409-day drought ended: journey to first day of grand jury on Cayuga Nation Police highlights local government hesitancy, federal nonintervention

The first day of a Seneca County grand jury relating to the Cayuga Nation Police Department has officially ended, but it took 409-days for any sort of government to formally address the violent conflict in a court of law — or any public forum for that matter.

Ironically, however, that first forum was a grand jury that started on Tuesday, April 13.

Grand juries are intentionally kept secret from the public eye in an effort to protect the reputations of individuals who might be named and potentially later indicted for criminal charges, the legal process is striving toward a semblance of justice for the first-time — just 409-days after the bloodshed subsided.

Seneca County has stepped-up while actively trying to tackle the complex issues relating to tribal sovereignty that continue to persist within the county, the federal government’s silence and absence have become more apparent each passing day.

But that wasn’t always the case. Around that time last year in late-February, elected officials were rallying for federal intervention.

Over a year ago, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer openly called for a federal investigation in the immediate aftermath of an overnight demolition that occurred on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

Seneca County government, local officials have been forced to address a decades-long internal tribal leadership dispute in the glaring absence of federal involvement from elected officials like Senator Chuck Schumer [NY-D] or the U.S. Department of Interior. Courtesy: Gabriel Pietrorazio.
Schumer even admitted during a press conference in Rochester that “we’re in touch” with two federal agencies: the Department of Justice “because they have jurisdiction over federal laws” and Department of Interior “because they have jurisdiction over the tribes.”

“If there were [violations], appropriate action should follow,” Schumer said. “We need the same from New York State, what happened was awful; cannot go unpunished.”

Yet there haven’t been any publicly-announced investigations by either of those federal offices. 

After FingerLakes1.com sent repeated media requests to Schumer’s office, no updates have been given following the current Senate Majority Leader’s active calls for investigations to ensue following the infamous events that occurred during back-to-back weekends starting on a fateful day in Seneca Falls.

Seven days later, a violent brawl broke-out after a press conference that following Saturday because of the Nation’s demolition that had been carried-out by the Cayuga Nation Police Department and led to the purported arrests of Haudenosaunee peoples by their police force.

The act was ordered at the direction of the Halftown Council led by Clint Halftown, the Nation’s federal representative, as recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tensions were stoked. Violence spurred-out. Cameron Simpson, an Onondaga Nation member, taped the 15-minute affair on Facebook Live that went viral across social media throughout Indian Country.

Simpson claimed that the Cayuga Nation Police were “ready for it to get violent and wanted the violence.”

Batons and nightsticks “came-out almost immediately,” and the ruined properties along State Route 89 “turned into an instant battlefield” with “people bleeding left and right,” he later recalled.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also followed Schumer’s lead by pleading for federal oversight and intervention during last February as well.

A Schumer aide even ventured to meet with Cayuga Nation traditionalists on lands owned by the neighboring Onondaga Nation shortly after the violent spectacle — because all of their buildings, including a longhouse were demolished and later bulldozed.

However, that spotlight swiftly faded away in the eyes of Charles Bowman, one of whom had been subpoenaed for the ongoing grand jury by Mark Sinkiewicz, Seneca County’s district attorney.

Bowman, a non-Indigenous county resident, was beaten by the Cayuga Nation Police Department and vowed to seek justice in a court of law.

Now, he’ll eventually have his day in court in Seneca County as the grand jury continues for the next month.

Before being summoned by the grand jury, Bowman believed that Gillibrand and Schumer just wanted to “get on their soapboxes and do a bit of grandstanding.”

Now that the spotlight moved on so did they,” Bowman told FingerLakes1.com. “I don’t know what it will take for the federal government to get involved.

Bruised and battered, the Fayette resident was brutalized by unnamed and unknown Nation police officers — their identities were concealed, but his injuries weren’t.

Nasal bone and septal fractures; facial abrasions; contusions on his face, ribs, back; pain and irritation resulting from pepper spray were some of his sustained injuries after encountering the police — even after working the Cayuga Nation, his former employer.

An ambulance ride to the Geneva General Hospital resulted in him undergoing a CT scan to check for brain-related trauma after suffering from a possible concussion.

He also recently filed a civil suit in Seneca County against Mark Lincoln, the Nation’s police chief, as well as Pathfinder Solutions, an Indiana-based private security company — alleging that an officer sexually assaulted him when he “grabbed his crotch and penis repeatedly for no legitimate reason” while being detained.

