Indian Country, NY
In Verona, New York, the Pledge of Allegiance is no mere formality. The auditorium at the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School is perhaps a quarter full, and the eighty-plus audience members--mainly local senior citizens--stand attentively between their flipped-up seats and the backs of the next rows down. A few have already covered hearts with hands, ready to launch into the Pledge and thus open the fifty-ninth official meeting of Upstate Citizens for Equality.
Unfortunately, the American flag, that staple of the high school stage, is nowhere to be found. The audience waits, chuckling and chattering, as the meeting leaders duck behind the curtain in search of the Stars and Stripes.
Soon, UCE president Scott Peterman emerges with flag in hand. He indulges in a self-mocking bow, then, holding the flag above his waist, invites the group to recite the oath.
"I pledge allegiance," they begin in singsong unison, "to the flag of the United States of America. And to the Republic, for which it stands; one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In central New York, them's fightin' words. For the past two years, residents of Oneida and Madison counties, about halfway between Utica and Syracuse, have fought fierce legal and personal battles over the question of whether they are, in fact, citizens of one indivisible nation. The controversy centers on a lawsuit filed by the Oneida Indian Nation, which is seeking to reclaim 250,000 acres of ancestral lands in the two counties.
As a result of the claim, spats between neighbors have grown into feuds, an00d protest signs have become standard roadside scenery. In one particularly menacing episode last November, a group calling itself the United States National Freedom Fighters threatened to bomb Oneida businesses, to kill one Indian every three days and to shoot at least one white "traitor" caught frequenting Oneida-owned establishments.
Like the debate over reparations for slavery or compensation for Holocaust victims, Indian land claims raise fundamental questions of historical justice and responsibility. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently acknowledged, Americans have never been forced to answer for the wholesale destruction of Indian life. Even the Oneidas' most outspoken critics concede that American Indians ended up with a raw deal in encounters with pale invaders. But victimization then, these critics argue, is not victimization now. Today, thanks to the Turning Stone Casino Resort, the Oneida Indian Nation is the largest employer and one of the largest landowners in Oneida and Madison counties.
In the purest legal sense, Oneida business dealings have little to do with the land claim. Politically, however, the two issues are inseparable. The Turning Stone, opened in 1993, is the most visible sign of central New York's halting transition from an "old" economy of factories, dairy farms and military bases to a "new" service economy of hotels, resorts and fun, fun, fun! Within the Oneida Nation, the casino has led to bitter struggles over Native tradition, tribal democracy and control of casino profits. Outside the Nation, the growth of the Oneidas' tax-free business empire in the midst of a depressed local economy has provoked even greater protest. With such issues in the mix, the land dispute has expanded from a conflict over property rights into a full-blown struggle over Indian sovereignty and American nationhood.
The Oneida Indian Nation envisions its sovereignty as a boon for economic development, the means to transform central New York into an untaxed free-market mecca. Landowners, anxious about losing their shops and communities, have vowed to resist--with force, if necessary--what they see as a hostile Indian takeover. As the Oneidas assert their tribal autonomy, arguing that they posses inviolable aboriginal immunity from taxes, landowners' groups like Upstate Citizens for Equality have begun to call for nothing less than a full reassessment of federal Indian policy. They want, they say, to fulfill the Pledge of Allegiance--to become at last "one nation, under God."