Oneida - Central New York

 CPT was invited to send an observer team to Oneida Territory near Syracuse, New York, for two weeks in February 2002, in response to fears surrounding forced evictions. The team met with various Oneida individuals and officials, area pastors, police, city and state officials, local residents and businesspeople.

In August of 2002 a request for peacemakers came from Danielle Shenandoah of the Onedia community (as her house was to be demolished) and CPT responded to this call by sending an emergency team to join dozens of other supporters on the land. The emergency team was present in the community from August to December.

Danielle Shenandoah's house was demolished on November 1, 2002.

 

Oneida Report

February 21, 2002

Background

  1. The Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca nations are autonomous members of the Six Nation Confederacy (the Haudenosaunee). The Oneida are about 1000 people (450 adults) in central New York.

    With the influx of white settlers, the Oneidas lost the 6 million acres that they once occupied in what is now central New York. Two groups of Oneidas were displaced to Ontario and Wisconsin. Others went to live with the nearby Onondaga Nation or were acculturated into the surrounding white population. Nevertheless, the Oneidas ceaselessly pursued the return of their land.

    In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the Oneidas were the rightful owners of 872 acres that they had claimed in a test case. The ruling gave legitimacy to the Oneida claim to another 250,000 acres in central New York. But these claims have yet to be resolved.

  2. According to Haudenosaunee tradition, the Oneida clan mothers of the wolf, bear, and turtle clans select the chiefs who represent the Oneida nation on the Grand Council of Chiefs, which oversees the Six Nation Confederacy.

    But during much of the 1970s and 1980s, the New York Oneidas were beset by leadership conflicts. In the mid-1980s, in an effort to reestablish a traditional form of government, wolf clan mother Maisie Shenandoah selected three Oneida men as temporary representatives to the Grand Council of Chiefs. By the mid-1990s, two had died, leaving only Ray Halbritter, a talented Oneida businessman trained at Harvard.

    In 1993, Mr. Halbritter negotiated a gaming compact for the Oneidas with New York governor Mario Cuomo and consequently built the highly profitable Turning Stone Casino in central New York. This casino became the cornerstone of an expansive Oneida business enterprise that now includes a chain of gas stations, a textile factory, and a luxury hotel. The business is incorporated as the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Inc. with Ray Halbritter as its CEO. The corporation has become one of the largest employers in the area and holds the upper hand in the local economy, a fact which rankles many of its white neighbors.

    This business enterprise has brought a long-elusive prosperity to many Oneida people. Casino profits have also built a health center, a recreational gymnasium and swimming pool, and a cultural center and museum. In addition, the profits have provided scholarship programs, job training, day care, legal assistance, and Oneida language classes. Local residents who have objected to the business enterprise controled by Halbritter believe that since Federal financing helped put these facilities in place they deserve fair access.

    But Mr. Halbritter's initiatives have been criticized by some Oneidas, who say he has violated the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee by embracing gambling. They also fault him for selecting his own clan mothers and for creating a "men's council," both unheard of practices in Haudenosaunee tradition.

    In 1993, the Grand Council of Chiefs removed Mr. Halbritter as the Oneida wolf clan representative and notified the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that he no longer represented the Oneida people. The decision was accepted by the BIA, only to be reversed 24 hours later, reportedly under pressure from Sherwood Boehlert, the U.S. congressional representative for the area and a casino supporter.

    Today the U.S. governmentĂłbut not the Grand Council of ChiefsĂłgives official recognition to the Oneida Indian Nation with Ray Halbritter as its representative.

  3. Ray Halbritter has characterized this conflict as an internal family dispute between himself and his aunt Maisie Schenandoah, the clan mother who originally appointed him to represent Oneidas to the Grand Council. But Maisie Schenandoah sees it as a struggle between two competing ways of governance: the traditional structure advocated by the Grand Council of Chiefs and the corporate structure advocated by Ray Halbritter. She accuses her nephew of operating under self-assumed authority.

    Today this struggle is being played out on a 32-acre plot of land, the only undisputed territory held by Oneidas in central New York. Maisie Schenandoah lives on this territory, alongside eight like-minded families. But their continued residence here is in jeopardy. In the past year, building inspectors from the Oneida Indian Nation have declared eleven of their dwellings to be in violation of building code and have evicted the residents and demolished their homes. All but one of the homes that were inspected have been destroyed.

