It was a dark, cold Saturday morning in late February 2020, and pandemic lockdowns were less than a month away. Leanna Young was lying in bed, still sleepy. On days like this, her husband would get picked up by her brother, Daren, who worked security at a Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ (Cayuga) community center on Cayuga territory. Her husband worked there, too. Most of the adults in her family did—it provided them with jobs, with financial stability.

But by 6:05AM on Feb. 22, Leanna could still hear her husband in the kitchen. “Jesus, why is he still here?” she wondered. “He’s supposed to be clocked in by now.” 

Many of the kids in the community had spent the night at Grandma Wanda’s. For Leanna’s eight-year-old daughter, Evee, it was her first sleepover. Leanna had managed to shake off the sense of parental unease she felt the night before with Evee out of the house. But this morning, something was, in fact, wrong.

Ten minutes later, Leanna went out into the kitchen. She remembers her husband saying that he couldn’t get in touch with Daren. “I don’t know what’s going on. This isn’t like him.” Still sleepy, but with a restless sense of unease, Leanna started getting ready to drive her husband to work. 

Leanna Young stands with her daughter Evee in front of their home in so-called Seneca Falls, New York. A flag with the Hiawatha Belt, a symbol of the Haudenosaunee, can be seen behind them. Taken on June 6, 2022. Photo by Aaron Fernando

By 6:30AM, Daren finally arrived at the house. He was completely shell-shocked. 

In a daze, Daren recounted what had just happened to him: He had been held at gunpoint by Cayuga Nation Police. His hands had been ziptied. Then, he’d been forced to watch as the community buildings were destroyed. “Everything’s gone,” he said. “Everything is gone.”

Leanna needed to understand what Daren was talking about. Just as the sun was rising, she and her husband sped down the road to the Cayuga Nation buildings where they worked, where their children learned and played.  

But on that cold February morning, the gardens had been turned to ruins. The schoolhouse—where Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people had been holding ceremonies—was a pile of rubble. The daycare, too, was destroyed. Children’s toys were strewn on the ground outside.

First she saw people, then she saw the destruction. More than half a dozen buildings lay partially or fully demolished, buildings that had been occupied and in full use just the day before: a convenience store, an ice cream shop, a schoolhouse and daycare. A number of small housing units where individuals or small families lived were also demolished. The people living in those units had reportedly been pulled from their homes in the middle of the night.

This was a sign of things to come, an opening salvo in an ongoing series of attacks that have continued since then, and intensified in recent months.

Also destroyed were a garden and small orchard with fruit and maple trees. From a bird’s-eye view, the planters in the gardens had formed a Hiawatha Belt—the most recognizable symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a symbol of what was being cultivated there. 

But on that cold February morning, the gardens had been turned to ruins. The schoolhouse—where Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people had been holding ceremonies—was a pile of rubble. The daycare, too, was destroyed. Children’s toys were strewn on the ground outside. Just one day earlier, Leanna had been there with the children from the community, tapping maple trees, eating frybread and a traditional soup they had prepared.

“I can still hear [the children] running on the rocks,” Leanna recalled. “That cshh-cshh-cshh-cshh, you know, of them running around and laughing.” The day before had been happy, peaceful. Overnight, it all changed. 

The Community

Of the six nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (sometimes called the Iroquois Confederacy), the Cayuga Nation is the only one that does not have a contiguous reservation, although it still has a legal claim to one. This is, in large part, because members of the Cayuga Nation have been living in diaspora since the brutal Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779, ordered by then-General George Washington.

“The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians,” Washington wrote to Major General John Sullivan in 1779, at the height of the Revolutionary War. “The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” Washington was given the name “town destroyer” by the Haudenosaunee. By the end of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign, at least 40 villages had been razed to the ground.

According to the US Federal Government, Halftown and the council he went on to establish was and continues to be the governing body of the Cayuga Nation. However, by 2010… Halftown himself had been removed from the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council according to the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance processes. This incongruity forms the core of a destructive dispute that has roiled the Cayuga Nation for the last two decades—a dispute that is now growing increasingly dangerous.

In the centuries that followed, dispersed Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ peoples lived in various places, including so-called Ontario and so-called Oklahoma, but some returned to and remained in the area we call Upstate New York. 

In his book The Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ People in the Cayuga Lake Region, Kurt A. Jordan, director of Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, notes that New York state deliberately negotiated agreements so that “settlers had overwhelming power and could dictate the terms, drift into illegality, commit fraud, or all of the above.” To demonstrate that point, Jordan’s book goes on to explain that the state of New York acquired Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ lands in blatant disregard of federal laws ostensibly prohibiting it from doing so: “It had long been recognized that New York State acted contrary to federal law in its 1795 and 1807 treaties acquiring  Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ land… The sales also violated the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which asserted that only the federal government could obtain Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ lands.” Thus, although the Cayuga Nation does not have a contiguous reservation in a practical sense, the reservation was never disestablished through legitimate legal mechanisms; instead, US courts simply failed to uphold and enforce US laws, giving settlers carte blanche to lay claims to Indigenous lands.

