U.S.A: Oneida Eviction

22.Ago.03    Análisis y Noticias

A group of Oneida Indians facing eviction from their homes is taking its case to a federal appeals court, arguing that its members are victims of “cultural genocide” by tribal leaders.

The families on Territory Road have also appealed to the Oneida Indian Nation tribal court, and have written to the National Indian Gaming Commission to investigate the use of casino money by nation leaders to “persecute, punish, imprison and destroy the private homes of those who dare dispute their leadership and regime.”

The group will ask the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the nation from demolishing its members’ homes, said the group’s lawyer, Donald Daines. Nation inspectors earlier this month declared four homes unfit for habitation and ordered the houses demolished by next Wednesday.

The members of the group say Oneida leaders are violating the federal Indian Civil Rights Act by using nation laws to punish them for opposing Ray Halbritter, the Oneidas’ federally recognized leader.

A federal district judge last Friday ruled against the group, which includes Halbritter’s 71-year-old aunt, Maisie Schenandoah, a clan mother.

A spokesman for Halbritter says the recognized Oneida leadership no longer considers Schenandoah a clan mother.

“We are standing firm. These are our aboriginal lands and we are entitled to live here,” said Diane Schenandoah, whose trailer home is one of four scheduled for demolition.

The trailers were condemned by the tribe as part of a nearly decade-old nation housing improvement program and not as a way to suppress political dissent, said Clint Hill, a member of the tribal council.

The dispute goes beyond housing. Those facing eviction are traditionalists who do not recognize Halbritter as the tribe’s leader and say he rules as a dictator. Under traditional law, chiefs are picked by the clan mothers and must have consensus approval.

In 1993, the Grand Council of the Six Nations’ Confederacy - the
traditional governing body of the Iroquois tribes - stripped Halbritter of his leadership. Halbritter’s spokesman said the Grand Council has no authority in this area and that each Indian nation is a sovereign state.

However, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs continues to recognize
Halbritter as the Oneida leader. “They are using their power to make people homeless, to steal their property, to take away their voices,” said Vicky Schenandoah, another resident whose trailer has been condemned.

“They want to destroy anyone who wants to follow the traditional ways.”

Schenandoah’s sister, Diane, has written to federal Indian gaming
regulators, asking for an investigation of how the nation spends profits from the Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona.

According to the nation, the casino turned a profit of about $70 million during the last fiscal year.

Diane Schenandoah told regulators that nation officials are violating the Indian Civil Rights Act by denying rights of free speech and religion, and by “seizing, arresting and imprisoning any who dare speak out against them, demolishing their homes and leaving men, women, children and elders homeless and destitute.”

The trailer homes are on the Oneidas’ ancestral 32-acre reservation in Oneida. They were scheduled for demolition next Wednesday, but that has been put on hold while the case is under appeal, said Oneida spokesman Mark Emery.

The housing program was started because tribal members were concerned about safety and health issues, Hill said. He also noted that Halbritter lost an aunt and uncle in a trailer home fire in the mid-1970s.

Hill said his trailer was condemned two years ago and he was required to move into new nation housing.

Emery said 12 homes have been destroyed under the program so far. Those displaced are offered new subsidized housing. Since 1996, the Oneidas have built 20 new single-family homes, 10 duplexes and 40 town houses, he said.

Maisie Schenandoah and her daughters were among three dozen tribal members who in 1995 formally “lost their voices” in nation affairs. Such status means they are not eligible for nation programs and services and do not receive the approximately $5,000 quarterly distributions paid to tribal
members in good standing. They also do not receive the $50,000 housing grant given to other members.

Since 1995, about half of the 36 have regained their membership by appealing to the tribal council, a step the remaining dissidents can take at any time, Emery said.

Previously, only Danielle Patterson, another Territory Road resident, had contested the condemnation of her trailer, Emery said.

Patterson, a 32-year-old mother of three, pleaded guilty to criminal contempt in tribal court in November after scuffling with nation police who came to evict her. She had been held in a Pennsylvania jail for a weekend before agreeing to the demolition of her house.

Patterson, like those currently facing eviction, refused new housing, Emery said.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue ruled that he did not have jurisdiction to consider the case, adding that the complaint contained no facts to support the allegations. A tribal court judge previously ruled that he did not have jurisdiction over political or membership questions.

“The tribal court is a charade. Halbritter appointed the judges. They aren’t going to go against him,” said Diane Schenandoah.
“The federal court should have jurisdiction. It’s their government that recognizes Halbritter,” she said. Staff writer Glenn Coin contributed to this report.