Bulldozing. Kidnapping Claims. Inside a Battle Over a Tribe’s Future.

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — Along a stretch of County Road 124 in New York’s picturesque Finger Lakes region, men stand guard at a barbed wire blockade, tending a fire they keep burning around the clock and protecting a two-story home that is on the verge of collapse.

The scene is the latest front in a fight that has riven the Cayuga Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe in upstate New York, pitting two sects within the Nation against each other.

It is a conflict in which homes and property have been destroyed and accusations of thievery and greed swirl. On one side is the tribal government and its longtime leader, Clint Halftown, who has begun to reclaim the land that once belonged to the tribe; on the other is a group of self-described “traditionalists,” who say they do not recognize Mr. Halftown’s administration and who have staked their own claims to some of the property the Nation has bought.

The two sides disagree even on basic facts in a dispute that touches on questions of how the tribe’s deep traditions should inform the way its people are governed today.

For hundreds of years, the Cayuga were largely landless and its people scattered all over the United States. So in 2002, the Nation’s council charged Mr. Halftown, then a 29-year-old tribal member and former casino employee, with an ambitious task: to explore ways to earn money for the tribe and buy back their land, piece by piece, to repatriate tribal members.

He was successful. Using proceeds from tribal businesses, the Nation has bought dozens of parcels and residential properties, as some Cayuga began to trickle back, within the historical boundaries of its reservation, near Seneca Falls.

But now the homes that Mr. Halftown helped to acquire — like the one on County Road 124 — have become battlegrounds over who should be allowed to live on what is once again tribally owned land, and at what cost.

“It is one of the more volatile situations in Indian Country today,” said Jon W. Parmenter, an associate professor of history, specializing in tribal affairs, at Cornell University.

The fight within the Cayuga echoes past power struggles in other tribes around the country — the Seminoles of Oklahoma, the Crow in Montana — as well as in New York, where a fight over the leadership of the Oneidas, west of Utica, once also led to accusations of violence and intimidation.

Mr. Halftown, who also sits on the council, is not a chief of any of his tribe’s five clans — ancestral groups, each named for animals and usually linked by shared lineage — but is recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the “nation representative,” making him the point person for federal interactions with the tribe, which has over 500 members nationwide.

But that designation is not recognized by the loose collection of tribal members who refer to themselves as traditionalists. And, they say, their opposition has made them targets of intimidation, harassment and retaliation by Mr. Halftown and his council allies.

In particular, the traditionalists say they fear the tribal police, a group of non-Native former officers and state troopers who “monitor and protect” Nation property for the Cayuga government, including the teetering house on County Road 124.

About 45 Cayuga members are now living in Nation-owned homes. There is about one officer for every two tribal members currently living on traditional tribal land. It is a police force that the traditionalists castigate as mercenaries.

“It’s being turned into cowboys versus Indians,” said Carlin Seneca, a traditionalist. “Only this time the cowboys are wearing Native badges.”

State and federal officials have generally taken a hands-off policy, saying that they are abiding by tribal sovereignty. But that position nonetheless frustrates some law enforcement and elected officials who worry about escalation.

Sheriff W. Timothy Luce of Seneca County, which makes up about half of the Cayuga’s traditional territory, said local authorities have seen years of skirmishes between the two opposing factions, and have called on state and federal authorities to intervene.

“This is something that the citizens of Seneca County and law enforcement have unfortunately become accustomed to,” he said.

Even by the standards of this decades-long feud, what happened in August on County Road 124 was jarring.

Under orders of the Nation’s government, a swarm of tribal police officers, some toting guns and wearing face coverings, raided the property. The officers handcuffed the 65-year-old woman who was living there, Wanda John, a self-described traditionalist who the tribe said was not authorized to reside there and wasn’t paying rent. Ms. John has argued that tribal members are entitled to live freely on Nation-owned land.

A payloader then tore out the corners of the two-story house, leaving it uninhabitable, its innards exposed and splayed, and its second floor drooping to the ground. A barn behind the house, which Ms. John says was used for tribal ceremonies, was also damaged, left with a giant gash in its side.

The home was not the first traditionalist-occupied building that Mr. Halftown’s government has bulldozed — including some that were demolished entirely and others left standing but unlivable — in an effort to dissuade more “squatters” from moving in, the tribe said.

In early 2020, tribal police stormed and then bulldozed several Cayuga-owned buildings — including a lucrative gas station — that a group of traditionalists had seized six years earlier and occupied ever since, without the Nation’s permission or paying rent. Traditionalists say they had also constructed a building used as a longhouse for ceremonies and a day care center, which were also destroyed.

Those demolitions sparked protests,and drew the condemnation of a variety of local, state and federal officials, including Senator Chuck Schumer.

Tribal officials say the buildings have been demolished because the traditionalists were squatting in tribally owned properties and profiting from unlicensed or illegal businesses, including sales of marijuana.

“It is those tenants,” the Nation said in a statement, “who steal from the Nation and their fellow citizens.”

