Federal government rules against Cayuga Nation’s land-into-trust application in Cayuga, Seneca counties

In 1613, the Dutch encountered the Haudenosaunee and later forged the Two Wampum Row Treaty together. Also known as Gusweñta, an agreement had been reached between two sovereign peoples and predicated on three principles: friendship, peace, and forever.

This treaty, one of the oldest existing relationships in North America defined how two communities would treat each other and live together in harmony. Hundreds of years later, the Cayuga Nation are still considered the neighbors of several communities across Seneca and Cayuga counties, but now that historically rooted relationship has been contested, as shown in a recent letter from the U.S. Department of Interior.

Lee Alcott, a partner at Barclay Damon, who also serves as the legal counsel for the Cayuga Nation, announced earlier this evening on Friday, August 7, that their 15-year land-into-trust application, which was submitted back in 2005 has now been officially denied.

An overnight demolition that occurred in February 2020, which leveled 12 Cayuga Nation-owned buildings led to an already straining relationship between the Nation’s leadership and the town of Seneca Falls. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com

In a letter dated from a week ago on Friday, July 31, the U.S. Department of Interior addressed Clint Halftown, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ federally-recognized Cayuga Nation representative, with a response for their plan to transfer 114-acres of fee land into trust after 15-years of patiently waiting for a determination on the status of those collective properties.

In a nine-page statement, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney at the Department of Interior outlined the decision behind her denial of the Cayuga Nation’s longstanding land-into-trust application. The events from February’s destruction of properties were partly predicated in their decision with Sweeney citing it as a “dispositive rationale for my decision to disapprove.”


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“The destruction of property – including a daycare and 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. 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,” Sweeny wrote.

The Sugar Shack, one of 12 Nation-owned buildings were destroyed during an overnight demolition that had been carried out by the Cayuga Nation Police Department on Saturday, February 22. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com

Throughout her decision, the U.S. Department of Interior cited three news sources including: the Associated Press and LocalSyracuse.com once each — as well as FingerLakes1.com on five separate occasions.

“Several days later, Tribal members engaged in a violent altercation with Tribal police at the site of the demolished buildings. Tribal members who had planned a press conference for the morning of February 29 were met at the site by Tribal police who had taped off the area. When these Tribal members sought to cross the tape, ‘the situation turned violent’ when they were ‘confronted by the Cayuga Nation with pepper spray and nightsticks in-hand.’ News accounts reported that while the Town of Seneca Falls Police Department, New York State Police, Seneca County Sheriff’s Office, Seneca Falls Fire Department, and Seneca County Office of Emergency Management had together established a command post seeking to control the likely confrontation, it appears that they at first lacked sufficient personnel to deescalate the conflict and may have refrained or arrested multiple persons, including a non-Indian, with at least one individual sent to the hospital after suffering a possible concussion,” Sweeney cited FingerLakes1.com’s reporting.


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As a result, Sweeney revealed that the Nation’s “apparent unwillingness to use restraint” incited her decision to not grant the land-into-trust application at this time.

“Considering the absence of Tribal laws protecting its members from arbitrary exercise of government authority, and the apparent unwillingness to use restraint, I am unwilling to bar the application of local laws governing such conduct by taking the land into federal ownership at this time,” she later continued.

Another section of her statement titled “State and Local Opposition” addressed the aired concerns throughout Seneca County, including Seneca Falls.


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“The events of February 2020 add weight to the concerns already expressed by local government. After the February events, Seneca County called for federal intervention and the freezing of federal housing funds,” Sweeney mentioned.

She also called attention to the recently resolved legal dispute back from March between the Village of Union Springs and Cayuga Nation.


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“Separately, the Village of Union Springs submitted a letter to the Honorable David Hurd, the United States District Court Judge overseeing litigation between the Village and the Nation regarding its gambling operation on the Property. In its letter, the Village urged the District Court to act quickly to resolve the jurisdictional dispute, citing ‘the recent string of violence in Seneca Falls between warring factions of the Cayuga Nation and fear that violence will spread to the Village of Union Springs,’” she added.

A sign labelled the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ federally-recognized representative of the Cayuga Nation as “Clint-Half-Town-Destroyer” during a press conference in Seneca Falls on Saturday, February 29. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com

However, her decision had been informed even before the events that ensued during February of this year.

“Even before February 2020, the united opposition of all the surrounding jurisdictions to the Property, and the generally poor relations between the Nation and its neighbors, were factors that cut against approval based on jurisdiction and land use conflicts,” she further elaborated.

But even with her disapproval of the land-into-trust application, Sweeney suggests in her opinion that the Cayuga Nation’s plans are not squandered in her comments under Section C. “Applicant’s Proposed Land Use and Purpose.”

“I expect, therefore, that the Nation will be able to continue its current activities regardless of this disapproval decision,” she noted.

