Evictions And Leadership Disputes In The Cayuga Nation

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — In a homecoming to their ancestral territory, the first group of Cayuga Nation members resettled near Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes a decade ago. Still, conflicts between leaders in the nation persist and have manifested in evictions.

Federally recognized leaders in the Cayuga Nation delivered eviction notices to roughly 14 households owned by the nation in April, although these were not the first eviction notices that had gone out.

Rubble from the late-night demolition of a dozen Cayuga Nation buildings at the order of the nation’s BIA-approved leader, Clint Halftown, last year still sit on the side of NY Route 89 in Seneca Falls. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

A Decade Of Evictions And Demolition

Teresa Longboat moved to Seneca Falls in 2010, the same year around 20 other members of the Cayuga Nation resettled there.

The Cayuga do not have their own recognized reservation. While moving back to their homeland did not change that, for Longboat, it was a long-awaited step.

“It meant the world to me, to finally have a place that I thought could be peace, and just care for,” she tearfully recalled.

The memory is bittersweet. Longboat said she and her family have received multiple eviction notices in the decade she has lived in Seneca Falls.

The evictions came from the tribal government associated with Clint Halftown. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) first designated him the Cayuga Nation’s leader in 2003.

Longboat said Halftown is hurting his own people through evictions and destroying property. Just around the corner from her home sit rubble and empty fields, a reminder of the late-night demolition of a dozen Cayuga Nation buildings in February 2020 that led to escalating tensions and a brawl.

Halftown ordered Cayuga Nation police to take over and tear down several buildings, which included a daycare, a gas station and an ice cream stand.

Police also trampled the longhouse, where Haudenosaunee nations hold traditional meetings and ceremonies.

During a press conference in March 2020, clan mothers and chiefs who identify as Cayuga traditionalists called the destruction “acts of terrorism” and “treason” against the Cayuga Nation.

U.S. Interference

The nation is part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which French settlers called the Iroquois. Philip P. Arnold, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in Native American traditions, said he has seen schisms similar to the Cayuga Nation’s leadership disputes throughout the confederacy.

“A kind of division between those Haudenosaunee people who are traditional and want to keep to the longhouse tradition,” Arnold said, “And what’s been called ‘progressive Native people,’ who want to become more integrated into the economy and society of the United States.”

Arnold said the factions that favor tradition fear aligning with the BIA will erode their sovereignty. So-called “progressive” leaders, on the other hand, are often those the BIA has approved or designated federally recognized representatives.

“It’s the interference of the U.S. government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the BIA, that has been going on for the last 150 years that has created these divisions,” Arnold argued.

Halftown would not agree to an interview with WSKG, but the Cayuga Nation provided an emailed statement in May through an account executive at Levick, a crisis-management firm based in Washington D.C.

Members of the nation approved Halftown as their leader through its traditional process, according to the statement, with nearly two-thirds of members supporting him. Representatives for Halftown’s faction did not describe how that vote was taken.

Joe Heath, a legal counsel for the traditionalist members, said few enrolled members live in the homeland where the evictions are ongoing, meaning there are not many voting citizens in the nation who have a stake in the conflict in and around Seneca Falls.

That has made it more difficult for the traditional faction he represents to challenge Halftown’s rule.

“No Evictions, No Stolen Land”

Because Halftown was made the BIA-approved leader, all federal funds for the nation go through him.

Over the last decade, the Cayuga received money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which Halftown used toward purchasing 19 homes, according to HUD Region II Public Affairs Specialist Olga Alvarez.

Some of the residents in those homes received eviction notices in 2019. Halftown dropped those charges, but sent out another round of notices in February this year. Then came eviction notices for 14 homes in late April.

Residents were told to appear in the nation’s tribal court in Seneca Falls. Not one person went.

“That’s not a real court. That’s why,” said Wanda John, a member of the Cayuga Nation who opposes Halftown. “Why acknowledge him that way?”

Members of the Cayuga Nation wave the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s flag outside the Cayuga Nation police station and tribal court during a protest in May. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

John said she and her son are among the people who received an eviction summons in April.

John and other traditionalist residents led a protest outside the Cayuga Nation headquarters, which holds its police station and tribal court, in May. Allies of the traditionalist faction, including members of the Ithaca Tenants’ Union and the Onondaga Nation, attended the rally.

Since mid-May, members of the tenants’ union have been camping outside of homes that received eviction notices. On the day of the protest Marguerite Pacheco, a graduate student at Cornell University*, said she had camped at homes of Cayuga Nation members for three nights. Volunteers, she said, took shifts during which they slept or stayed on the lookout for Cayuga Nation police.

“It’s mostly just being on the lookout in case the Cayuga Nation police come up or some other Cayuga police come up,” Pacheco said. “Making sure that we can alert the owners of the house what’s going on so that they can get their night’s rest.”

In the statement provided by Levick, representatives for the nation wrote that tenants refuse to pay rent and owe the Cayuga Nation about $700,000. Without that money, they added, the nation cannot fulfill HUD’s requirements or help its members.

“Rule 23 of the Nation’s Civil Code allows default judgments to be entered against defendants who do not appear in the court action,” the statement read. “These illegal occupants failed to appear in the proceedings and defend themselves despite several opportunities to do so. Therefore, the Nation has sought default judgments against all defendants in the full amounts of the rent delinquencies.”

Allies of the traditionalist Cayuga Nation faction, including members of the Ithaca Tenants’ Union and Onondaga Nation, protest outside the Cayuga Nation police station in May. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

Beyond The Moratoria

Indigenous groups that receive funds through HUD, however, must comply with the federal eviction moratorium, which President Biden extended until the end of July.

According to the nation’s statement, leaders will also follow New York’s eviction ban, set to expire at the end of August.

“We do, however, reserve the right to evict at a later date if those illegally occupying the properties in question continue their refusal to work with us in good faith and give us no other option,” the statement read. “Our focus is, and always will be, doing what is in the best interest of the Cayuga Nation at large.”

But John said the protests are bigger than just the evictions.

“It’s about getting rid of BIA and Clint Halftown,” she said, looking over at her grandchildren. “That’s what it’s about, really.”

Her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren moved from the Seneca Nation in Cattaraugus County to the Cayuga Nation. John said before the longhouse and traditional school were destroyed last year, her grandchildren were learning the language, agricultural practices and ceremonies of their culture.

It is devastating, John added, to hear her grandchildren talk about the destruction from last year and the evictions.

“These children here should not have to grow up and fight this battle. Shouldn’t have to fight it,” John said. “I mean the government has done us wrong.”

John said she wants her descendants to be able to practice their traditional culture in the place where it began, this time in peace.

*Full Disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter