Indian Country, NY

Indian Country, NY

A land-claim suit is pitting Oneidas against other upstate residents.


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.”

The Indian-white struggle in today’s upstate New York began, effectively, with the American Revolution. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the region was controlled by the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of six Indian nations, including the Oneidas. After the American victory, development-minded white leaders began to eye Iroquois “virgin territory” as profitable frontier property. By 1825, when the state completed work on the Erie Canal, it had appropriated much of the Oneidas’ 6 million acres.

By any technical definition, the State of New York did not “steal” this land. All sides in today’s dispute agree that most of the land was bought and paid for. The problem, according to the Oneida claim, is that the state had no right to buy it–and the self-appointed Oneida leaders had no authority to sell it.

Legally, the Oneidas base their claim on the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act, which mandated federal approval of all Indian land sales. New York State, they contend, ignored both federal law and Indian will when it purchased the Oneida land. That argument has worked well for other East Coast tribes. In 1980, for instance, Maine paid $81.5 million to the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Houlton and Maliseet Indians; with it came the right to repurchase 300,000 acres of ancestral land.

The potential windfall notwithstanding, the Oneidas argue that the land claim is about more than maximizing returns on a legal loophole. The federal government, they say, betrayed its “sacred pledge,” in the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794, to reserve land for the Oneidas. “The United States,” the treaty declared, “will never claim the same, nor disturb them.” That promise, the Oneidas assert, means that central New York is now and has always been Indian land. The US Supreme Court, in a series of rulings over the past three decades, has mostly agreed. In a landmark 1974 decision, the Court ruled that the Oneidas could sue in federal court, sparking an entire generation of claims in the original thirteen colonies. Although many of those claims, from Maine to Connecticut to South Carolina, have long since been resolved, the New York claims remain unsettled. Of the six Indian land claims now facing New York, the Oneidas’ is by far the largest.

In 1985, the Court once again ruled in favor of the Oneidas, finding Madison and Oneida counties liable for the Oneidas’ loss of land. For the next thirteen years the parties made halfhearted efforts to come to an agreement on damages. Then, in December 1998, a reinvigorated and newly prosperous Oneida Nation decided it had had enough stalling. With the support of the federal government the Oneidas filed an amended complaint seeking to add the State of New York and 20,000 local property owners as defendants in the suit. The long-neglected claim suddenly became the hottest political issue in the region. In January 1999 UCE and other landowners’ groups staged a massive motorcade encircling the Turning Stone, with as many as 5,000 local residents protesting the Oneidas’ legal maneuvers.

At the same time, the parties to the suit agreed to settlement talks, but these proved a dismal failure. Ronald Riccio, the court-appointed “Settlement Master,” described them as one long experiment in “rhetoric, posturing, bickering, and maneuvering.” In a stinging report last February, he wrote that “most parties have not been willing to subordinate their own self-interest to the overriding interest of the innocent Oneida and non-Oneida members of the public who are daily suffering fear and anxiety.” Talks ended last spring. Then, in September, a US District Court judge excluded the landowners from the suit but agreed to add the State of New York as a defendant. That decision, too, rebuked the Oneidas for their “bad faith” and “irresponsible rhetoric.” The tribe has decided not to appeal.

Barring epiphany or compromise, the Oneida claim will continue to wind its way through the courts for approximately the next decade, and other tribes pursuing such claims nationwide will continue to watch its progress. In earlier phases, the Oneidas say, the claim bogged down because the tribe lacked the resources to see it through. Today, flush with cash from the Turning Stone casino, the tribe has vowed not to repeat the past.

The Turning Stone Casino Resort–all curves and swirls and earth tones–was designed to capture the Oneidas’ profound respect for the natural world. But the casino, plunked down amid acre upon acre of farmland, is one of the least natural structures around. Just a few yards from Exit 33 of the New York State Thruway, the Turning Stone bursts into view as a bright white swoosh in a field of green. Inside is a distinct absence of Indian kitsch. Unlike the Mashantucket Pequots’ Foxwoods resort in southeastern Connecticut, where cocktail waitresses parade about in skimpy outfits and feather headdresses, most Turning Stone employees sport solid-color shirts and long pants. Some sections of the casino, like the faux-New Orleans “21 Bourbon Street” strip, forgo Native American themes altogether. Despite hints like the “Tuscarora” and “Seneca” meeting rooms, the arriving visitor might mistake the Turning Stone for a modest Trump resort. That impression wouldn’t last long. The Oneidas’ decidedly un-Trumplike compact with the state forbids the tribe from trading in two of the gaming industry’s most lucrative elixirs: alcohol and slot machines. But the absence of these two lures has not much hindered the expansion of the tribe’s gambling business. In just seven years, the Turning Stone has become one of the top five tourist attractions in the state. In 1999, according to the Oneidas’ annual report, the Turning Stone drew almost 4 million visitors. Legal documents indicate that in 1997 this influx translated into receipts of more than $100 million. (The Oneidas do not release exact figures.)

Casino profits have helped to fuel the Oneidas’ other business operations. The tribe now owns a chain of gas stations and convenience stores, an RV park, three golf courses, two hotels, two marinas, a national newspaper, an e-commerce site, a print-and-design company and several other business ventures. Combined, its businesses employ 3,000 local residents–90 percent of them non-Native. In addition, the Oneidas have begun to buy large tracts of land within the claim area. So far, they have acquired more than 13,000 acres. In the words of the Nation’s own 1999 annual report, “What a difference a decade makes.”

Like most Indian communities, the Oneidas operate under federal law as a semi-sovereign government. As a result, Oneida businesses pay no local, state or federal taxes. In addition, when the Oneidas buy property on the open market, that land, too, disappears from the local tax rolls. “The Oneida Nation is not a casino operator that happens to have its own government,” says the Nation’s 1999 annual report. “The Nation is a government that happens to operate a casino.” The distinction is crucial, because tribal sovereignty is the bedrock upon which the Nation plans to build a capitalist paradise in central New York. “We believe our sovereignty can be a source for economic development–the likes of which has never existed in this region,” the Nation explained in a January 1999 open letter to “Our Neighbors in Madison and Oneida Counties.” “We could create an economic empowerment zone that is free of the onerous regulations and costs inherent in New York State’s government.”

Despite criticism from some tribal members, Ray Halbritter, the Harvard-trained CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises and the federally recognized head of the Oneida Nation, insists that this is the best way to advance the Oneidas’ fortunes. “Sure we don’t like casinos. I wish we had another alternative. But on the other hand, I know the condition of our people in poverty, and I know it now. And I’ll tell you that we’re able to do things now that we haven’t been able to do for centuries.”

In addition, he adds, “we have contributed to this area economically more than any other entity in the history of this region.” Given this win-win situation, he says, local residents shouldn’t worry about the Nation’s growth. “You can fire up all this emotion–all this, ‘Oh my word, what if the Indians take over the United States?’ Come on. Come on.”

Scott Peterman, president of Upstate Citizens for Equality, likes to joke that the Oneidas’ suit against local landowners was the best thing that ever happened to his organization. In December 1998, when the Oneidas announced their decision to sue area residents, UCE’s membership was small, its meetings informal and its agenda focused on protesting the Indians’ tax-free status. In a single blow, the Oneidas added 20,000 families to UCE’s natural community of interest. The Oneidas’ legal tactics seemed to confirm what UCE had been saying all along: that local homes and businesses are in imminent danger, that the Oneida Nation is planning to use its sovereignty to dominate central New York and that the federal government has taken sides against its own citizens.

While UCE was not the only landowners’ group to respond to the Oneida suit, it quickly became the largest, the most outspoken and, by many accounts, the most extreme. Today it operates as an efficient populist organization, with meetings twice a month, regular pickets and its own newspaper and website. It reports about 4,000 members in the area, though Peterman concedes that only about 100 are hard-core activists. Its supporters hail from a variety of points on the economic spectrum, including struggling dairy farmers as well as Ivy-educated doctors. Peterman, who repairs and maintains ultrasound equipment for a living, describes the membership as “good people. They’re just everyday working Joes.”

