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Decade old leadership dispute in Cayuga Nation flares up

Ryan Delaney
Sam George, a sachem chief of the Cayuga Nation and member of the Unity Council.

A decade-old dispute between traditional leadership in the Cayuga Indian Nation and its representative to the U.S. government has boiled over.

The two factions are now battling over control of the nation's business interests in the Finger Lakes. 

After the death of a Cayuga chief in 2003, Clint Halftown became the nation's federal representative. When new chiefs, including Sam George, were installed by clan mothers a year later, they say they removed Halftown from that role.

"We don’t work with paper," George said last week. "I have to keep repeating that over and over again. Because that’s what the government does; their government."

Calling themselves the Unity Council, they say Halftown has refused to step down. Halftown sites a Bureau of Indian Affairs appeal decision about the dispute, issued in January, that says a BIA regional director overstepped his authority in recognizing the Unity Council's choice for a representative.

The Unity Council reads that decision a different way.

"Mr. Halftown clings to power because of this rather quirky federal administrative procedure," said Joe Heath, the council's attorney.

The council and its supporters allege Halftown is not acting in the best interest of nation members. They also don't support the operation of a gambling hall.

"The reason we’re here and the reason we have to do this, is because the citizens are being abused by his decisions that he’s making," George said.

Last week, the council's anger flared up and they decided to take action. Before dawn Monday, they entered the nation's two gas stations, shut them down, and occupied an office. 

After an altercation at the gas station in Union Springs, in Cayuga County, police stepped in. They brokered a deal to have that station, and the one in the Seneca County town of Seneca Falls, to remain closed until the two sides sat down.

That deal did not last long. On Wednesday morning, Halftown reopened the Cayuga County Lakeside Trading gas station. So on Thursday, the Unity Council opened the fueling station in Seneca County.

Credit Ryan Delaney
A Seneca Falls police officer stands guard outside a Cayuga Nation office building Thursday.

That same day, the Unity Council tried to take control of a second nation office building, but were stymied by two Halftown supporters that refused to leave the building.

"That’s why we’re here, because it’s all outside of what should be done," said Dan Hill, a supporter of the Unity Council, while he and others waited outside of the building.

Halftown did not respond to several requests for an interview. His associate, Tim Twoguns, refused to comment Thursday.

Halftown did write a letter to several local newspapers last week. He wrote, in part:

a small group of dissidents bent on undermining the Cayuga Nation's leadership took the law into their own hands and broke into several of the nation's properties. We condemn these reckless acts committed by a small group within our community. By engaging in illegal activities, they prompted a significant law enforcement response, needlessly putting the police and the public in harm's way. We believe law enforcement should prosecute the perpetrators to the full extent of the law.

He called the notion that he has been removed from power a lie. "The Cayuga Nation leadership continues to work each and every day to create a better economic future for our members and to help spur growth for the entire region," Halftown wrote.

The business interests of the Cayuga - the two gas stations and a gambling hall - are a blip compared to those of other Haudenosaunee nations in upstate New York, like the Seneca and Oneida, which operate full casinos. But the shops do generate revenue.

Efforts by leadership to get the head of both sides to sit down together have not fully materialized. The matter appears to be heading to court to sort out who can operate the gas stations and gambling hall, the Auburn Citizen reports.