But by the early 2000s, many of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people who had remained in the area had started meeting in the conference rooms of a hotel near the Buffalo airport, discussing how to re-create a community in their ancestral lands. According to Sachem (Chief) Sam George, one of the chiefs of the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council, an invitation had been sent out to the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ diaspora around 2010, encouraging people to move back to the area north of Cayuga Lake.

That invitation came from a Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizen, Clint Halftown, and from his mother, Sharon LeRoy. “About 50 to 75 people… came out here from what I understand,” explained Sachem Sam. “From that invitation, that’s how many came out.”

Even before he issued the invitation to other Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people, though, Halftown already had a contentious status among the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’. 

According to the US federal government, Halftown and the council he went on to establish was and continues to be the governing body of the Cayuga Nation. However, by 2010, when Halftown and LeRoy sent out their invitation to Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizens, Halftown himself had been removed from the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council according to the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance processes. This incongruity forms the core of a destructive dispute that has roiled the Cayuga Nation for the last two decades—a dispute that is now growing increasingly dangerous. 

This is similar (but by no means equivalent) to myriad geopolitical situations throughout US history in which the federal government has recognized foreign heads of state who seize and wield power by undemocratic means but nevertheless serve US interests. The fraught situation in the Cayuga Nation is a result of the US federal government’s recognition of Halftown’s rogue and increasingly tyrannical regime—a regime that claims to represent a sovereign people, even though their traditional governing body has rejected it. To understand how this conflict has developed, we must first understand Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance.

Traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Governance

Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance gets it structure from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a system of governance predating that of the United States. Under this system, clans, clan mothers, and sachems (condoled chiefs) are central in decision-making processes. The clans themselves are extended families, and while there were originally 10 clans, the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ now have six—Bear, Turtle, Heron, Snipe, Wolf, and Deer—according to Sachem Sam George, of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Bear Clan.

Then there are clan mothers—elder matriarchs of the Haudenosaunee Nations. “Her main role is to keep track of the family, her clan… and making sure it’s a whole family unit working together and that they’re all on the same page,” explained Sachem Sam George. “If there’s any problems, [the clan mother] would talk to that person, or have a ceremony for that person.”

Sachem Sam—as he is often called—is what is called a condoled chief, a designation referring to the process whereby a new chief is selected by a clan mother after the death of the preceding chief. Chiefs are condoled during a 24-hour ceremony that requires all the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to come together: Cayugas, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras.

As a light rain falls, Sachem Sam marches with other Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizens and supporters down a DC street near the Department of the Interior on May 16, 2022. The bear emblem he wears symbolizes that he is a representative of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Bear Clan. Photo by Aaron Fernando

Clint Halftown was never selected by his clan mother to be a sachem. However, in the early 2000s, he was appointed to be a liaison or go-between—someone to help then-ailing Sachem Vernon Isaac to perform his duties.

After Sachem Vernon Isaac passed away in July of 2003, Clint Halftown worked his way into the role of federal representative for the Cayuga Nation. The details about how this happened are a little unclear. But it seems that Sharon Leroy, Clint Halftown’s mother, had been appointed secretary for life for the Cayuga Nation. 

According to Sachem Sam George, “[Sharon Leroy] got a letter from everybody saying she was the secretary for life, according to the clan mothers and chiefs that signed that piece of paper,” he explained. “I asked my clan mother about it. She goes, ‘Yeah, I think I did sign something like that.’”

“I said, Well, didn’t you put any stipulations on it? I mean, does she have the power to make decisions?’”

“‘No, no, no, no. She’s just a secretary. She does what we tell her to do.’”

“‘Oh, okay.’”

In her position as secretary for life, LeRoy sent and received correspondence between the Cayuga Nation and the US government. It seems LeRoy then persuaded three others on the Council—William “Chuck” Jacobs, Gary Wheeler, and Tim Twoguns, in addition to Clint Halftown—to sign a document that established Halftown as the federal representative. 

The document, signed on Aug. 11, 2003, and then sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), stated: “With the death of Chief Vernon Isaac, the Cayuga Nation Council recognizes Clint C. Halftown as the Representative of the Cayuga Nation in its government-to-government relationship with the United States of America… Halftown has the authority to negotiate and execute contracts and other agreements with all U.S. departments and agencies.”

