SENECA FALLS – There is a leadership conflict in the Cayuga Nation in Seneca Falls. The conflict in the past week has gotten more intense as two community gas stations and a local cigarette factory have been taken over by rival groups in the community. The current conflict has its roots in the growth of US colonialism during the “war for independence” and the Sullivan Clinton Campaign. During these turbulent years, the expansion of the 13 colonies into the United States meant war, forced relocation, and genocide for the Cayuga Nation.
Cayuga people resettled in neighbouring territories with the Seneca and Six Nations and many more Cayuga were spread out even further west. Not only did these difficult years split apart the people, but their homelands were stolen. Consequently, there has not been an official Cayuga Nation in their traditional homeland until very recently. So the process of reclaiming and rebuilding the Cayuga Nation is both very promising and challenging.
What follows is a series of interviews with various spokespeople active in the current movement. Eva Bighorse is a Turtle Clan citizen working with the Unity Council who sympathizes with the reasons espoused by the Turtle Clan representatives who left the Unity Council. Clint Halftown has been the representative of the current Heron Clan leader of the Cayuga Nation Government for over a decade. Justin Bennett is a representative of the Turtle clan who seceded from the Unity Council last week. Sam George is the Bear Clan Chief that sits on the current Unity Council.
The US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) first ruled in favour of the Unity Council, then reversed its decision in favour of Clint Halftown after an appeal, and is currently undecided after a second appeal. In the meantime, many of the Nation owned businesses in Cayuga Territory have been taken away from Clint Halftown, Gary Wheeler and Tim Twoguns by members of the Unity Council. The Turtle Clan representatives recently seceded from the Unity Council to a position of neutrality and are supporting greater transparency and decision-making process.
Eva Bighorse: “The Cayuga nation has been vulnerable since the end of the American Revolution, because the Nation was split. A large group went to Grand River, a large group stayed on this side of the river. My mom is a descendent of the group that settled on the Cattaragaus. The Cayugas on this side haven’t had a longhouse. I think Cayuga children today should have the opportunity and option to attend longhouse with their respective nation. In order to have a longhouse you have to have your traditional government in order. With the Nation being split and with no longhouse and no land base for Cayuga citizens to live and inhabit, it has been extremely difficult to practice the traditional governance system and so recently we have had citizens within our nation put up to have those titles that are recognized with the Confederacy. And so what we are facing today is between these two factions.”
Clinton Halftown: “New York State took possession of our land illegally to pay off the soldiers and has not been resettled until 2003 when the Cayuga Nation bought its first piece of land back within our territory because that’s where we started from and now we’re back.”
Justin Bennett: “The history in the context of the conflict of the Cayuga nation stems back a couple decades at least and it has been a conflict of traditional form of government and the changes that are made and whether those changes are honoured. Both groups are claiming to have leadership authority.”
Eva Bighorse: “This leadership thing is really kinda small when you look at the greater picture we just need our citizens to come together and start living because there are bigger issues we need to address to build the Nation. Once this leadership thing is finally squashed and we have committed citizens on the homeland ready to do whatever it takes to build a strong community in peace and harmony with our neighbours and allies according to [the] Two Row Wampum then we will understand that we really need to be building relationships with our neighbours. It’s important to reach out to our non-native neighbours here within this direct community and educating them to our history as a nation that includes forced relocation, assimilation and genocide.”
Sam George: “To have the traditional government, and business be run as a business but also be traditional as much as possible to be put into it. Because we know sometime down the road cigarettes are not going to be our main selling thing. So we need to change because at one time our people were farmers. And our people had a lot of peach trees, we have plenty of peach trees, we had plenty of corn. So somehow we need to work our way back to living off the land as much as we can. I mean because just business is fine I’ve always said he [Clint Halftown] has done some good far as gathering money and doing stuff for all the Cayugas. But he’s not doing it for all the Cayugas because some of our members live across the ditch. That’s how we say it and they’re not getting what we’re getting because of old wounds that haven’t healed yet something from some of our people.“
Clint Halftown: “This conflict has been going on since 2010 where a new group within the Cayuga nation called the Unity Council which was formed and says they removed me and Tim Twoguns and Gary Wheeler from our council which has not happened and then the Unity Council then sought intervention by the BIA.”
Eva Bighorse: “Our stance is firm that we are here for the land so that our future generations have a community to grow in and place to call home that Cayugas haven’t had for several hundred years. So we absolutely don’t want it to get violent whatsoever, we just hope that Clint will step aside. He is welcome to participate in the community as a Heron Clan member but he is not a fair leader, he has not respected our traditional ways. If violence does occur we are not going to instigate it whatsoever but it already has on his side which is a concern which is why we are calling out for help.”
Justin Bennett: “I do have a sincere hope and optimistic outlook. Through time and by exercising patience and understanding, the Cayuga Nation will find its way. I firmly believe that if we take the time to listen to each other, come together with good minds and be willing to compromise and sacrifice some of our own personal ambitions, we will find a way to build a nation”
Clint Halftown: “I believe this is an internal Cayuga Nation matter, and it should only be handled by Cayuga Nation. I mean it is our fight internally so it should be us who resolve it.”
Eva Bighorse: “In an ideal world, I’d like to see all Cayugas really focus and strengthen their good minds and have us all come together to talk about this. I would love to see the Cayuga Council of Chiefs come together – meaning all chiefs of all the clans from the nation come together. I would like to see them come to Seneca Falls. I would like to see them, like to meet them, I would like to meet all the Clan Mothers. I would appreciate their presence because their presence brings encouragement and it shows compassion to their brothers and sisters that are fighting to protect the Cayuga homeland here.
With the two confrontations and the two different takeovers particularly this one at the lakeside one gas station people have put their lives in jeopardy, that is how much it means to people out here. In an ideal situation my wish would be for the Cayuga nation of the Iroquois confederacy to start acting like a Cayuga nation and come together despite the [US/Canadian] border that is there.
The families and clans are in crisis mode right now. Cayugas are in distress, and we are constantly calling out for help but it’s the differences that I think keeps people away because they don’t understand or they don’t know who to ask or how to ask to bring clarity. It is about the land and its really about future generations. If we truly exercise self-governance as a traditional council under a traditional government I feel like the Cayugas have a great opportunity to make history here and really exercise the principles that stand within the great law of peace.
We are finally coming together and trying to fight for a land base for the Cayuga nation after 500 years of genocidal policies both inflicted by the USA and Canadian governments. I think it would make a strong statement if Cayugas could just unite on this and come together and we have the opportunity to create a land base for Cayugas to come home to. Hopefully one day we might have enough people to support and to live supporting a longhouse on territory so that we can have those ceremonies done to keep our minds good and to keep our spirits strong.”