In her closing remarks as a part of the decision’s conclusion, Sweeney revealed: “the unpermitted property destruction and serious incidents of violence here weigh in favor of caution and maintaining the status quo. The additional regulatory and jurisdictional changes to this set of circumstances that would result from the taking the Property into trust at this time could be inflammatory and could subject the United States to unpredictable burdens.”

“The Nation’s application for fee-to-trust acquisition of the Property is hereby disapproved,” she later concluded.

Sachem Chief Samuel George of the Bear Clan ecstatically responded when FingerLakes1.com contacted him about the major development, insisting that the traditional Cayuga leadership has repeatedly relayed to the U.S. Department of Interior that their land-into-trust application was deemed illegitimate. But now, the traditionalists finally feel that their voices have been heard at the federal level in the aftermath such a vivid display of violence and destruction from this winter in Seneca Falls.

“It’s been something that we’ve been telling them not to do this,” George exclusively told FingerLakes1.com.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies stood along State Route 89 across from the destruction of 12 Cayuga Nation-owned buildings on Sunday, February 23. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com

As for the Village of Union Springs Mayor Bud Shattuck, he also agrees with George and remains grateful about federal government’s outcome regarding their decision — even though their own litigation certainly hasn’t ended yet.

“We’re pleased that they’ve resolved a resolution, but I’m guessing that it’ll cause more litigation,” Shattuck informed FingerLakes1.com.

Charles Bowman, who was cited in Sweeney’s decision after suffering from a concussion, broken nose and bruised ribs, now rejoices as well, only after speaking with FingerLakes1.com this evening. Bowman also revealed that his civil suit is set to be served by his private attorney to the respective parties of interest this upcoming Monday.

Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com

In contrast, however, Alcott considered the Interior’s decision “an act representing the worst kind of government arbitrariness and ineptitude.”

“For more than fifteen years, the Department delayed acting on the Nation’s trust application. During that time, the Nation repeatedly faced baseless claims that it could not 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 wrote in a statement in response to the federal government’s decision.

Alcott remains frustrated with how the Nation has been perceived and portrayed throughout the entire conflict, claiming that “a slew of misstatements about those events, which the Nation refuted again and again” continue to plague public opinion surrounding the long-standing leadership dispute, demolition take over and violent brawl.

“Apparently forgetting that its own law enforcement representatives visited the Nation representatives after it reclaimed its stolen property and came away impressed with the Nation’s leadership and the conduct of its law enforcement personnel, the Department recycles a slew of misstatements about those events, which the Nation has refuted again and again. And, to make matters worse, Nation took the steps it did because every other government—the federal government, state and local governments, and New York courts—refused to heed the Nation’s repeated requests for assistance against blatantly illegal activity, and instead told the Nation to resolve those issues itself. To now punish the Nation for exercising its sovereign authority is an egregious abuse, particularly coming from the federal government, which stands in a trust relationship with Indian nations,” Alcott defended.


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On March 13, Alcott sent a press release which the caption “BREATHLESS REPORTING ONCE AGAIN!” in response to reporting that occurred the day prior from events on March 12th at the Seneca Falls Community Center.

We remain committed to telling the truth, as we have from the start – when a dozen structures on five parcels along State Route 89 were demolished in the middle of the night. If what our newsroom reported was incorrect, or false – Mr. Alcott, an experienced attorney – could have used those words. Instead, he chose a phrase that indirectly implied bias or hyperbole in an effort to undermine our credibility and take control of the narrative. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth. There are not multiple sets of facts. There is no place for manipulation in reporting those facts or truth. Our entire team will continue working hard to report both facts and truth as it pertains to actions of all members of the Cayuga Nation,” FingerLakes1.com News Director Josh Durso published in response to Alcott’s unfounded accusations.

Still, Alcott remains disappointed with the Department of Interior’s ruling, arguing that the decision “simply lacks the courage to overcome local political pressure, much of it racially motivated.”

“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. The Department has abdicated its legal responsibility to the Nation for fifteen years and continues to do so. The Cayuga Nation, however, will not abdicate its own responsibilities. Nor will it let this decision stand. The Department will be held accountable for its failures,” he concluded.

The Lakeside Trading store at the intersection of State Route 89 and Garden Street Extension was forced to close after Halftown order Cayuga Nation Police officers demolished the smoke shop, convenience store. Credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio, FingerLakes1.com

Even just a short few weeks ago, Halftown himself even suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Oklahoma decision affirmed the rights of the Cayuga Nation to transition their fee land into trust with the supervising guidance of the federal government.


RELATED READ: Halftown: Decision confirms what Cayuga Nation has been saying for all these years


However, even that historic decision did not warrant the result that Halftown only hoped for following the Department of Interior’s latest ruling on his dealings with the Cayuga Nation.