua Treaty, remain out of their reach.
Assertion to title and rights to the land is central to the Cayuga conflict. “These properties were purchased by the traditional people, not the BIA or the federal entities,” said Steve Maracle, Cayuga Deer Clan Chief. “Clint left the circle of wampum to become a subject of the BIA.”
Chief Silversmith maintains, “The claim for the 64,000 acres still stands with us. As the traditional people, we have a rightful title to the land; we never relinquished claim to the land.”
BIA representative v. traditional Haudenosaunee chiefs
For all intents and purposes, the leadership dispute is still a hot-button issue that those Cayugas opposed to Halftown say has never been adequately settled. In 2012, 2014, and 2016 Halftown’s faction developed three separate mailers, two of which resembled a poll, and one a “citizen survey of support,” which asked people to indicate their support (for Halftown).
Cayuga members maintain that a proper accounting of the “surveys” was never shared with the people. “There was no accounting of the numbers, no information shared about tabulation,” said Dan Hill. “We don’t know how many people responded, we don’t know how many were mailed.”
DeBruin, the Halftown group’s attorney, maintained that Halftown’s hybrid government was supported by “a supermajority” or 67 percent of the Cayuga people.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs based its 2018 recognition of Halftown as the Cayuga representative “for all purposes” on those mailers. Hill said, “The BIA simply accepted the numbers that Clint provided them.”
Despite being recognized as the leader of the Cayuga Nation of New York — a name the traditional Cayugas are averse to because it ignores those Cayuga members who were forced into Canada — Halftown was still unable to gain control of the businesses and properties he ultimately took out; and that, one Cayuga member who asked to remain anonymous says, is why he tore them down.
Halftown hired a private contractor to tear down the buildings. He claims the properties, including LakeSide Trading gas station and convenience store, had been illegally operated by “trespassers” and alleges those Cayuga members were guilty of embezzlement, fraud, theft, and involved in illegal weapons and drugs.
Halftown took out a full-page ad in one of the local papers, stating that the demolition was “fully supported” by the local law enforcement agencies. None of the agencies returned phone calls to verify or qualify the “support,” although they were present at the night of the destruction.
Local law enforcement has stated that they received credible information that Halftown was planning a takeover of Lakeside Trading. Upon learning of the takeover, Seneca Falls Chief of Police Stu Peenstra requested assistance from the state police and the sheriff’s office. An operational plan was developed including officers from all three law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
Seneca County Sheriff Luce said public safety measures were taken by local law enforcement during the demolition process and said the takeover happened “on schedule” as Nation police arrived at Lakeside Trading with a search warrant signed by a Nation judge.
Sheriff Luce confirmed that eight Native American adults on the premises were detained.
Local law enforcement has indicated that they will not be pursuing criminal charges for destruction of property.
Luce said, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Interior has recognized Clint Halftown as the leader of the Cayuga Nation. This, as the BIA has stated, must be settled internally by the Nation.”
Local law enforcement stated that they are required to stay out of the internal affairs of the Cayugas, yet traditional Cayugas maintain that standing by and bearing witness to Halftown’s destruction of disputed property was action by inaction.
In addition to the presence of local, state, and federal law enforcement, Halftown brought in an additional 50 “security professionals” with Pathfinder Solutions, a provider of intelligence gathering, mission support, and security operations, specializing in physical security services based in Indiana.
The hired security officers were sworn in as Nation police before the demolition. According to Chief of Police Peenstra, Seneca County District Attorney Mark Sinkiewicz did some research and concluded that the Nation had the authority to swear in the outside security personnel as Nation police officers.
Peenstra told the Finger Lakes Times that he has worked with many of those serving on the Cayuga Nation police force over the course of his career, which includes retired officers from local police agencies. Peenstra said that he considers them “friends.”
Not all officials in Seneca Falls say they find the Cayuga Nation police friendly. Robert Hayssen, the chair of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors is critical of Halftown and his police department “Clint brought in outside security; he hired 50 mercenaries is what he did,” said Hayssen. “We don’t trust the Cayuga Nation Police.”
Referring to the takedown of individuals and the subsequent demolition job, Hayssen, who is not Native, said, “What he did was not called for. Those people who were taken into custody, they were in fear of their lives. You don’t do that to your own people.”
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York issued a statement indicating that they are working with the Department of Justice — Office of Tribal Justice, and other federal justice units — to collect information regarding the “pre-dawn events of February 22 and assessing whether any violations of applicable law occurred.”