    Some people speculate that the corporation wants the 32-acre territory for an "offshore" bank or as a new location for the casino, if environmental and accounting irregularities force it off its present site. They point to recently installed industrial sewer and water lines, which seem to indicate plans for nonresidential development. Or, perhaps the removals are simply further attempts to silence Ray Halbritter's critics. They say he already withholds from them their share of nation monies that are supposed to be distributed to all Oneidas.

    In November 2001, Oneida Indian Nation officials arrived at the 32-acre territory to inspect the home of Danielle Patterson, Maisie Shenandoah's daughter. The officials were accompanied by 22 officers from the corporation's police force. Ms. Patterson protested but was roughly forced aside. (Police later attempted to remove her injury records from the hospital where she was treated.)

    In the hopes of preventing further violence, native and nonnative observers have been coming to the 32-acre territory since this incident occurred.

CPT Invitation

CPT was asked to send people because of a chain of connections. Hawk, a Shawnee observer at the 32-acre territory, contacted John Paul Lederach who encouraged Rob and Patty Burdette, peace workers participants in CPT events and delegations to visit. Their visit and CPT involvement with native struggles in South Dakota and New Brunswick led to a request from the traditional Oneidas on the 32 acres that CPT place a two week team in the area.

Anne Herman, Rod Orr, and Cliff Kindy arrived at the 32-acre territory on February 7, 2002. They chose to accept the invitation to live with three separate families on the territory after judging that staying in Syracuse, 30 miles away, would complicate documentation work if a demolition occurred.

CPT Work

  1. The CPT presence for two weeks has been one of observing and listening. A prayer circle each morning and frequent potlucks on the 32-acre territory have provided contacts with 40 to 50 Oneidas and friends connected intimately with this situation.

    We visited area pastors and attended three Sunday worship services in different churches. We learned that prayer meetings, dialogue circles, and peacemaking meetings have been part of the recent history.

    We contacted city, state, and Oneida Indian Nation police, as well as county and federal district attorneys. These contacts clarified the facts of the initial deputation of Oneida Indian Nation police and then the removal of that deputation by area security jurisdictions. We are troubled by the lack of accountability of these police to anyone other than the Oneida Indian Nation corporate leadership.

    We visited with employees of the corporation, and we had a two-hour meeting with Ray Halbritter, four members of the menĂ­s council, and one clan mother. These meetings were key opportunities to become human with each other.

    CPT has had visits and advice from others who have been on territory and those whose work centers on the larger picture of native issues in the region. The Inter-Religious Council of Central New York and Quakers from the Syracuse Friends Meeting and from the American Friends Service Committee office in Syracuse have provided a framework of understanding for CPT analysis and work.

  2. The concerns and fears of local non-natives are both real and greatly exaggerated by the unknown. They were made worse when what was to be a bingo hall turned into a casino complex and when 20,000 local landholders were made codefendants in the Oneida land claim lawsuits. Traditional Oneidas on the 32 acres have tried to distance themselves from these actions because of their work over the years to be good neighbors.

    Oneida City mayor Jim Chappel spoke to us of the 36 percent drop in tax revenues from 2000 to 2001 because most of the gas stations in town are now native-owned and do not charge sales and excise taxes on motor fuels. (The corporation has a monopoly on diesel fuel sales in the stretch from Utica to Syracuse.) He raised concerns about possible increases in the crime rate and about the damages caused to families by compulsive gambling.

    Business owners in the area cited the unfair competition of native stores, which do not have to charge tax on gasoline, diesel, and cigarettes. The current proposal for a settlement of the land claims would require the Oneida Indian Nation to charge non-natives the equivalent of sales and excise taxes. But the corporation would keep these revenues and would have to use them for tribal services, not for business purposes. Sovereignty and tax exemption would still be issues even if the traditionals were the bia-recognized government. Traditional people feel as strongly about these matters as does Ray Halbritter’s organization.

    Landholders fear they will be forced to sell their homes in the land claim area. But Cynthia Bannis, whose family has had five generations on the land, told the team that such fears are unfounded. No homeowners across the United States have been forced to sell their homes against their will in any native land claim settlements. But some have felt compelled to become "willing sellers" after casino traffic so disrupted their neighborhoods that they didn't want to live there anymore.

