Syracuse, NY; Aug. 22, 2004 – In the decade-long conflict within the Oneida Nation, some tribal members have renewed action against the self-appointed tribal leader recognized by the governments of New York and the United States but considered illegitimate by dissidents on the reservation.
Members of the traditional Oneida community submitted new evidence on August 13, 2004 to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, disputing the legitimacy of Representative Ray Halbritter at the time that he negotiated a gaming compact with New York State in 1993. Included in the 157-page brief is a letter from the late Leon Shenandoah, Tadodaho, or Chief of the Six-Nation Haudenosaunee/Iroquois Confederacy, informing then-Governor Mario Cuomo that Halbritter had been relieved of his position and all transactions with him should cease.
Shenandoah's request was apparently ignored and negotiations between Halbritter and the state continued, leading to the gaming compact that would eventually establish the Verona, New York-based Turning Stone Casino and Resort.
One of the Oneida traditionals, Vicky Schenandoah, says that those who spoke out about this issue were quickly punished. "Oneida members set up a meeting with Syracuse journalists to discuss their concerns," she said. "Several people were disenrolled and lost their membership simply for attending that press conference."
Schenandoah's sister Diane says Halbritter's harassment of the families who were speaking out continued and intensified. Oneidas who participated in a "Walk for Democracy," in opposition to Halbritter's autocratic leadership, were stripped of their benefits including health insurance, stipends, tribal jobs, and access to tribal events and buildings.
Halbritter established a new governing body called the “Menâ€™s Council” -- something drastically foreign to the historically matrilineal tribe.
Members say the only way to be reinstated was to sign a contract promising not to speak to the press or criticize Halbritter's leadership. Meanwhile, Halbritter established a new governing body called the "Men's Council" -- something drastically foreign to the historically matrilineal tribe.
The most intimidating harassment began in 2000 when Halbritter and the Men's Council established new housing codes and mandatory inspections, targeting many of the dissenting Oneidas living in trailers on the 32-acre reservation. During the first year of inspections, eleven homes were condemned and demolished.
In November 2001, one of the remaining Oneidas, Danielle Schenandoah Patterson, a single mother of three, tried to refuse entry to the armed inspectors who came to her trailer. Tribal police arrested her, reportedly for second-degree criminal contempt and resisting arrest. In October 2002, Halbritter's agents flew Schenandoah Patterson in a casino-owned jet to a Cambria, Pennsylvania prison for failing to show up for tribal court. Five days later she was back in Central New York, free on a plea bargain, in time to watch as bulldozers demolished her trailer.
Oneida traditionals say other evidence, in addition to the letter to Governor Cuomo, proves that Halbritter is not the legitimate Onedia leader. On August 10, 1993, Halbritter had been officially removed from power by Ada Deer, then Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. However, Deer reversed her own decision the next day, due to what traditional members believe was political pressure from Governor Cuomo, Senator Daniel Moynihan, and Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, who some Oneidas call an outspoken advocate for casinos.
Diane Schenandoah also points to the 1993 gaming compact which, along with a similar agreement with the Northern New York St. Regis Mohawks, was ruled illegal this past June by a state Supreme Court Justice because it was never ratified by the state legislature.
However, now that Turning Stone is established, employing thousands of people and profiting more than $70 million a year, it is highly unlikely the courts would close it down. The legislature also has the authority to retroactively ratify the agreement, as it already has with the Mohawk compact.
Mark Emery, spokesman for Ray Halbritter, called the new brief "garbage and the same old stuff." Responding to the letter to Cuomo submitted in the documents, Emery said spiritual leader Leon Schenandoah had no authority to remove an Onedia representative. "These are primarily cousins of Ray's," said Emery. "It's more of a family squabble than anything else. They're unhappy, they're greedy, they're not happy with the leadership, and they see it as a power struggle so they are using misinformation and lies to try to take it back."
Ray Halbritter, who is CEO of several related corporations, is one of the richest men in New York State. Many of the Oneidas, who have stood outside HalbritterÃ•s circle and maintained consistent dissent, live in conditions of poverty as a result.
On May 2, 2004, a US Court of Appeals ruled that the home demolitions on the 32-acre reservation had to stop while a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by tribal members is under review for consideration by the US Supreme Court. The new documents, including the letter to Cuomo, were filed as a separate issue disputing the legality of the gaming compact and the legitimacy of Halbritter's leadership. It could take months for the BIA to respond.
Meanwhile, the traditional Oneidas say they are trying to hold their community together. "It's a sad situation," said Diane Schenandoah. "We just want to live in peace in our community and plant our gardens."