The Department of Justice and the US Attorney’s Office is also in discussions with other federal agencies including the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to investigate the circumstances that lead up to the incident, and the incident itself.
Conflict includes the use of pepper spray, zip-tie handcuffs, and an armed law enforcement presence with AK-47’s and AR-15’s
A week after the federally-recognized Cayuga Nation razed 12 buildings under the cover of night, the bitterly cold temperatures of this past Saturday morning were unable to stem rising tensions in the bitter feud between opposing factions within the Cayuga Nation.
The Cayuga Nation Council of Chiefs’ press conference was held on the pavement of Garden Street Extension, in front of the piles of rubble and the remains of the buildings that once stood there. Just beyond the brightly colored do-not-cross yellow police tape, flimsily draped around the debris-ridden demolition site, a couple of Cayuga Nation Police pickup trucks sat parked. Further back and off to the side was a heavy presence of the state, local, and Cayuga Nation law enforcement.
Well before the 10 a.m. scheduled start time of the press conference, local law enforcement blocked off Route 89 at the corner of E. Bayard/Lake Rd. to the Garden Street Extension—where the unsightly ruins of the demolished buildings reminded passersby of the surprise destruction from the week before. With lights flashing, more than 25 State Police, Seneca Falls police, Cayuga Nation police, State Park Police and Sheriff's cruisers and SUVs lined Rte. 89, sitting along the perimeter of the site.
Chief Silversmith, who spoke at the press conference, said that he didn’t think the road blockades were necessary. “The heavy (police) presence heightened tensions. A lot of young guys have it in their heads that there will be an attack. It just wasn’t helpful,” he said.
Heated struggles erupt following the press conference
Despite a call for peace and contemplation by the chiefs and clan mothers at the press conference, the eruption that ensued was provoked, some supporters said, by the high police presence on site. Several attendees of the press conference expressed agitation about the control measures put in place by law enforcement including the cruiser blockades, the shut-down of Rte. 89, and the beefed-up numbers of non-Natives added to the Cayuga Nation Police unit.
Physical violence broke out once a group, who had attended the press conference, crossed the yellow police tape and entered the property. A line of men in black Cayuga Nation Police jackets immediately approached them, and a series of scuffles ensued. A number of men then emerged, dressed in camouflage and tactical gear, carrying assault-style weapons.
The flare-up between supporters of the traditional group and the non-Native Cayuga Nation Police resulted in the detainment of three people by the Cayuga Nation Police. According to reports, those taken into custody included members of other tribes including from the Oneida Nation, the Seneca Nation, and the Onondaga Nation.
One non-Native man who allegedly assaulted an officer was referred to the Seneca Falls police. Several Native men were pepper-sprayed in the face, and one member of the Cayuga Nation Police was injured. Another Native man, caught in one of the scrums that erupted, was taken to the hospital after suffering what was thought to be a heart attack.
Seneca Falls police said no local or state law enforcement agencies took anyone into custody.
Silversmith said he was frustrated by the altercations that transpired because the many media reports blamed the brawl on the Council of Chiefs, the traditional people, and their supporters.
It turns out, that while the police presence may have exacerbated an already agitated state, reports surfaced that the confrontation was planned by individuals aligned with the Unity Council, a splinter group opposed to Halftown. The traditional chiefs were later informed that the men who instigated the struggle, were a part of the Unity Council faction — members of the group that had taken over the gas station in 2014, and served as security for the business.
“The ones who were fighting are part of another faction, they are not a part of the traditional group,” said Chief Silversmith. “We found out later that some individuals intended to hold a “protest walk” into the roped-off site. We didn’t plan that, we didn’t support that, and we didn’t advocate for that,” said Silversmith. “We don’t condone violence; we came in peace.”
Roger’s sister Donna was upset about the fighting. “I felt like the press conference was hijacked,” said Silversmith. “Individual people used it to further their own agendas and gave us a bad name.”
Chief Silversmith said he felt bad about what happened. “It was beyond our control,” he said. He and Seneca Falls Chief of Police Peenstra together helped to deescalate the conflict and the standoff that occurred.
Responses to the conflict
Dan Hill also denounced the clash and defended the chiefs and the traditional supporters. “It wasn’t us,” said Hill, referring to the struggle. “The press conference was over. We were walking away. There are a lot of bad actors and we can’t control bad actors. But it wasn’t us.”