    Those with the greatest fears seem to be members of the Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE). Their concern about a disappearing tax base is valid. Again, though, the current settlement proposal includes payments to those affected communities to balance the losses. UCE positions against native sovereignty and a sense that Indians have special privileges under the law seem to point toward an underlying racism, as Ray Halbritter has charged. But UCE expressions of support for Danielle Patterson indicate some of the complexity of their position as they face what they see as a common opponent in Mr. Halbritter.

    Pastors told us of the delicate role they play in raising justice issues in congregations that have employees working for the Oneida Indian nation businesses. They also face opposition from conservative Christians who protest ecumenical services in which ìpagansî are allowed to pray and in which other religious traditions participate.

    As we talked with people in the Oneida area, we could clearly sense the fear that this powerful business enterprise instills in some of those who are native and/or work for the corporation. All these fears will need resolution before there can be a healthy base for community wholeness.

    CPT provided a series of nonviolent trainings for the families on the 32-acre territory. We believe this helped to strengthen and clarify their nonviolent resistance to a forced eviction from their homes and takeover of the land.

Proposal

As CPT left, the community of families on the 32-acre territory was preparing to meet with their lawyers. They plan to make the following offer to Ray Halbritter:

  • If he is really concerned about housing on the territory, they are willing to accept a [HIS?] 1991 offer to build new homes for the families behind their existing homes, which could then be removed.
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  • If that is not satisfactory, he could pay the withheld nation distributions to these families and they could build their own homes according to code.

The CPT Oneida team recommends that CPT remain connected with the situation through the advisors/contacts. Should the need arise, the team urges that an emergency delegation be sent in a fashion similar to our responses to crises in Vieques, Puerto Rico. (See the list of Potential Emergency Delegation members.)

Even in these short two weeks, CPT has been able to build credibility with various players in the drama. This work has parallels to CPT work with indigenous people in Chiapas, the Lakota in South Dakota, and esgenoopetitj First Nation in New Brunswick. Security forces, with their tendencies toward violence, complement the violence of laws, structures, and economics. Together they destroy or remove people who are in the way in order to access resources and land. There are still questions that remain for the work in Oneida. (See list of questions.)

Definitions

Oneida Nation of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy 1000 year old self-designation of the Oneida people; still existing today

Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Inc. “a business called a nation”

32 acre territory only uncontested Oneida land; home of 8 families facing home demolitions; site of the longhouse ceremonial meeting center that has been locked to the 8 families

Wolf, Bear and Turtle clans primary Oneida social organization that crosses family and nation boundaries

land claim areas that Indian nations claim as rightfully theirs because of treaties signed with the US government

tax base properties and businesses that pay the taxes to support area infrastructure; native sovereignty excludes this foreign taxation

traditional following the old historical practices and customs

BIA Bureau of Indian Affairs; US government program to oversee contacts with American Indian nations; often accused of destroying native culture, language and political autonomy Great Law ­ moral teaching of the Iroquois

Players

traditional Oneida those trying to maintain the historical customs and strengths of the nation

Shenandoah family core family keeping the traditional Oneida nation base viable on the 32 acres

Maisie Shenandoah wolf clan mother and family matriarch

Ray Halbritter CEO of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Inc.

Upstate Citizens for Equality landowners concerned about native claims to their homes and loss of tax base

Oneida Indian Nation Police all non-native enforcement officers of the corporation

George Pataki New York governor willing to deal secretly with nations for casinos

Sherwood Boehlert US Representative who prides himself with trading the deciding vote for NAFTA in exchange for BIA recognition of Halbritter

Questions

  • How does the 32 acre plot fit into others plans?
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  • Will there be recognized Oneida Nation land when this is over?
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  • Will there be a sustainable tax base for local communities?
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  • What are the costs of a casino for Indian nations and government entities?
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  • Will the Oneidas of New York, Wisconsin and Ontario come together?
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  • Can traditional Iroquois Confederacy ways be maintained?
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  • Can Oneidas have voice in the corporation that uses them to justify BIA recognition?
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  • What is needed for reconciliation among the various parties?