David DeBruin, a lawyer for the Nation, defended the demolitions, saying that they were within the Nation’s rights since it owned the buildings, adding that the tribal government did not want them to be “a continual point of friction” or tempt traditionalists to try to retake them.

“So the Nation made the decision to take that attractive nuisance and eliminate it,” he said.

It has not had the desired effect.

About a month after the demolition of the home on County Road 124, Mr. Seneca, Ms. John’s son, was taken into custody by tribal police at the house, accused, under tribal law, of resisting arrest and criminal possession of a weapon, namely a machete and a loaded shotgun.

Mr. Seneca’s arrest led to yet another confrontation, this time at the doorstep of tribal police headquarters when a group of traditionalists again clashed with tribal officers.

Mr. Seneca and another defendant were then transported to a jail in Pennsylvania — in Cambria County, 250 miles away — and held for days before seeing a tribal judge, something traditionalists likened to kidnapping.

The Nation says such a measure was necessary because the tribe has no detention facilities and has a contract with Cambria County.

Ms. John conceded that the gas station made money, but said those profits went back into the community, including creating jobs and providing services like day care. She also admits she was not paying rent in the house on County Road 124, but argues that tribally owned property is, by its nature, also essentially hers as a Cayuga.

“I am part of that nation,” she said.

Mr. Halftown’s leadership was challenged almost from the time he was appointed, in part for his embrace of gambling — something the Cayuga had long resisted. Now, two small casinos sit on opposite sides of Cayuga Lake, something that traditionalists contrast with the lack of basic services like a community or child care center on Cayuga territory.

“Where’s our clinic? Where’s the health care? Where’s some immersion schooling for the kids?” Ms. John said.

Traditionalists say they want the old Haudenosaunee way of governance restored, a centuries-old system that distributes power to chiefs and clan mothers.

Known as “the people of the great swamp,” the Cayuga are part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the famed alliance of Iroquois nations whose people primarily lived in upper New York. They were signatories of the Treaty of Canandaigua, a 1794 pact with the nascent American government that set up a 64,000-acre reservation for the Cayuga, horseshoed around the northern end of Cayuga Lake. But those lands were soon lost in disputed deals with the state. For years, the tribe sought to regain its territory in the courts and through proposed “land into trust” requests by the tribal government to federal authorities, a process that is ongoing.

The old system, the traditionalists argue, is more democratic and inclusive than having a single “nation representative” in charge.

The traditional structure would empower men like Sam George, the chief of the Bear clan, who has sharply criticized Mr. Halftown.

“He wants to become a dictator,” Mr. George says. “He wants to rule the whole area. And everybody in it.”

But supporters of the Halftown government chafe at the notion that they are any less wedded to Cayuga customs, and downplay the volatility of the situation.

“There have been disagreements regarding policies or priorities, as exist in any body politic,” said Mr. DeBruin, adding that Mr. Halftown has provided “stability and success” for the Cayuga people.

They also say that Mr. Halftown and his government were approved in a 2016 survey of tribal members — something they say effectively put an end to the leadership dispute and was affirmed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But the traditionalists have continued to contend that the survey, which the tribal government conducted, was profoundly biased. The letter sent by the Nation accompanying the survey, for example, described the traditionalists as backed by outsiders and misunderstanding tribal law and customs, while asking for support for the Halftown led government.

Mr. Halftown argues that his leadership has produced a raft of benefits to tribal members across the country, including shipments of organically grown food and locally raised beef, tuition assistance and monetary distributions for “citizens in good standing.” (That omits many traditionalists because the Nation asserts that a small group of them owe a combined $800,000 in back rent; the group says this is an inflated and undocumented claim.)

“My ultimate goal is for the Cayuga citizens — whether they live on the reservation or across the country — to be as supported and prosperous as possible,” Mr. Halftown said in a statement.

He declined to be interviewed but sent a series of questions for the traditionalists.

“Does a self-proclaimed ‘traditional Cayuga’ have a greater say in the Cayuga Nation than the 525 other Cayugans?” read one question. “Should there be a punishment for Cayugas that do not follow the will of their fellow Cayugans? Should crimes against their fellow citizens go without punishment?”

In recent weeks, elected officials in the Central New York have said new evictions by tribal authorities may happen soon, leaving some clamoring for help and wondering why federal officials have not done more to quell the conflict.

“We scream from the top of our lungs,” said Kyle Barnhart, a Democrat who is a member of the Seneca County board of supervisors. “And, you know, they just try to stay out of it ‘cause it’s pretty messy.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs offered a two-sentence statement about the Nation’s leadership struggle.

“Indian Affairs honors tribal sovereignty and supports tribal self-determination,” the statement read. “The principles of tribal sovereignty limit BIA’s legal authority to intervene in internal tribal disputes.”

In the meantime, since August, friends of Ms. John have been standing guard at the house on County Road 124. On a recent visit, three men were feeding the fire out front. Two trucks blocked the driveways, with the perimeter blocked by barbed wire and a hand-scrawled sign reading “Halftown Must Go.”

The Nation says they are aware of the men on the property, and have a plan to address it, but would not elaborate on what that might be.

“The Nation will deal with them,” the tribe said, “under its laws.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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