Negligence, assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium, were the six claims of harms as a part of his civil suit, which is being represented by Schlather, Stumbar, Parks & Salk, LLP, an Ithaca-based law firm.

The Cayuga Nation Police Department were ordered to demolish the Nation-owned properties on February 22, 2020. Courtesy: Gabriel Pietrorazio.

Although Schumer openly consulted federal agencies, pleading for their joint involvement, this entire ordeal has been the burden of local government in the glaring absence of any directive at the federal level.

In the past, local county officials continued echoing calls upon federal officials to intervene and offer a possible resolution forward — but none have been delivered yet.

Typically, these conflicts are supposed to be resolved on a Nation-to-Nation level in accordance with the endowed treaty rights of U.S. federally-recognized Nations. This one, however, seemingly does not.

Case in point, the Cayuga Nation’s longstanding and even violent struggle is predicated on federal nonintervention.

Condoled chiefs and clan mothers among the traditional Cayuga Nation have expressed high hopes after Secretary Interior Deb Haaland’s successful nomination at the federal level to become the first Indigenous Cabinet member to result in some sort of conflict resolution, but hasn’t seen any engagement from her office either.

Even when FingerLakes1.com asked the U.S. Department of Interior’s office about whether the newly-appointed Haaland is actively “watching” or intends on “responding” to the ongoing Cayuga Nation conflict on behalf of her administration — “no comments” were offered.

Tyler Cherry, the Interior’s press secretary, said that their federal agency also has “no comments on those” inquiries — not even an official statement whatsoever.

In the absence of the Interior’s direct attention on this particular issue, their words from previous statements and statements still stand.

On Nov. 14, 2019, former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney penned a letter, reaffirming that the Halftown Council and its clan leaders, as acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs — “for all purposes, complied with Nation law and was binding on the Department of Interior.”

Demonstrators believed that the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs actively “supports terrorism” during a weekend full of protests along State Route 89 last February. Courtesy: Gabriel Pietrorazio.

That’s when the BIA reinforced Clint Halftown as the federal representative of their “last undisputed tribal government” following a 2016 court decision.

“The Halftown Council remains the tribal leadership as a matter of Federal law,” Sweeney wrote. “The Department continues to recognize and follow that non-qualified acknowledgment of the Halftown Council as the Nation’s governing body.”

Less than a year later, however, Sweeney wrote once again about the Cayuga Nation — 262-days to be exact.

The only known actions from any federal agencies or officials regarding the Cayuga Nation came from the BIA during last August when Sweeney denied the Nations land-into-trust application on August 2, 2020, claiming that approving the land-into-trust could continue “further complicating and exacerbating an already inflammatory situation.”

“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,” 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.”

Although local and state law enforcement established a command post “seeking to control the likely confrontation, it appears that they at first lacked sufficient personnel to deescalate the conflict,” Sweeney also mentioned.

“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,” she elaborated.

That non-Indigenous person was Charles Bowman.

Sweeney even argued that the Cayuga Nation’s “apparent unwillingness to use restraint” incited her decision to not grant the land-into-trust application at that 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,” Sweeney noted.

Yet, Sweeney also added that she expects that the Nation would be “able to continue its current activities regardless of this disapproval decision.”

And the infamous pair of events from last February, “add weight to the concerns already expressed by local government,” according to Sweeney.

In her decision, she even mentioned that Seneca County pressed upon federal support, intervention after the county Board of Supervisors drafted correspondences to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Interior — even requesting for the “freezing of federal housing funds.”

More than a year later, however, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand jointly announced in late-March that the Cayuga Nation received $186,000 for 2021 through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Indian Housing Block Grants Program.

Although Nation-owned fee lands in Seneca and Cayuga counties weren’t transferred into trust for the reservation, FingerLakes1.com recently revealed through an investigation that no funding has been ever allocated to their tribal law enforcement or court system while still under the federal government’s guard.

Since Sweeney’s departure from the Interior, however, the federal agency hasn’t officially taken any stance yet on the long-standing Cayuga Nation conflict that continues brewing in Seneca County — just a few months after a shift of power in Washington transpired while President Joe Biden’s administrative team transitions in taking over the U.S. Department of Interior under Haaland’s new watch.