It is precisely this document, establishing Clint Halftown as the Federal Representative for the Cayuga Nation, that planted the seeds for all the trouble that was to come. It is critical to note that the signatures of four individuals, none of whom were sachems, was enough documentation for the US government to void centuries of traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance, establishing a central figurehead (i.e., the federal representative) in its place.

It is precisely this document, establishing Clint Halftown as the Federal Representative for the Cayuga Nation, that planted the seeds for all the trouble that was to come. It is critical to note that the signatures of four individuals, none of whom were sachems, was enough documentation for the US government to void centuries of traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance, establishing a central figurehead (i.e., the federal representative) in its place.

The federal representative role was created by the US federal government, and it exists for contracting purposes between the US and sovereign Indigenous nations like the Cayuga Nation. Under traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ and Haudenosaunee governmental structures, there is no federal representative. Nevertheless, it is this title that Halftown and uncritical news reporters tend to point to as a way of asserting that Halftown—and the alternate council he created—has any claims of legitimacy.

Sachem Sam emphasized that traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people follow the Great Law of Peace, which is central to the unity of the Six Nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. In accordance with the Great Law of Peace, decisions are never made by a single person. They are not even made by majority rule. “It has to be consensus,” he told me. In interviews, the phrase “they came to one mind” was a hallmark of how Sachem Sam describes the decision-making process between clan mothers, between clans, between nations.

Halftown first broke with the Council of Chiefs by acting unilaterally in November 2004, making a secretive deal with then-New York Gov. George Pataki to develop a casino in the Catskills. The casino never panned out, but it set in motion a conflict that still persists today.

“This leadership dispute began in November of 2004,” explained attorney Joe Heath. Heath is the general legal counsel for the Onondagas, and he has also worked as a lawyer for the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people since the 1990s. “[Halftown] knew very well that there were clan mothers and chiefs on the council that adamantly opposed gambling, because that’s a Haudenosaunee cultural teaching.” After the deal between Halftown and Pataki’s office became known, the Grand Council convened and wrote a letter to BIA saying that the deal was illegitimate.

Unilateral decision making is not just looked down upon by the Grand Council; it is a removable offense. And, for lack of a better analogue, there is a kind of impeachment process by which a person serving on a council can be removed.

Halftown first broke with the Council of Chiefs by acting unilaterally in November 2004, making a secretive deal with then-New York Gov. George Pataki to develop a casino in the Catskills. The casino never panned out, but it set in motion a conflict that still persists today.

Under this process, and in accordance with the Great Law of Peace, a condoled chief can be removed by his clan mother after three warnings, if the clan mother feels that the chief is taking actions that are not in alignment with the clan and with the Nation. However, someone like Halftown, who was never a condoled chief but serves in the Nation’s governance processes, can be removed after only a single warning. 

According to Sachem Sam, Joe Heath, and others, Halftown had been warned many times by his clan mother, Bernadette Hill. By 2004, Halftown was stripped of his responsibilities to the Cayuga Nation by Hill. “Actually, she did it more than once, because he kept saying, ‘Oh, I don’t recognize that,’” Heath explained.

Even after receiving multiple statements and letters from the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council, the US government—more specifically, the Bureau of Indian Affairs—has refused to acknowledge Halftown’s formal removal. As of right now, Halftown remains the Cayuga Nation’s “Federal Representative” according to the US government 

For many Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people, the failure of the BIA to recognize this impeachment process—Halftown’s removal by his own clan mother—constitutes US interference in the internal affairs of the Cayuga Nation. For them, this is a clear violation of Indigenous sovereignty.

The BIA did not reply to multiple requests for interviews or comments on this story.

2014 Seizure of Buildings and Community Programs

A decade of growing frustration over the inability to get the BIA to respect traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance—and to recognize the Council’s formal removal of Halftown—all came to a head in 2014. 

“Two days before, three days before, my mother and father told me what they were doing—what the elders had decided they were going to do,” Leanna Young explained to me. “They were going to stop him, they were going to take back, they were going to return everything to the community.”

Early morning on Monday, April 28, a group of Cayuga citizens sometimes referred to as “the Traditionalist faction” took direct collective action, occupying gas stations and one of the main Cayuga Nation buildings, a large building called “the boathouse.” “Two days before, three days before, my mother and father told me what they were doing—what the elders had decided they were going to do,” Leanna Young explained to me. “They were going to stop him, they were going to take back, they were going to return everything to the community.” 

The day of action started before dawn. As Young remembers it, there were between 24 and 30 people involved in this direct action eight years ago; she recalls them entering the building and preventing Halftown’s employees from coming in. “Us Traditionalists took back the boathouse and locked everyone out. We had a standoff with Clint Halftown. All the women were inside—I was one of the women that [was] inside.” The men stood at the exits outside, unarmed but guarding the buildings.