If he sounds a bit defensive, it’s because UCE since its earliest days has been dogged by accusations of racism, a charge that Peterman roundly denies. “Who are the ones having a government based on race?” he asks. “Their [the Oneidas] whole membership is based on race, their whole notion of life is based on race, their whole culture is based on race. And they’re calling me a racist?” All the same, UCE supporters have hardly been uniformly sensitive to the racial implications of their protests. In December 1998, just after the Oneidas filed their amended complaint, State Assemblyman and UCE sympathizer David Townsend joked in a public meeting that he kept his hair short for fear of being “scalped,” provoking fierce criticism from the Oneidas. And posts on the UCE electronic discussion board regularly contain choice racial remarks, such as “Kiss my lily white UCE ass!!!”

The group’s official rhetoric, though, dwells less on race than on revolution. Specifically, UCE has adopted the symbols and rhetoric of the American Revolution. During its first motorcade, for instance, the group hauled along a makeshift replica of nearby Fort Stanwix, site of a bloody battle during the Revolutionary War. Outside the float, three locals dressed in colonial garb stood as representatives of the landowners’ historic claim to the area. If this harking back to the Founding Fathers yields occasional irony (wouldn’t those early colonists be directly responsible for the Indians’ loss of land?), for the most part UCE has effectively adapted the legacies of antifederalism and property rights to its modern-day political struggle. “We’re sick and tired of the governor acting like a king,” says Peterman, explaining UCE’s decision to sue New York Governor George Pataki for his support of the Oneida gaming compact, which his predecessor, Mario Cuomo, signed without legislative approval. “The legislature is the voice of the people; if you allow the governor to usurp the power of the legislature, the people have no voice.”

Like the tax rebels of 1776, UCE members see themselves as victims of an unfair tax system imposed by an abusive central government. UCE members have watched in alarm as the Oneidas snapped up local businesses, farms and homes, each site disappearing from property-tax rolls on its way to Indian country. While the Oneidas tout their achievements in job creation and economic development, local shopowners accuse them of using their sales-tax exemption to drive small competitors out of business.

As matters currently stand, the Oneidas can seriously underbid tax-paying rivals, especially on heavily taxed products like gasoline and cigarettes. And the casino’s restaurants and general entertainment offerings lure some customers away from smaller operations. But given the region’s historically depressed economy, it’s far from clear that barring Oneida competition, those local businesses would be thriving. At the same time, though, the Oneidas’ property-tax exemption does mean that every addition to sovereign Oneida territory is an absolute loss to the local tax base. While the Oneidas have contributed about $2 million to area school systems to offset those losses, their voluntary offerings are a far cry from a guaranteed tax base.

For local property owners, accepting the Oneidas’ tax exemptions means accepting a heavier burden of support for the local public schools, sewer systems and town governments–something not many struggling farmers want to do for the sake of their rich neighbors. So, the property-tax issue, like so many other points of contention in central New York, is headed to court. Earlier this year, the town of Sherrill filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Oneidas to pay property taxes.

According to Scott Peterman, these multiple areas of conflict–the casino, the tax exemptions, the land claim–spring from a single source. “All of these issues relate to sovereignty,” he says. “Why do the Indians have the only casino in town? Their quasi-sovereign status. Why are they not collecting sales taxes from non-Indians?” Again, sovereignty.

That’s why UCE has set its sights, however implausibly, on nothing less than an end to the federal reservation system. “We’re basically interested in equality of all citizens,” says Peterman. “We are against Indian sovereignty. We think it’s detrimental to the Indians as well as us.” Arguing that the reservation system constitutes the last vestige of legal segregation in the United States, UCE advocates a new federal policy that would treat Indians, in Peterman’s words, “just like everyone else.”

Problem is, many Indians don’t want to be “just like everyone else.” “It doesn’t matter what Upstate Citizens says,” comments Doug George-Kanentiio, a Mohawk writer and the husband of Ray Halbritter’s cousin, Oneida singer-songwriter Joanne Shenandoah. “They have a legal obligation under their Constitution to maintain, or to recognize, the Iroquois as separate political and cultural entities. That’s their absolute sacred promise.” On this point, CEO Halbritter agrees absolutely. “Indian nations are sovereign nations and were recognized as such at the foundation of this country in the Constitution.”

