In a response to a request for guidance from the Seneca Falls Police Department, a letter from the federal Bureau of Indian affairs says the Cayuga Nation has the sovereign authority to enforce its own laws within the boundaries of its reservation.
The guidance comes amidst legal disputes between the Nation and Cayuga County, the village of Union Springs and the town of Springport regarding the Nation's effort to place land into federal trust, which would exempt it from local taxes and use regulations, and the Nation's gambling business within the village.
To add to that, in May 2018, the nation began establishing its own police force, led and staffed by many former members of the New York State Police and several county sheriff's offices, including Cayuga County.
The authority of the newly-created Cayuga Nation Police similarly came into dispute. Last week, the Cayuga County Legislature passed a resolution saying it did not recognize the Nation police's authority to exercise police powers, and opposed any of the Nation's sovereignty claims based upon the operation of a police force.
When the resolution came up during the committee process, Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schenck said that, since the police force was established, his department was still being called to respond to incidences within the reservation, and told The Citizen Monday it will continue to do so.
However, BIA Director Darryl LaCounte, writing to Seneca Falls Chief of Police Stuart Peenstra in a June 17 letter, said that the Nation is entitled to exercise its inherent sovereign authority to enforce its own laws through a law enforcement program.
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While the Nation does not have lands in trust, LaCounte cites a U.S. Supreme Court case to say all lands within the reservation's exterior boundaries are still considered Indian Country under federal law.
"Therefore, the Department's position is that the Cayuga Indian Nation May enforce its own criminal laws against Indians within the boundaries of the Reservation," LaCounte writes.
In a release, Clint Halftown, the federally-recognized representative for the Nation, praised the letter's support.
"This endorsement of our Nation's right to police our reservation lands and enforce our own laws is entirely consistent with the exercise of our inherent sovereign powers, as recognized by the federal government," Halftown said in the release.
Halftown said the police force, which consists of 10 officers, was created to "restore and maintain order on its properties and businesses," referring long-running dispute between Halftown and his council and a group of Nation chiefs and clan mothers formerly known as the Unity Council.
The extent of the Nation police's authority is unclear. Schenck said he was aware of the BIA's guidance but had not yet had a chance to look into it. Attempts to contact the BIA and the Nation police were unsuccessful by press time.