Shortly after, this group of Traditionalists reopened the gas stations and the ice cream store. “It was through the revenue generated by these businesses that they began a language program,” Young explained. “We were able to create a daycare program. We were able to create a meal program for some of the staff, and then we were able to also start the language and culture program.”

The Traditionalists continued to occupy and use the buildings for community purposes for almost six years. They taught and learned the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ language there. With the children, they cleaned corn, made traditional rattles, and tapped trees for sap to make syrup. The fruits from apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees nurtured them. In the schoolhouse, gardens, and boathouse, their community gathered, strengthened, grew—until the attack on that cold February night in 2020, when armed men came in the night to destroy the complex, on the orders of Clint Halftown.

US Interference

Since recognizing him as the federal representative in 2003, the US government has taken various actions to increase (and, occasionally, to limit) Clint Halftown’s power. Regarding Halftown, the BIA has gone back and forth on its position, contradicting itself.

Two men, Tim Twoguns and Gary Wheeler, continue to serve on Halftown’s council—but, like Halftown, they too had been removed from their governance positions by their clan mothers. (Chuck Jacobs, who previously supported Halftown and signed the 2003 document that gave Halftown the position of federal representative, withdrew his support soon after Halftown started overstepping the bounds of his power by attempting to secure the secretive casino deal with then-New York Governor Pataki. Jacobs was eventually condoled as a sachem the same day as Sachem Sam, in April 2005.) 

For many Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people, the failure of the BIA to recognize this impeachment process—Halftown’s removal by his own clan mother—constitutes US interference in the internal affairs of the Cayuga Nation. For them, this is a clear violation of Indigenous sovereignty.

In 2011, BIA Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel acknowledged their removal from their appointments on the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council. In the BIA’s 2011 decision, Keel writes, “I would be remiss if I failed to recognize the results of this exercise of ancient traditional authority by the Clan Mothers. As noted above, by Haudenosaunee tradition, the Clan Mothers are the persons tasked with the responsibility of appointing representatives to their respective clans to serve on the Nation Council… Further, I recognize Mr. William C. Jacobs and Mr. Samuel George as the federal representatives designated by the new Nation Council (emphasis added).

However, in 2016, new BIA Eastern Regional Director Bruce Maytubby did not try to hide the fact that he, a representative of the US government, felt empowered to determine the leadership of the Cayuga Nation, and he would do so in a manner that completely contradicted the rationale of his BIA predecessor. Maytubby’s decision, dated Dec. 15, includes the line: “I find I have the duty, and thus the authority, to decide which, if either, of the 638 proposals was submitted by a valid governing body.” 

The 638 proposals Maytubby is referring to were contract requests submitted by the two rival councils: Halftown’s, and the Traditional Council, to which Sachem Sam and others selected by the clan mothers belong. Because of the protracted leadership dispute, the BIA did not know which council to award federal contracts to, which is why Maytubby felt compelled to weigh in on the matter. In one fell swoop, Maytubby concluded, “This decision accepts the arguments put forward by the Halftown Council that the statement of support campaign has demonstrated the legitimacy of that Council… I will recognize the Halftown Council as the governing body of the Cayuga Nation.”

Three years before President Donald Trump recognized an unelected Juan Guaidó as “Interim President of Venezuela,” the US government continued its longstanding tradition of directly interfering with the internal governance of sovereign Indigenous nations, scrapping the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ decision-making process and endorsing Clint Halftown’s illegitimate claim to power.

The “statement of support campaign” Maytubby mentions in his decision is an often-cited touchstone for Halftown and his council, who claim that over 60% of Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizens support his council’s leadership. The campaign amounted to a 10-page packet mailed out—with support from the BIA—to Cayuga Nation citizens in 2016, similar to previous ones mailed out in 2011 and 2014.

While this campaign is sometimes misrepresented as an “election” or “referendum,” what it actually amounted to was an informational document about the structure of the Halftown Council, with a place to sign on the last page. The instructions on the mailed-out document read: “If you support us as your Council representatives, you should sign this Statement in the presence of a witness and return the Statement back to us in the enclosed envelope.” Recipients were not given any instructions on how to voice dissent or how to “vote” for anything other than the Halftown Council.

It is unclear who received the packet and who didn’t. Moreover, there is neither a transparent nor auditable process for determining who responded. Some Cayuga Nation citizens I spoke to said they never received it. “I never got one,” explained Dylan Seneca, a Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizen and vocal critic of Halftown. “I wish I’d seen it.”

