SENECA FALLS — A leadership dispute within the Cayuga Indian Nation took a stunning turn over the weekend when nation leader Clint Halftown sent bulldozers to demolish a working daycare center, store, schoolhouse and other buildings controlled by tribe members who oppose his authority.
In response to the surprise, dead-of-night show of power, several Cayuga families who oppose Halftown have sent their children out of town, fearing the bulldozers will come next for their homes in a dispute that is dividing families and confounding local authorities, who say they are powerless to intercede in the sovereign nation’s issues.
The early morning raids by tribal law enforcement Saturday reduced a dozen buildings in the town of Seneca Falls to hulking piles of lumber and drywall, drawing condemnation from local and federal officials who called the action domestic terrorism.
“They came in there with drawn handguns, put them to the heads of the security people who were in the buildings and told them if they moved they would be shot. And they destroyed these buildings,” said attorney Joe Heath, who represents a faction of traditional Cayuga members who split with tribal leadership about 20 years ago in a dispute over casino gambling.
The anti-Halftown Unity Council in 2014 claimed control of some of the buildings that were destroyed early Saturday. Halftown said the nation was retaking possession of stolen property.
Halftown is the federally recognized leader of the roughly 500-member western New York tribe. He said in a statement Saturday that he had demolished the structures to prevent them from becoming “a target for any further friction in the community going forward.”
Halftown has not responded to requests for an interview.
Leanna Young, a mother of four who managed the destroyed convenience store, said 32 children from Cayuga families have been sent to live away from Cayuga-owned houses over concerns that the nation’s police could return to knock down their homes. Young sent her three youngest children to stay with relatives out of town.
She said many families had been at the school house, teaching their children how to pound and wash corn and tap maple trees for their sap, the night before it was wrecked to the ground.
“We all woke up on Saturday to find it all demolished. It’s heartbreaking,” said Young, part of the group that opposes gambling and favors the preservation of Cayuga history and traditions, including a leadership structure of clan mothers and chiefs, rather than a single leader.
Young said her brother was working security when the Cayuga Nation police pulled him from his car at 2 a.m. Saturday, bound his hands with zip ties and detained him while the bulldozers moved in and destroyed the businesses that support Halftown detractors, which also include a cannery, ice cream and miniature golf business, and several cottages.
Seven people were detained in the process. All but one, who allegedly was found to possess drugs, were released.
In Seneca Falls, best known as the birth place of the women’s rights movement, the divide between the Cayugas widened in the early 2000s amid disagreement over Halftown’s push to build a resort casino in the Catskill Mountains.
After his opponents took control of several properties six years ago, the Cayuga Indian Nation sought to recover them through a state court lawsuit, but the state’s highest court ruled New York could not get involved in a sovereign nation’s leadership dispute.
A decision by the U.S. Interior Department in November recognized Halftown as the federal representative of the tribe and his council as “the nation’s government for all purposes.”
The rulings have tied the hands of local police.
“To look back and say, ‘How can they do that?’ — It’s just not that simple for us,” Seneca Falls Police Chief Stuart Peenstra said. “Normally we would not allow that. But in these instances … we have to allow that, and it doesn’t settle well with us either but we have to stick by the letter of the law.”
Sen. Charles Schumer has demanded an investigation by the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior, which governs tribal issues, saying the nation surely must have broken some law.
“What happened was awful. It cannot go unpunished,” the New York Democrat told reporters.
The Seneca County Board of Supervisors, in the meantime, has passed resolutions seeking an investigation by the U.S. Attorney in Buffalo, the deployment of U.S. Marshals and the freezing of federal funds to the Cayuga Indian Nation until the issues have been resolved.
The board does not want to pick sides, board Chairman Bob Haysssen said, but described Halftown’s actions as “vicious.”
Some families, though, have been divided by the dispute, Young said.
“There are some families who believe in the traditional way and their brothers and sisters or maybe their aunts and uncles, they don’t. They follow Clint Halftown and it’s caused a divide between them,” she said.
The Cayuga Indian Nation is the latest New York tribe to be upset by factionalism.
In central New York, Ray Halbritter has remained leader of the Oneida Indian Nation for decades despite sometimes bitter opposition from a group of traditionalists who have in the past likened him to a dictator.
A gambling dispute among Mohawk Indians in 1990 flared into violence and claimed two lives, continuing a long-simmering feud over how to preserve their traditional way of life.