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Home » Valentine's Day » Cayuga Nation writes letter to AG James, calls Seneca County actions racist

Cayuga Nation writes letter to AG James, calls Seneca County actions racist

The Cayuga Nation has responded after the Seneca County Board Of Supervisors requested a special prosecutor for the criminal case involving Charles Bowman, a Fayette resident, and investigation into the Cayuga Nation Police Department.

The letter to Attorney General Letitia James blasts Seneca County’s request for special prosecutor and investigation – going as far as calling county leaders racist.

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Bowman faces trespass and assault charges following an incident that unfolded at Cayuga Nation property in February 2020.

“The board’s letter is not only an unprecedented attempt to interfere with an ongoing criminal case being handled by the county’s own district attorney, but is another anti-Indian action by the board that smacks of racism,” Cayuga Nation said in part of the lengthy letter.

The county did not respond to the letter yet. Read it below.

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SEE THE LETTER: Cayuga Nation response to Seneca County’s request for a special prosecutor

Dear Attorney General James:

I am counsel for the Cayuga Nation. The Cayuga Nation, long recognized as a sovereign Indian nation by the federal government, was part of the Haudenosaunee confederacy of Indian nations in New York (along with the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, and Onondaga nations as other original members).

The Cayuga Nation is writing with regard to the extraordinary letter sent to you by Seneca County Attorney David Ettman, written pursuant to a formal resolution of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors, calling for a so-called “independent investigation” by your office of an ongoing criminal case brought pursuant to an indictment of the Seneca County Grand Jury and being handled by Seneca County District Attorney Mark Sinkiewicz, and the events underlying the indictment. (A copy of Attorney Ettman’s letter is enclosed as Exhibit A.) The Board’s letter is not only an unprecedented attempt to interfere with an ongoing criminal case being handled by the County’s own District Attorney, but is another anti-Indian action by the Seneca Board that smacks of racism. The Board again attempts to denigrate the Cayuga Nation, its present leadership as chosen by the Cayuga people and recognized by the Department of the Interior, and its police department, the legitimacy of which has been expressly confirmed by the federal government. The Board seeks to interfere with grand jury-initiated proceedings against a non-Indian Caucasian man named Charles Bowman, who has been indicted for criminal trespass upon a Cayuga Nation property and criminal assault upon a Cayuga Nation police officer.

This letter is part of a recent vendetta the Seneca County Board has directed against the Cayuga Nation, during which members of the Board have made openly racist remarks. There has been vocal opposition within the Board itself to this campaign, but resolutions have carried by majority vote. As part of this campaign, the Board recently complained to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland that “For more than forty years, the people of Seneca County have had to deal with the assertion of sovereign rights by the Cayuga Indian Nation.” (A copy of the Board’s letter to Secretary Haaland is enclosed as Exhibit B.) Of course, Indian nations—including the Cayuga Nation—have sovereign rights, but that is something the Seneca Board apparently cannot accept. The letter to Secretary Haaland bizarrely urged her to recognize different leadership the Board would prefer for the Cayuga Nation. It is difficult to imagine a more pernicious attack upon a tribal nation’s right to self-rule than the suggestion that local government can dictate its leadership.

Recent Seneca Board meetings have been riddled with hostility toward the Cayuga Nation and blatant anti-Indian sentiment. Board member Richard Ricci recently likened the Cayuga Nation leadership to what he described as the “marauders” and “thugs” of the Oneida Nation leadership. See June 2021 meeting, recorded at At that same meeting, Board chair Robert Hayssen protested, “How can the Cayuga Indian Nation continue to add land to something that they don’t have? They don’t have a reservation.” Yet every court to consider the issue—including the New York Court of Appeals—has expressly ruled that the Cayuga Reservation in Cayuga and Seneca Counties continues to exist. See Cayuga Indian Nation of N.Y. v. Gould, 14 N.Y.3d 614 (2010); Cayuga Indian Nation of N.Y. v. Seneca Cnty., 260 F. Supp. 3d 290 (W.D.N.Y. 2017).

Members of the Board have recognized the hostility and racism being directed toward the Cayuga Nation and its leaders. With regard to a proposal that the Board invite Cayuga Council Member and Federal Representative Clint Halftown to appear before the Board, Board member Kyle Barnhart stated to his fellow supervisors: “I have serious concerns about some of your behavior if we’re going to question Mr. Halftown in open session. I think there’s significant liability for this Board and the things some of you are liable to say.”

