What does it take to convince the world you have the right to protect your homeland? For the Cayuga Nation, quite a lot, apparently. After years of patience, the Cayugas recovered possession of land in Seneca Falls, New York, that was stolen from our sovereign Indian nation in 2014. Based on the public outcry, you might have thought the Cayugas had invaded a pre-school and took toddlers hostage. In fact, that was almost literally an allegation made against the Cayugas, one of many outrageous lies being told by parties antagonizing the Nation and its leadership for many years.
In the last five years, distortions of truth were the least of the Cayuga Nation’s problems. In addition to losing possession of the Seneca Falls property — home to a successful commercial business that subsidized distributions to its citizens — the Nation almost lost two other businesses to aggressors who used physical violence and threats. The Nation was forced to scramble to protect still other properties from attack and had millions of worth of property stolen or destroyed. Throughout this period, the Cayugas received no help from law enforcement and no sympathy from politicians — who treated the property invasions, violence and destruction as something the Nation had to address on its own.
The Cayugas regrouped and took control of their own destiny, resulting in a string of decisive victories. Last year marked the end, once-and-for-all, of a long-running dispute over the leadership of the Nation, after a federal court threw out a legal challenge by a small dissident group, endorsing the will of over 62% of the Nation’s Citizens, and the Department of Interior’s declaration that the Cayuga Nation Council is the leadership of the Nation for “all purposes.” The Department also endorsed the Nation’s right to establish a police department and court system to enforce its tribal laws on its reservation. With its governance structure and law enforcement power now cemented, the Nation set out to right a five-year-old wrong that had cost it millions of dollars and threatened its traditions.
The hysterical reaction to the Nation’s recovery of its property bears no resemblance to what actually happened. No one was injured, no laws were broken, and no school or sacred buildings were demolished. The operation was swift, peaceful, well-planned and decisive, and the discovery of guns, drugs and other evidence of crime reveals a lot about the group that stole the property five years ago. If New York State Troopers had recovered state land in the same manner, they’d be hailed as heroes, their skill and competence celebrated.
So why has the public narrative become so disconnected from what actually happened? One part of the answer is that a mostly white media reflexively label any conflict in Indian country as chaos and violence, evidence that Indians cannot self-govern. Another is that politicians — whose largely white constituents are opposed to the idea that their homes sit within the boundaries of an Indian reservation — score no points if they silently tolerate an act of tribal sovereignty.
These long-held prejudices are as tenacious as they are sinister, but they cannot overshadow what the Cayuga Nation has accomplished. The lesson here is that when an Indian nation is forced to stand its ground, it can and will. The white press may not like it, and white politicians might find it inconvenient — but they are ultimately powerless. Their words may promote hysteria, but their actions demonstrate that sovereignty is sovereignty.
Clint Halftown is the federal representative of the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York.
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