However, according to the BIA, 237 of the 392 enrolled Cayuga Nation of New York members who received the document signed it in support of the Halftown Council; the BIA has also noted that “Additional statements of support were submitted, but were rejected for various reasons.” This is the figure Halftown, his council, and his hired PR firm refer to when they claim they have majority (“over 60%”) support.

Dylan Seneca sits for an interview just before dusk at a park on Cayuga Lake on June 6, 2022. Photo by Aaron Fernando

By the Department of the Interior’s own admission, the statement of support campaign was flawed.  According to a letter dated Nov. 14, 2019, from Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, “The Regional Director [Maytubby] concluded that while the statement of support process was flawed as executed, those flaws were not sufficient to compel rejection of the outcome” (emphasis added). Still, in that same letter, Sweeney states: “I respond to reaffirm that the Maytubby Decision, as upheld by the Black Decision, recognized the Nation’s acknowledgment of the Halftown Council as the Nation’s governing body without qualification” (emphasis added).

Just one month later, US Attorney for the Western District of New York JP Kennedy walked the Sweeney letter back. “While the Sweeney letter provides some guidance on the Cayuga leadership dispute,” Kennedy writes, “that guidance is limited to those governmental functions within the purview of the Department of Interior’s lawful authority. Other issues remain unresolved. Questions regarding the lawful ownership of the property, operation of the business, the status of such property and business are largely questions of New York State Law, and as the New York Court of Appeals decision in Cayuga Nation v. Campbell et. al., dated October 29, 2019, makes clear, such issues remain unsettled.”

Kennedy’s letter effectively communicated to both Halftown and the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council that, in the eyes of the US government, the status of who owns the properties—those seized by the Traditionalists in 2014, as well as the others held by the Cayuga Nation—was still not clear, and that no one, therefore, should take any actions seizing buildings until the matter is resolved. And yet, less than three months after Kennedy sent his letter, Leanna Young’s brother and others were detained at gunpoint as Halftown’s men demolished and took over some of the buildings in question in the middle of the night. 

“Unfortunately, it meant nothing in reality,” said Joe Heath in reference to the Kennedy letter. “The failure to enforce that letter was one of the major mistakes by the federal government that exacerbated the situation on the ground. And, again, [it] failed to protect either the Cayuga Nation citizens who are the victims of this, or to help keep the peace for the entire broader community.”

In recent months, armed home invasions by Cayuga Nation Police and private security forces hired by Halftwown’s Council have increased in both intensity and frequency.

Various US officials at the state and federal levels condemned the attack in February 2020, but took no meaningful action on the matter. “It’s another example of the federal government creating a mess and then not cleaning it up and not taking responsibility for it,” said Heath.

Amid all of this bureaucratic chaos, another threat to Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ sovereignty is brewing: Halftown has submitted an application to change the ownership structure of Cayuga Nation lands so that said lands can be held in trust by the US government. What would be the purpose of submitting such an application? By all accounts, it appears that Halftown has taken this step so that he can build a casino. “The only purpose that we have been able to identify is that it would allow a more intensive form of gambling on properties that were accepted into trust,” explained Heath. “You can’t build a casino unless it’s on trust land.”

Haudenosaunee leadership has always been opposed to casinos, and to gambling in general. The traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council is also opposed to the land being held in trust because it would mean that ownership of the land is no longer in Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ hands. If the land is in trust, the title to that land would be held by the US government.

A few months after the 2020 attack, Tara Sweeney, the aforementioned official from the BIA, rejected a first land-into-trust application on the grounds of safety concerns. Halftown’s lawyers have challenged the denial of the land-into-trust application, which is why it has been resubmitted and is again being considered by the BIA. The decision is expected later this year. One might expect that, because the first application was denied due to safety concerns, Halftown would be cautious and tread lightly until BIA rendered a decision, but this has not been the case. In recent months, armed home invasions by Cayuga Nation Police and private security forces hired by Halftwown’s Council have increased in both intensity and frequency.

There is a consistent pattern emerging regarding these home raids (and who is being targeted); people on the ground in Cayuga Nation say Halftown is trying to consolidate power by silencing and intimidating his opponents, starving them of their homes and financial resources, and erasing the reality that his power was established by the US government, not the clan mothers.

There is a consistent pattern emerging regarding these home raids (and who is being targeted); people on the ground in Cayuga Nation say Halftown is trying to consolidate power by silencing and intimidating his opponents, starving them of their homes and financial resources, and erasing the reality that his power was established by the US government, not the clan mothers. Halftown, tellingly, has also tried to erase and rewrite the history of his own rise to power. Even if they didn’t watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, younger readers may still be familiar with the phrase “There is no war in Ba Sing Se,” which has become a meme in and of itself signifying the attempts of authoritarian regimes to deny and obscure reality and to speak untruths into existence by simply repeating them over and over. On Halftown’s Cayuga Nation website, for instance, one will find repeated refrains about the ongoing leadership dispute: “[T]here is no leadership dispute.”

