SENECA FALLS — The Cayuga Indian Nation finally received a decision on its application to put 114 acres of its Cayuga County ;and into federal, tax-exempt trust.
After 15 years, the answer from the U. S. Department of the Interior is no.
That has angered some Cayuga officials, while local government leaders and a rival tribal faction who have long opposed the trust application are relieved.
The Nation originally sought to put 129 acres into trust, 114 of which are in the Union Springs area and 15 are in Seneca Falls. They recently withdrew the Seneca Falls land from the application, a fact not known to many.
The news came in a July 31 letter from Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to CIN leader Clint Halftown.
“I hereby disapprove the Nation’s application in my discretion as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs after considering the Nation’s demolition of property controlled by tribal members and the subsequent violence that occurred in February of this year, and based on concerns regarding the land use and jurisdictional conflicts,” Sweeney wrote.
She also cited questions as to whether the BIA is equipped to discharge the additional responsibilities that could result from their acquisition and other considerations.
“The Department performed a comprehensive analysis of the Nation’s application, including the issuance of an Environmental Impact Statement in 2009 and a technical memorandum updating of the EIS in 2018,” Sweeney said. “However, my decision to deny the Nation’s application follows from my consideration of the serious problems in relation to the land use and jurisdictional problems criteria for review and in relation to recent events.”
She described those recent events as the state of New York and local governments in the two counties “having consistently and uniformly expressed opposition, often based on concerns over land use and jurisdictional conflict.” The governing faction of the Cayugas want to establish a gaming operation on part of the 114 acres in Union Springs.
Factors cited by Sweeney in her decision include:
• Five pages of opposing arguments against the trust application from the Union Springs Village Board in 2018 and concerns of Seneca County, revolving around conflicts over attempted enforcement of different regulatory schemes on properties located in close proximity to Nation properties, should they be taken into trust.
• The CIN’s failure to pay $4 million in property taxes on 1,110 acres it owns in Seneca County not included in the trust application.
• Seneca County concerns about policing with the establishment of a tribal police force.
• A longstanding legal dispute with the village of Union Springs over jurisdictional and land use conflicts related to tribal property, a six-year legal battle primarily over tribal gaming in the village.
• The 2 a.m. Feb. 22 use of bulldozers authorized by Halftown to partially demolish a CIN convenience store, gas station, day care center, school house and businesses in Seneca Falls controlled by the rival faction.
• A violent altercation several days later when the faction that operated the demolished buildings tried to conduct a press conference and was confronted by tribal police with nightsticks and pepper spray, with some detained and at least one person injured.
“The destruction of property, including a day care and school house, and significant acts of public violence, are serious matters and they weaken trust that the Nation’s government can operate at this time in a harmonious manner with other governments and law enforcement officers that share the same geography as the Nation’s reservation,” Sweeney wrote.
“Taking the property into trust at this time could heighten the current tension between the Nation and its neighbors, further complicating and exacerbating an already inflammatory situation,” she said, adding that as owner of the land, the federal government would bear special responsibilities for it and as a fiduciary authority.
“In the current uncertain and dangerous climate, I am unwilling to create such federal responsibilities,” Sweeney wrote.
Halftown and Cayuga Nation Council attorney Lee Alcott issued a statement decrying the decision, calling it “an act representing the worse kind of government arbitrariness and ineptitude.”
“For more than 15 years, the Department delayed acting on the Nation’s trust application. During that time, the Nation repeatedly faced baseless claims that it could exercise its inherent sovereign powers because it did not have land in trust. Yet the Department now says that it has denied the Nation’s application because of those controversies,” Alcott said.
They said that the rival faction is a “small criminal faction” that seized the properties illegally and should not be a factor in the trust application decision. They claimed Nation leadership asked for help from outside law enforcement agencies and were told to resolve the matter themselves and are now being punished for doing just that.
“Even as it denied the application, the Department proved that it speaks with a forked tongue by acknowledging that the Nation has successfully stabilized its business operations and sovereign status through a long record of litigation success against challenges by various municipalities,” said Halftown, the tribe’s federally-recognized representative.
He said the ruling makes it clear the BIA doesn’t want to do its job if the land is put into trust, even while touting the Nation’s prosperous status.
“The reason for the Department’s arbitrary and irrational decision is not hard to see. It simply lacks the courage to overcome local political pressure, much of it racially motivated,” Halftown said.
“The Department abdicated its legal responsibility to the Nation for 15 years and continues to do so,” he said. Halftown said the Nation will not abdicate its responsibilities and predicted the decision will not stand.
“The Department will be held accountable for its failures,” Alcott said.
Bob Hayssen, R-Varick, chairman of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors, has a different stance.
“Seneca County has been confident that the outcome would be just what happened,” he said, citing a meeting several years ago with the former director of the BIA, Kevin Washburn, arranged by Sen. Chuck Schumer. Hayssen said approval of the CIN application was not given much support by Washburn.
“Seneca County leaders have been saying for many years that a civil war has been taking place inside of the Cayuga Nation. There are too many splintered factions, clan mothers not listened to, the taking over of businesses and houses, an illegal police force, illegal casino gaming and the list goes on,” Hayssen said.
“Finally, the federal government has woken up to these injustices carried out by Clint Halftown and his band of attorneys. Clint Halftown is not the leader. Just ask the clan mothers,” he concluded.
Brian Laudadio, attorney for Seneca County in Indian matters, said even though the Seneca Falls land was withdrawn, he is pleased the BIA considered the county’s concerns in making its decision.
Justin Bennett, a Cayuga member and opponent of Halftown, said the decision to deny was proper.
“The Cayuga Nation has struggled over the past 15 years. The chief problem being the establishment of a bonafide leadership,” he said. “It becomes difficult to underwrite and give credit approval to a native nation to govern land when the leadership is in constant dispute and the behavior of the de facto federal representative is consistently undiplomatic.”
He cited many of the reasons listed by Sweeney in supporting her decision.
“It is clear that the past 15 years have not demonstrated that the Cayuga Nation would be a good neighbor,” he said, expressing hope that one day the Nation and community can lie peacefully together.