But there the agreement between George-Kanentiio and Halbritter ends. George-Kanentiio, who calls himself an Iroquois traditionalist, is a member by marriage of a small group of dissident Oneidas opposed to Halbritter’s policies and leadership. The dissident coalition, led by Halbritter’s aunt (and George-Kanentiio’s mother-in-law) Maisie Shenandoah, objects to almost every move Halbritter has made, including his attempt to add the landowners to the lawsuit.

This current rift is only the latest in a long history of tribal disputes over land claims, sovereignty, money and tradition–a history hardly unique to the Oneidas. Like all internal battles, it is in part a struggle over power and personality. More important, though, it betrays a fundamental division within the Oneida Nation–as within many Indian nations–over the proper response to the federal government’s tempting offer of casino rights.

The dissidents accuse Halbritter of abandoning the Iroquois tradition of government by consensus, substituting instead rule by decree. They complain of a lack of accountability, wondering why Halbritter will not open Oneida finances to public scrutiny. They suggest that Halbritter seeks only personal gain, asking why the Nation doesn’t distribute casino profits to its members. “Halbritter and his tactics,” says George-Kanentiio, “represent a direct challenge and affront to everything we hold sacred.”

George-Kanentiio is perhaps most vehement in denouncing Halbritter’s embrace of American capitalism. “We were given a series of warnings about what would happen to us–the Iroquois people–if we adopted European attitudes toward wealth,” says George-Kanentiio. “It would lead to chaos and corruption and conflict. This man [Halbritter] is the fulfillment of the worst of those warnings. He represents the great temptation. In Christian terms, you could call him satanic.”

Determined to restore their own version of traditional government, the dissidents, with the aid of the Center for Constitutional Rights, have tried several times to remove Halbritter from power, arguing that he has subverted the traditional tribal electoral process. Their actions, thus far, have won them little but punishment, including the loss of their “voice” (essentially, their right to speak at tribal meetings) and their quarterly payments from noncasino businesses. Now, following the Machiavellian logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the dissidents have reached out to landowners’ groups, including UCE.

Even in the witheringly complicated politics of the land claim, UCE and the Oneida dissidents make for particularly strange bedfellows. Politically, they agree on two–and only two–points: first, that the landowners should never have been part of the claim; and, second, that Ray Halbritter bears a strong resemblance to the devil. While UCE and the dissidents offer a similar diagnosis of central New York’s ills, however, they propose radically different cures. Pleading historical precedent, the dissidents seek a restoration of traditional tribal government; if anything, they say, Halbritter sold out Indian sovereignty by agreeing to enforce New York law on Oneida land. UCE, by contrast, seeks one tax policy under God–necessitating, in its view, the abolition of Indian sovereignty.

Halbritter dismisses the dissidents’ criticisms as sore-loser syndrome, and he accuses his white neighbors of simply resenting Oneida prosperity. “We have achieved the American Dream of success and economic independence,” Halbritter said in a recent speech. “And some of our reward has been a new outburst of hatred.” To Halbritter, UCE’s appeals to liberty, equality and fraternity are nothing more than craven efforts to destroy what the Oneidas have won after centuries of stark suffering. “Today we retain only a tiny portion of the territory our ancestors occupied,” he continued. “How can justice require that we be robbed of the little we have left, and of our few remaining rights?”

In the long view of history, there’s no denying Halbritter’s lament that the Oneidas, like all Native peoples, have endured profound loss and hardship. They are, as he suggests, the heirs of centuries of displacement and poverty. Today, though, the Turning Stone has disrupted racial and economic hierarchies long taken for granted. The bitter conflicts that have divided central New York represent in part an adjustment to these new equations of power. Racial resentment clearly animates central New York’s politics, but the current conflict also goes beyond race: UCE and the dissidents share real concerns that the potent combination of gambling and tax-free sovereignty threatens democratic control in Indian and non-Indian communities alike.

For better or worse, the Oneidas’ contemporary efforts to right historic wrongs through land claims are inseparable from the prospect of casino riches and business expansion. In that sense, the Oneidas have already fulfilled UCE’s fondest dream: They have become good Americans.

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