The Varick Attack

On Aug. 3, Maddie Halpert put out a call to action on a Slack channel for organizers working to support Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people. The message read: “TONIGHT camping requested: I happened to be out here at Varick [a local residential property] and people have noticed a lot of activity of vehicles around Cayuga Nation Police headquarters that are making them think CNP [Cayuga Nation Police] are ‘gearing up for something’. Theyre [sic] requesting people to campout tonight”

I responded to Maddie’s post. I couldn’t camp out that night, but I asked them to notify me immediately if and when something started happening and I’d zip up with my camera. Unfortunately, a few hours later, Maddie sent me a message saying “come asap,” followed by “they are surrounding varick w bulldozer”

Wanda John—the same 64-year-old Grandma Wanda who hosted the large sleepover for Cayuga children the night before Halftown’s men demolished the community center—had bruised arms, a bruised forehead, and was deeply upset. Halftown’s mercenaries had just assaulted her, dragged her from her house, and forced her to watch the destruction of her home.

By the time I reached the house in Varick, New York Sheriff’s officers had blocked off the roads leading to the property. I had to wait until the bulldozer and Cayuga Nation Police left before I could survey the scene. Wanda John—the same 64-year-old Grandma Wanda who hosted the large sleepover for Cayuga children the night before Halftown’s men demolished the community center—had bruised arms, a bruised forehead, and was deeply upset. Halftown’s mercenaries had just assaulted her, dragged her from her house, and forced her to watch the destruction of her home. (A post on the Cayuga Nation website that was set up by Halftown falsely claimed that the house was “dilapidated and vacant”; public comments on this post are turned off.)

Cayuga Nation Police (CNP) are not exactly a police force in the traditional sense. They are a hired security force of non-Cayuga people who work for Halftown. For more involved acts of violence like this demolition and the ones that took place in 2020—where Daren and others were held at gunpoint—they temporarily deputize a security contractor made up of individuals known to be more brutal, called Pathfinder Security Solutions.

“Four men took me down right on the front steps there,” Wanda John told me. “Then [they] stood me up and said, ‘Look at that dozer… You know what’s happening next?’”

Not only did they attack the house, but they also used the bulldozer on the structures behind the house—two sheds and a large red barn. Notably, this very barn had been used to host traditional ceremonies, community events, and activities for local children. Once again, just like he had done two and a half years before, Halftown ordered his hired forces to destroy specific spaces where the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ congregated, the spaces where children learn about their culture.

“It’s another example of the federal government creating a mess and then not cleaning it up and not taking responsibility for it.”

Joe Heath, general legal counsel for the Onondagas and for the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people

How I Got Involved

When Maddie Halpert sent out a call to action in August, the reason I was in the Slack channel in the first place is because with this issue, I am both a journalist and an organizer. I had been doing volunteer media work with the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU) and we, like other settlers, had been asked by Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizens to camp on the properties of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’. These were solidarity actions: Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people feared forcible evictions and more unannounced bulldozings from Halftown, so they asked non-Native allies for support.

ITU members responded to the call and camped out at a few properties, one of which was Leanna Young’s. Another was the house of Karlie and Marcus Redeye, which will become relevant later. 

Since 2021, I have been volunteering with the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ to do photography, conduct interviews, and help with press outreach on and off. Earlier this year, Maddie Halpert again asked me to help with media support for HalftownMustGo, an organization of non-Cayuga volunteers following Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ leadership. HalftownMustGo would travel to DC with Sachem Sam, Leanna Young, Dylan Seneca, and other Indigenous supporters to pressure the US government to respect traditional Haudenosaunee/Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance. I agreed to go, and went to DC with the group. 

During this trip, a cohort of about 30 people traveled to DC to support Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizens and Sachem Sam George in their effort to seek an audience with the US government. The federal government does not appear to recognize or acknowledge the active role that it has played in transforming the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance structure by opting not to contract and liaise with a Council of Chiefs with a centuries-long historical lineage and to instead recognize, empower, and fund a new council established by individuals who were never chiefs.

Furthermore, the federal government generally refuses to interact with the traditional Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ Council, unless it is through a lawsuit. 

On May 16, 2022, a delegation of Traditionalists from the Cayuga Nation—Leanna Young and her daughter Evee, Dylan Seneca, Sachem Sam, and others—went to Washington, DC. With non-Native allies, they demonstrated in front of the Department of the Interior building, where the BIA is housed. The day was pleasant and warm, with a light drizzle, and the demonstrators were ready to make some noise. I was there with them, photographing and recording video. Emblazoned on the white and purple umbrellas demonstrators carried was a clear message: “BIDEN MEET THE SACHEMS.” 

