SENECA FALLS — The feuding factions of the Cayuga Nation have differing interpretations of a state Court of Appeals ruling related to a dispute over tribal properties.
In a decision issued Tuesday, the state’s highest court, a seven-judge panel, ruled that:
• The Cayuga Nation maintains its right to sovereignty over its internal affairs.
• The Nation adheres to unwritten oral law and tradition, guided by the Great Law of Peace.
• The Great Law of Peace governs the process by which the Nation’s clan mothers select, approve and retain the power to remove the condoled chiefs and who comprises the Cayuga Nation Council that governs the Nation in consensus decision-making.
• Federal law and decisions about the right of self-government are recognized.
• The lower court did not have subject matter jurisdiction two years ago when the injunction was issued to turn five properties over to the Halftown group, dismissing the case.
Six of the seven judges heard that case. One recused himself because of a conflict. Four voted as a majority, while two judges dissented.
After learning of the decision, Cayuga Nation Council head Clint Halftown issued a statement saying the Nation “welcomes today’s decision of the New York Court of Appeals.” Halftown is the Nation’s federally recognized representative for receipt of federal grants.
“The court underscored that the Nation’s fundamental and exclusive right to sovereignty over its internal customs, traditions and processes for selecting its government is paramount,” Halftown said. “Quoting the United States Supreme Court, the court emphasized that Indian nations have exclusive power to make their own substantive law in internal matters and to enforce that law in their own forums.”
Halftown’s faction currently controls business operations in Union Springs, Cayuga County. The rival Unity Council operates tribal businesses in Seneca Falls, Seneca County.
“When the Cayuga Nation brought this action, it did not have a tribal court or a law enforcement authority to enforce the Nation’s criminal laws,” Halftown said. “It now does, and the Nation will be turning to its own law enforcement and court system to bring offenders of tribal law on tribal property to justice.”
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a letter dated June 17, 2019, that was sent to Seneca Falls Police Chief Stu Peenstra, said the Nation may enforce its own criminal law against Indians within the boundaries of its reservation. Halftown said the letter reiterated the Nation has the inherent sovereignty to enforce its own law inside the reservation boundaries through a law enforcement program.
Halftown has hired 12 retired police officers to serve as a tribal police force. It has reportedly set up a court system, although details have not been made public. It is not known if the tribe has written laws to enforce on tribal members.
“With this decision from the Court of Appeals and the prior determinations from the BIA, our path is clear,” Halftown said, although he did not elaborate on that path.
Syracuse attorney Joseph Heath, who represents the Unity Council faction, chiefs and clan mothers, was puzzled by Halftown’s response to the ruling.
“Clint lost. I don’t see how he can claim this as a victory or authority to do anything,” Heath said. “The injunction has been overturned.”
After Unity Council members assumed control of the gas station, convenience store and other commercial properties in Seneca Falls in 2014, Halftown’s lawyers sought an injunction from then Acting State Supreme Court Judge Dennis Bender. Bender dismissed the request for an injunction to remove Unity Council members from the properties, citing the ongoing leadership dispute.
In 2017, after the BIA said Halftown was the federally recognized representative, the Council filed for another injunction. This time, Bender granted it. The Unity Council appealed; and the Fourth Judicial Department of state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division voted 3-2 to support the injunction. Heath said it was that decision he appealed to the Court of Appeals.
“It’s over. The state’s highest court reversed the injunction as not being in Judge Bender’s jurisdiction,” Heath said. “They granted our motion to dismiss the injunction. Four of the six judges agreed with us.”
He said he’s seen no information about the Nation adopting a criminal law code or a court system to deal with any one arrested by Nation police.
“It’s a strange reaction to a decision that he lost,” Heath said. “It raises a lot of questions as to where we go from here.”
Heath said lawyers for the Unity Council will fight eviction notices served by the Halftown group to about 50 Cayuga citizens living in Seneca Falls and Varick, including the Unity Council members operating the Seneca Falls businesses.
“We have moved to stay those evictions until the Court of Appeals decision. The town courts have agreed to a stay until that happens,” Heath explained. “The evictions will now be considered by the courts.”