Joyce “Beanie” Jamieson, Seneca, from the Cattaraugus territory, said she came with a group of 25 women from throughout the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to provide support to the community. “We came with a good mind to help with healing,” Gates said. She said she thought the police presence only served to antagonize the people. “If the police had not been there I don’t think you would have seen that struggle,” she said. “The chiefs had a message of peace. They had no intention of striking out.”
Gates said, “As soon as those boys stepped across the line, a swarm of men with guns came out of the woods. They were hiding in the woods the whole time. I saw those guns and I yelled, ‘Put those guns away!’”
Chief Silversmith said, “The situation got out of hand real quick. There was no need for AK-47s.”
Donna Silversmith said that they had met with Chief of Police Peenstra in advance of the press conference. “We told Peenstra that we didn’t want or need any police force carrying guns. We were just having a peaceful press conference,” she said.
Silversmith said she has been concerned about the potential for violence in light of the property destruction. “We’re trying to make strides for peace, but the dispute has been going on for a long time and there’s so much infighting. One incident is all it takes for things to get volatile to the point where someone’s going to get killed,” she said.
Some press reports indicated that State troopers and local Sheriffs shut down Route 89 after physical violence erupted. But Halftown issued a statement saying that he had his non-Native Cayuga Nation Police intervene in the press conference because he had been informed that other Indian nations were invited to support the traditional Cayuga’s cause.
After the post-press conference skirmish, Halftown issued another statement claiming his group had been victimized. “Our Nation, officers of our Police Department and others, including members of state and local law enforcement, were the victims of a group of vicious criminals, including members of the Mohawk and Onondaga Nations, as well as other Indians who traveled from Canada, for the sole purpose of creating chaos on our property and inflicting serious injury.”
Halftown said he had been prepared to honor the protest until he saw that other Indian nations had joined in support of the traditional Cayuga Nation.
Halftown’s statement read: “This group put out a call to other Indian nations, including the Onondaga Nation, who have no business in our affairs, and solicited help in bringing what are nothing more than thugs to our reservation.”
“That is a slap in the face to Native people. We have always supported each other in the Confederacy,” said Beanie Gates. “We weren’t there to make trouble, we were there with water protectors to protect the land and support the people.”
Donna Silversmith summed up the infighting saying, “It’s people fighting for status, for money and recognition by the BIA. This is what happens when people fight for money and power.”
But Chief Silversmith made clear that the Cayugas Council of Chiefs has no interest in federal recognition. “We don’t want it, we don’t need it. We are not part of their system. We have our own constitution,” he said.
Gabriel Galanda, an attorney with Galanda Broadman, an Indigenous rights law firm, who specializes in mediating internal tribal disputes, has called the developments at Seneca Falls “astonishing.” In a recent podcast, Galanda said that the harm and destruction that is happening on the shores of Cayuga Lake is a “human rights catastrophe.”
Galanda described the actions taken by the Halftown governing body as “not legitimate tribal government behavior.” Galanda did not mince words criticizing Halftown’s order of destruction. “It is thuggery. It is a criminal enterprise, it is a farce,” he said. Galanda chastised the federal government for its role in stoking divisions among the Cayuga. “The federal government can no longer continue to legitimize the Halftown faction after what has happened in the last week.”
When asked what could be done, Galanda suggested, “All the people of the Iroquois Confederacy should be descending upon this location to decry what is happening before it’s too late culturally. It’s going to take governmental intervention—before someone gets killed.”
Hayssen, a local town supervisor, is sympathetic to the Cayuga people and their troubles. “We didn’t create this problem, the federal government created it.”
Donna Silversmith wears a jacket emblazoned with a precept for peace. It reads: the Great Law of Peace 3rd Wampum: We have tied ourselves together in one mind, one body, one spirit, and one soul to settle all matters as one.
Silversmith asked, “What is it to be Cayuga? Today it’s just Cayugas fighting with one another. We need to be respectful. We need to move together as one.”
“Everyone needs to compromise to settle this. Half of the nation won’t talk to the other half,” lamented Dan Hill. “Splintered we’re weak; together we’re strong.”
Chief Silversmith remains undeterred from a mission of peace. “It has been 239 years since we’ve been removed from our land. I remain positive. We have to create peace for our people. I have hope that the Cayuga people will get the land back in my lifetime. You have to have hope.”
Leslie Logan, Seneca, is a writer and PR consultant that has written for Indian Country Today, the National Museum of the American Indian, Aboriginal Voices and Indigenous Woman. She is the former communications director for the Seneca Nation and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.