The arrangement and color of the umbrellas symbolized the Two Row Wampum, hearkening to one of the earliest treaties the Haudenosaunee made with European colonialists. Under the Two Row, colonizers stay in their boat, and Haudenosaunee peoples stay in their canoe. They travel in the same direction, and they can ask each other for help, but they do not interfere in each other’s affairs. This is the basis for the treaties, for peace.

The demonstrators marched to the White House before meeting with the offices of New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. During the meeting with Schumer’s office, Young offered a powerful testimony to the one government official who was present (and to the disembodied voices of the other officials on the teleconference call). “The only thing I can do is I can ask you to make the right decisions,” Young said. “Make the right choice. Don’t choose genocide.”

After the demonstrations took place in May, it appears that there has been no movement whatsoever on the side of the federal government. Less than three months after the march in DC and the Senate meetings, Halftown sent his men to bulldoze Wanda John’s Varick house and ceremonial space. Since then, the home raids and demolitions have continued.

Armed Raids, Imprisonment, Demolitions

There is much local support for the Traditionalists, because locals can see what is going on. Networks of organizers from HalftownMustGo, the Ithaca Tenants Union, SURJ, and others have shown up to support Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people, camping at homes of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’, providing logistical support. And donations flow in from those who cannot be there.

Yet the violence continues. On Saturday, Sept. 3, Halftown’s private police force arrested three people, tasing one of them. Two of the people were then taken across state lines to a prison in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, and then brought back up days later. Despite being across state lines, Halftown has a contract to hold people arrested by CNP in this county prison. One of them had reportedly gone into diabetic shock while in the custody of Halftown’s men, and was rushed to the hospital immediately after being released. A few days later on Sept. 7, Halftown’s men demolished another house. These attacks have led to a heightened sense of urgency, a palpable level of chronic stress among Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people and allies (even I feel it whenever I visit the area). Houses have been fortified or barricaded with wooden sticks, metal barriers, and cars, and people camp in tents in the yards, unsure when the next round of armed men may arrive.

And then, on Friday, Sept. 16, armed mercenaries raided and seized the home of Karlie Jones and Marcus Redeye. Marcus’ mother Regina was living with the couple, as was his brother Buck, who had been temporarily staying in the home demolished a week before, on Sept. 7. On the 16th, Jones had just left the house with the Redeye brothers for an arraignment at the Seneca County Police Department, in regards to charges related to this conflict from the previous month.

Moments later, the raid began. 

Because it was known that raids like these may occur, Maya Soto, an 18-year-old Indigenous (Taíno) but non-Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ person was watching the house, sitting in the living room with another Taíno woman, Alexas Esposito, when it began. The Redeye house was one where people would camp out in solidarity. In fact, I had stayed there, writing a portion of this article in an upstairs office room deep into the night, about a month before this raid. Soto and Esposito were also watching some venison stew cooking slowly on the stove top, waiting for some frybread dough to rise. The meal was meant to feed about 50 community members and supporters that evening.

The federal government does not appear to recognize or acknowledge the active role that it has played in transforming the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ governance structure by opting not to contract and liaise with a Council of Chiefs with a centuries-long historical lineage and to instead recognizing, empowering, and funding a new council established by individuals who were never chiefs.

But they would never eat that meal. Soto remembers two others who were house-sitting running into the room suddenly, shouting, “They’re here!” Seconds later, Halftown’s mercenaries, in full tactical gear, were at the front door with guns drawn. “Get on the ground!” They shouted. “Get on the fucking ground!”

Soto and Esposito recall about 40 CNP and deputized Pathfinder mercenaries there with “assault rifles in hand, all pointed at us.” Others who showed up to the scene right after counted between 20 to 27 armed individuals there.

Of the three others watching the house with Soto and Esposito, one was a pregnant woman. “I looked to my right and I saw [the pregnant woman] and she was starting to cry,” Soto explained. “So I started yelling, ‘She’s pregnant, she can’t lay on her stomach’ and all they said was ‘Crawl out!’ The armed men made this pregnant woman—who has a dangerous pregnancy complication known as preeclampsia—crawl on her stomach with the rest of them until they were out of the house.

None of the five people detained in this raid were enrolled members of the Cayuga Nation. This could pose legal complications for CNP and Pathfinder Security Solutions. When CNP and Pathfinder raid and forcibly detain Cayuga Nation members, the US and New York State back off, stating that they do not have jurisdiction over the matter. But in this situation, things may be different. 

