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'Reclaiming their identities': Some Cayugas worry over fate of cultural programs in Seneca Falls
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'Reclaiming their identities': Some Cayugas worry over fate of cultural programs in Seneca Falls

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SENECA FALLS — The federal government has ended a years-long Cayuga Indian Nation of New York leadership dispute, but the move has further divided its people residing in Cayuga and Seneca counties.

A group of about 40 Cayugas who have opposed the new nation council and live in the region, are concerned about what will happen to a way of life they have established around the Lakeside Trading Post in Seneca Falls. A schoolhouse behind the gas station and convenience store hosts Cayuga language classes, socials and practice ceremonies that give thanks for the harvests provided by a community garden just outside its doors. 

Cayuga children, too, go to a day care adjacent to the schoolhouse. They learn their native language and traditional dances, sometimes joining their parents and community members at the schoolhouse.

Cayuga Nation

Travis John Sr., second from the left, leads a group in a traditional dance at the school on the Cayuga Nation in Seneca Falls. The Cayugas are working to maintain, through education, their cultural heritage through Cayuga language, song and dance.

"They're reclaiming their identities," said Steve Henhawk, a Cayuga faithkeeper who teaches the language classes. Henhawk commutes more than three hours from Grand River, Canada, once a week to teach the classes. He stays overnight in a small cottage behind the Seneca Falls store.

"It (the Seneca Falls schoolhouse and day care) was really good because they're in so close proximity," he said in an interview with The Citizen on Aug. 16. "We use it as a basis to ensure that this carries on and keeps playing. Without our culture, without our language, can we really say we are Cayuga people? Other than that, we're all the same."

The future of those programs and the people isn't clear anymore. Clint Halftown and Tim Twoguns, leaders of the new Cayuga Nation Council, succeeded in their litigation to evict those Cayugas occupying the Seneca Falls properties in a judge's ruling Sept. 8. In multiple press releases and statements, Halftown has said monies from the Seneca Falls store have been stolen from the nation. He's also referred to the last few years as a "dark period in the Nation's history."

"We will regain properties that were illegally taken and get back on the path of progress to benefit all Cayuga Nation citizens," Halftown wrote in a statement to The Citizen.

But some nation members believe that does not include the Cayuga people residing in the central New York area who have opposed Halftown, however. 

Wanda John, a Cayuga who participates in the programs at Seneca Falls and has had four generations living on territory, said Halftown has often been invited to their ceremonies. Dusty Parker, another Cayuga who takes the language classes, agreed, and said Halftown has never accepted the invitation.

"My opinion is the money isn't the object anymore," Parker said. "It's the threat of growth over here, which is something that he (Halftown) doesn't sympathize with. He's more on the economic platform and side of things, whereas here, we've got more of a spiritual and cultural growth with the community. I think it's two different worlds, you know? But in reality, this was already laid out for us, for Clint (Halftown) to come back to, and he still has the opportunity to work together with everybody."

In his statement to The Citizen, Halftown said the "Nation will continue to provide programs for all its citizens, not just a select few." He did not elaborate on what those programs may be, and he did not respond to The Citizen's question about whether he is currently offering any.

Sitting inside the schoolhouse on Aug. 31, Sachem Sam George shook his head. In 2005, the nation's clan mothers made him one of the chiefs representing the Bear Clan. George took on the responsibility with little knowledge about his Cayuga heritage.

He had grown up on Seneca Nation territory, had learned the Seneca language and customs. But the Haudenosaunee people are a matriarchal society, and since his mother was Cayuga, George knew it was important to learn what it meant to be Cayuga. George wasn't the only one wanting to learn more about his identity.

Michele Vanevery also came from the Seneca Nation. She grew up on the reservation about 30 miles south of Buffalo, but Halftown, who was the nation's federal representative at the time, called her to the Finger Lakes region to reestablish the Cayuga territory. She was excited to learn more about her background, but she said when she got to Seneca Falls, there was nothing there.

"It was a culture shock," she said. "It was a big adjustment, and I just wasn't used to living next to non-natives either."

George said that is why he has advocated for the language and cultural programs at the Seneca Falls territory. Eventually he would like to see a longhouse built, so people can perform the ceremonies in their totality. He hopes those Cayugas who are not on territory yet will see the community they have built and understand that there are things happening.

"I know how important this is," he said. "I want to learn. It's good to see that we have a core of people now that can take care of the longhouse, if and when that happens."

Cayuga Nation

Instructor Steve Henhawk teaches a class at the school on the Cayuga Nation.

Henhawk has watched his language classes grow over the last couple of years. He started out with three students and now has about 20. Learning the language is important, in turn, for performing the ceremonies. Spencer Gauthier, manager of the Seneca Falls store is of the Oneida Nation, but he has witnessed the growth of his fellow Haudensaunee nation. He was particularly excited to see Cayugas perform an entire year's worth of ceremonies in the schoolhouse, starting and ending with the strawberry ceremony.

"That really was an accomplishment," Gauthier said. "All of the other nations took note of that, and they actually come here when we have ceremony. We have Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Oneidas, and we have regular visitors from other nations that come to the schoolhouse, and there are other nations that want to emulate the model that we have back there. It's not just language. It's incorporating the language and ceremony into a sustainable lifestyle, which is really the definition of who we are as a people."

While Halftown is still considered the federal representative, since the Bureau of Indian Affairs has recognized him as the nation's leader, he is now a council leader, too. The BIA is a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and in the past has called on the nation to resolve their leadership dispute internally. That all changed this July and August when Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Michael Black upheld a decision supporting Halftown's council. Black and the bureau said a mail-in ballot Halftown had sent to his own nation roster requesting support for his council was an acceptable way to solve the dispute. The bureau said that about 60 percent of the nation backed Halftown, though it was unclear how complete the roster was, and Halftown did not include another option for Cayugas to vote for.

Joseph Heath, an attorney representing the nation's clan mothers, George and other chiefs, said he will challenge the BIA's decision in federal court. State Supreme Court Justice Dennis F. Bender stayed his decision on Halftown's injunction until Sept. 26 to allow time for the federal court application. If the federal court stays the BIA's leadership decision, Bender wrote that Heath and his clients "may make application for an immediate review of the decision and the accompanying order."

"We are a nation coming back together, coming back to a homeland," George said. "As one of the leaders of the nation, I still have to do what I have to do."

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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