More violence, surprise demolitions on Cayuga tribal lands as leadership dispute continues

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Remains of the farmhouse where Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' elder Wanda John once lived. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

As the sun set, Wanda John’s son emerged from his mother’s half-demolished farmhouse in rural Seneca County. The walls are a mess of splintered wood and plaster, tufts of pink fiberglass strewn about.

The family has been at the site trying to salvage what they can — drums and rattles used in sacred ceremonies, old lacrosse trophies, a toy in the shape of a turtle that belonged to one of the grandchildren.

John’s former home is one of several Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’, or Cayuga Nation buildings demolished last week on orders from the tribe’s federally recognized leader, Clint Halftown.

John’s family said they believe the surprise demolition was an act of retaliation for their past criticism of Halftown.

The property also housed a barn and makeshift longhouse where she and other Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ held ceremonies and traditional language lessons for the tribe’s children.

The Varick longhouse had been a temporary replacement for a longhouse Halftown demolished in 2020. 

John and her family had constructed a makeshift longhouse in a barn on the property. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, of which the Cayuga are a part, does not recognize Halftown as leader of the tribe. However, the U.S. federal government considers Halftown the Cayuga Nation’s official representative, which gives him control over the tribe’s federal funding.

That’s led to clashes over the years. Some of Halftown’s critics said the leader uses the surprise evictions and demolitions to target those who criticize him.

“One of them put his foot on the back of my neck”

John has lived in the house in Varick for the past two years.

But she said she had no warning before Cayuga Nation tribal police hired security guards and a demolition crew showed up at the house on Wednesday. 

“I got dragged out of my house. I had bruises all over. They slammed me down on my front porch, I thought I was gonna pass out,” John said. “And then one of them put his foot on the back of my neck here.”

Her bruises were still visible several days after the incident.

John said she managed to call her daughter-in-law before police took away her cell phone and handcuffed her in a police car.

“Vacant and neglected”

Video posted to social media shows bulldozers on site and a growing crowd of onlookers outside the rural property, some clashing with police and guards.

Seneca County inspectors also arrived at the site midway through the demolition and issued a stop order, though it appears that the demolition continued after the intervention.

Seneca County officials arrived on scene and issued a stop work order, still visible on the front of the house. Workers continued with the demolition despite the order. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

In a statement, the tribe’s federally recognized representatives, Clint Halftown and Sharon LeRoy, accuse John of selling marijuana illegally out of the home, though sale of the drug is legal on tribal land.

A spokesperson said Halftown ordered the demolition of the house because it was vacant and neglected.

Protestors disputed those claims at a demonstration Friday evening. About 20 people, including members of other Haudenosaunee tribes, gathered across the street from a Cayuga Nation-owned dispensary as tribal police looked on.

“Taking care of each other”

Bear Clan Sachem (chief) Sam George said John had kept the Victorian-era farmhouse in excellent condition. 

“We had the [Seneca] County Attorney take the [building] code people down there and they said [the house] was in immaculate shape, until [Halftown’s] destruction,” George said.

As for rent, George said community members sometimes pitched in to help John pay the bills during the pandemic.

“We were taking care of her, taking care of each other,” George said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Maria Stagliano, spokesperson for the Cayuga Nation, gave the following statement.

“This property is owned by the Cayuga Nation and was not leased to Wanda John or any member of her family now or at any time in the past. In fact, Ms. John has lived in another Nation-owned house off Route 89 which she has failed to pay rent on for roughly a decade. This was not ‘her house.’ Anyone who was on the property was trespassing and there illegally. Furthermore, evidence recovered from the scene suggests that they appear to have been running an illegal mail order marijuana business and possibly committing other criminal acts there as well. This illegal operation has been referred to federal authorities for further investigation and prosecution. These are the facts, pure and simple. They are pretending to be the victims in an attempt to further scam the public into supporting their lost cause.

The Cayuga Nation has purchased several parcels of land over the past few decades in an effort to rebuild the reservation that was taken from it. Clint Halftown, as the federally recognized leader, and the Cayuga Nation Council, has made many efforts to better the lives of all Cayuga Nation citizens, including this effort to clean up old properties and make way for safer structures that better the Cayuga Nation as a whole and its citizens. Clint Halftown is committed to providing and leasing Nation-owned housing to any Nation member who wants it—provided they pay rent and keep up their end of the bargain. Ms. John and her allies have refused to do the right thing for more than a decade, period.

Being a Cayuga Nation citizen does not give anyone the right to steal, conduct criminal activity, or claim whatever land they want as their own. The Cayuga Nation is a thriving enterprise with a focus on bettering the Cayuga Nation’s citizens at large—not a free-for-all to occupy land as these trespassers have done. They mask their criminal activity as ‘traditionalism’ to gain the sympathy of white non-natives who understand very little about the nuances of Native American governance structure and rights, and they perpetuate the appearance of a leadership ‘dispute’ when the overwhelming majority of the Cayuga Nation supports the Nation’s current and rightful leadership.”