Furthermore, CNP or Pathfinder mercenaries maced bystanders three times after the raid and fired rubber bullets at a vehicle with a person in it, shattering the windshield. At least one of these uses of mace happened when the bystander was on a New York State Road, off Cayuga Nation territory. 

The supposed purpose of the raid was to execute a warrant that specified the seizure of business records, cellphones, computers, money, weapons, and drugs. This may be because, outside this home, there was also a pop-up cannabis dispensary, and Halftown appears to be targeting anything that generates income or revenue for his opponents. In New York, it is legal to operate a cannabis dispensary on sovereign tribal land. During the raid, CNP took all computers and phones inside the house, including those of non-Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people.

This seizure of computers has resulted in Jones losing her job, as well. Despite the recent traumatic events, she maintained a surprisingly calm demeanor and told me, resolutely, when I asked her about her home, “I’m getting it back. I’m going to fight to my last breath to get it back.”

And while larger acts of destruction in the Cayuga Nation garnered some media attention, opponents of Clint Halftown and his council face ongoing financial consequences, as well, draining those who speak out of the resources to keep fighting. Seen from a distance, that appears to be the point. 

Halftown and his PR team characterize any of his opponents who use Cayuga Nation buildings as “squatters.” He then uses the Cayuga Nation courts—which he controls— to pass judgments against those who have occupied those buildings, in some cases getting money judgments passed through New York State courts to garnish the wages of his opponents.

Beyond that, there are credible allegations that Halftown has mishandled federal funds, including HUD funds and COVID-19 funds. Multiple interviewees informed me that about 50 Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ citizens have not received the $5,000 relief payments, which the federal government apportioned to be distributed to Cayuga Nation citizens, that they were supposed to get, while other enrolled Cayuga Nation members did get the money. “My sister got it,” said Sachem Sam, about the COVID-19 relief check, “but I didn’t get it.”

It appears that those who did not get their payments are those who oppose Halftown. “None of us knew that covid relief monies were even being distributed at the time,” explained Dylan Seneca. “Every Nation member here that’s opposing him right now did not see any covid relief money.”

I wanted to ask Clint Halftown directly about the allegations of mishandled COVID-19 funds, about the raids, and what he was trying to do with the properties. I wanted to understand if he had a vision of any sort for the Cayuga Nation and even wondered how he felt when the Traditionalists seized buildings in 2014. But after getting in contact with Clint Halftown’s PR person, Maria Stagliano, I was informed that Clint does not give interviews. At most, I was told, he would respond to questions in writing. After multiple follow-up attempts, however, it proved impossible to reach him this way, either. Maria Stagliano works for the crisis PR firm Levick. Levick and Stagliano acted as the spokesperson for the management of the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida, after the collapse of the building that resulted in the deaths of 98 people.

Remember the Children 

A couple months ago, Leanna Young told me that she and Dylan Seneca were planning a youth program for Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ children, focused on their language and culture. They were going to rebuild the programs that had been destroyed in the 2020 attack. 

Apparently, they had decided to do it on the way back from DC. It was this program that they had been operating out of the big red barn behind Wanda John’s house. Both the house and the barn were rendered unusable in the attack on Aug. 3.

When I got to the house that August evening, Leanna Young, Dylan Seneca, Sachem Sam, and many others were all there. Many of them were too upset to speak. “It was just like February 2020,” Young told me after bringing herself to start to describe what had happened. Retraumatized after the destruction of their community centers, homes, and gardens in 2020. Retraumatized after the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779. 

The story can be seen as one of tragedy: a community keeps getting attacked, and the attacker has all the money, all the forces, and all the legal impunity to keep going, year after year. But the story can also be seen as one of resilience. Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ people keep resisting the violence, keep coming back and building back, year after year. We don’t know how this will end, but one thing is certain: the story is not yet over.

Even after the attack on Wanda John and the demolition of that house and community space, Young told me that they had gotten right back to the summer program with the children, and plan on running the program again next summer. “Some children had asked me last week if the program was over or if we were still going to meet,” she said in an email. “We had weekly themes but given the circumstances I’ve decided it’s best to just take it light … if they wanna swim every day, I’m very inclined to say yes. I want to give them a place of reprieve from all of what is going on around them and a space to just be themselves.”

Updated 09/30/2022 3:40PM

Aaron Fernando

Aaron Fernando is a freelance journalist, editor, photographer, and organizer based out of (so-called) Ithaca, New York.

From co-op policy to public banking, Aaron’s writing focuses on how organizers can shape seemingly-technical realms, like law and economics. He also works at an independent bookstore, loves speculative fiction, and is a member of the Ithaca Tenants Union steering committee.

You can find Aaron on Twitter @00AaronFernando.