New York Tribe’s Casino Ambitions Bulldozed by DOI After Violent In-Fighting

Posted on: August 10, 2020, 04:52h. 

Last updated on: August 11, 2020, 10:10h.

The US Interior Department has denied the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York’s trust application, citing an internal leadership dispute that turned nasty in February.

Cayuga nation
There were violent scenes in February as two rival Cayuga factions clashed when a years-long leadership dispute boiled over. (Image: Kevin Rivoli/The Citizen)

The decision — 15 years after the tribe first applied to the DOI to have land taken into trust — nixes the tribal council’s long-held ambitions to elevate its humble bingo operations in Union Springs into a full-fledged casino resort.

Land into trust describes the process by which the federal government takes land by voluntary transfer and converts it into sovereign tribal territory. That removes it from the jurisdiction of the state. This is a prerequisite for the establishment of a tribal casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988).

But the DOI said no dice. In a letter addressed to tribal leader Clint Halftown dated July 3 but received late last week, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said that destruction of property instigated by Halftown in February was a major reason for the rejection.

Guns Drawn

On February 22, under Halftown’s orders, members of the Cayuga Nation police department bulldozed several buildings — including a working daycare center, a schoolhouse, and a store — controlled by a rival faction, “the Unity Council,” which does not recognize Halftown’s leadership.

Witnesses said the police pointed handguns at the heads of the buildings’ security officers, who were told they would be shot if they did not stand down.

A week later, the two factions clashed violently, and pepper spray was used to disperse the crowd.

The Unity Council claims its members were chosen by the clan mothers in 2003 to lead the tribe after the death of a previous chief. This was the year Halftown became the tribe’s federal representative, which is a position the Unity Council does not recognize. Their goal is to maintain tribal traditions, and they oppose Halftown’s casino ambitions.

Irrational Actions

“The destruction of property — including a daycare and a schoolhouse — and significant acts of public violence are serious matters, and they weaken the trust that the Nation’s government can operate at this time in a harmonious manner with the other governments and law enforcement officers that share the same geography as the Nation’s reservation,” wrote Sweeney.

“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 added.

In an official statement, Halftown reacted furiously to the decision, calling it “arbitrary and irrational,” and slammed the DOI for lacking the “courage to overcome local political pressure, much of it racially motivated.”

“The Department abdicated its legal responsibility to the Nation for 15 years and continues to do so,” he said.