In Attorney Ettman’s letter to you, the Board asks for an investigation of “the status of the Cayuga Indian Nation Police,” calling it “a paramilitary force.” The “status of the Cayuga Indian Nation Police,” however, already has been reviewed and expressly addressed by the federal government. On June 17, 2019, Darryl LaCounte, Director of the BIA, sent a formal letter on behalf of then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to Stuart Peenstra, Chief of Police of the Town of Seneca Falls. (A copy of Director LaCounte’s letter is enclosed as Exhibit C.) In the letter, Director LaCounte explained:

“Currently, the Department of the Interior (Department) does not have any relationship with the Tribe’s Law Enforcement Department and the Tribe does not receive any funding from the Department for law enforcement purposes. In addition, Cayuga Indian Nation officers are not federally commissioned under 25 U.S.C. § 2804. However, Federal funding or commissioning is not necessary for
the Cayuga Indian Nation to exercise its inherent sovereign authority to enforce its own laws inside the Cayuga Indian Nation Reservation boundaries through a law enforcement program.”

Director LaCounte continued:

“Both Federal and State Courts have ruled that the Cayuga Indian Nation Reservation has not been diminished or disestablished. While the Tribe does not have lands in trust, all lands within the exterior boundaries of the Reservation are considered Indian Country under Federal law. Therefore, the Department’s position is that the Cayuga Indian Nation may enforce its own criminal laws
against Indians within the boundaries of the Reservation.”

Director LaCounte concluded that although 25 U.S.C. § 232 gave the State of New York criminal jurisdiction over Indian Country within the State, “the State’s jurisdiction is concurrent with Cayuga Indian Nation and Federal jurisdiction.” In sum, the BIA has made clear that the Cayuga Nation law enforcement program is legitimate. Moreover, the Supreme Court has held unequivocally that Indian police may briefly detain a non-Indian before referring him to federal or state authorities. See, e.g., United States v. Cooley, 141 S.Ct. 1638 (2021) (also citing Cayuga Nation amicus brief).

With regard to the incident for which Mr. Bowman has been indicted, many of the facts are undisputed. On February 20, 2020, Cayuga Nation police, acting pursuant to a warrant, recovered certain Cayuga Nation properties that had been seized, and were being held, by a dissident group. (A copy of the warrant is enclosed as Exhibit D.) The Cayuga Nation took this action only after the N.Y. Court of Appeals directed that “use of dispute resolution mechanisms other than courts is itself an exercise of the right to self-govern in a manner consistent with tribal traditions and oral law.” Cayuga Nation v. Campbell, 34 N.Y.3d 282, 296 (2019). These properties had generated more than $5 million annually in business income for the Cayuga Nation, and the dissident group was using the proceeds from the properties for their own ends, with no accounting to the Nation.

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A week after the Nation recovered the properties, a group of individuals, including Bowman—a
Caucasian with no ties to the Cayuga Nation—gathered to “protest” the Nation’s recovery of its own properties. During the “protest,” Bowman led a small group that stormed back onto one of the Cayuga Nation properties, broke through a police tape barrier, and began assaulting Cayuga Nation police officers.

These events were witnessed by both federal and state officials. Two representatives from the DOJ Community Relations Branch were present. New York State Troopers and local law enforcement officers also were present. Indeed, when Bowman and others stormed onto the Cayuga Nation property, state and local police also came onto the property, taking up positions with and behind the Cayuga police. The Cayuga police then slowly walked forward, pushing the protestors back off the property. US Attorney J.P. Kennedy announced he would investigate the events surrounding the Cayuga Nation’s recovery of its properties. No charges have been brought—by either the US Attorney or by state authorities—against the Cayuga Nation or its police officers for any of their actions.

But the Seneca County Grand Jury did bring charges against Bowman, as identified above. Ultimately, that matter is appropriately resolved in court. For the Seneca Board to seek to “investigate” an ongoing criminal case initiated by grand jury and being handled by the Seneca County District Attorney is unprecedented and improper. Nothing has been shown, or even alleged by the Board, suggesting any impropriety by DA Sinkiewicz or the Seneca County Grand Jury. What apparently is unacceptable to the Board is that a Caucasian man is being prosecuted for trespassing on an Indian-owned property and for assaulting an Indian-commissioned police officer. The only actual impropriety here is the blatant hostility of the Seneca County Board to the very existence of the Cayuga Nation and the Nation’s rightful assertions of sovereign authority on its reservation lands within the County. The Nation repeatedly has expressed a willingness to have a dialogue with the County Board, if reasonable views prevail there. There has yet to be an invitation.

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.