The Shame of Central New York, or, how one man turned a proud people into a corporation

The United States is a self-described “Bastion of Freedom,” and here in New York we are often proud of our tolerance and prevailing liberal views; after all, they say even an Upstate conservative would be a raging liberal out in Wyoming or down in Alabama. When we think of centers oppression and despotism, we rarely think of the US and are even less likely to think of New York. Tyrants live in Iraq or North Korea; oppression is found in Iran or perhaps Birmingham. Certainly not a stone’s throw from Syracuse, at a place where busloads of little old ladies and graduating high school seniors travel daily.

To our great shame, however, a despot rules in Upstate, New York. No, I’m not referring to Pataki or the State Legislature, but to Ray Halbritter, CEO of Oneida Nation Inc and Federally recognized leader of the Oneida Nation, the master of Turning Stone Casino.

The history of the
Oneida people is a tragic part of New York history. In the Treaty of Canandaigua (with the USA in 1794), the Oneida negotiated a reservation of 6 million acres in Upstate New York (to put that in context, the Adirondack park is a little over 6 million in size). Despite being allies with the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, effectively shattering the Iroquois Confederacy to side with the European-Americans, the Oneida were systematically betrayed throughout the resulting decades. The 20th century opened with only 32 acres remaining in the Oneida hands.

The rise of Halbritter begins within “The 32” in 1977 when the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) recognized three individuals, Lyman Johns, Richard Chrisjohn and Arthur Raymond Halbritter, as “messengers for the Oneida people residing in Central New York” [1]. The resulting years were times of struggle as pro-gaming and anti-gaming groups within the reservation came to conflict. One of the roots of the struggle came from the Longhouse Religion and the Code of Handsome Lake. A native prophet of the late 1700s and early 1800s, Handsome Lake revived the traditional beliefs of the Haudenosaunee and created his “Code” to help them adapt to reservation life. One of Handsome Lake’s great commands is against gambling of all types. [2] Handsome Lake’s followers stood firmly against the proposed Bingo casino, even to the point of arson. (For more details on the time period, check my timeline of antebellum history in New York).

However, in the end the pro-gaming faction, lead by Halbritter, triumphed. This lead to Halbritter’s consolidation of control over the Nation in 1993. After the deaths of Johns and Chrisjohn (both elderly men), Halbritter assumed complete control over the nation. He further diluted traditional,
matriarchal, government by creating, without the approval of the Oneida, a Men’s Council; he appointed all Clan Mothers and Men’s Council Members, in direct violation of tribal law. [1, 4] Halbritter created a 54 man police force to police 32 acres of ground; there was not a single Oneida on the force [4]. Simultaneously, Halbritter negotiated a secret deal with the State of New York to open a casino: Turning Stone. He also formed, and became CEO, of a corporation named Oneida Nation Inc., which today is virtually inseparable from the Oneida Nation government.

In April of that year, the
Grand Council stripped Halbritter of his status (a power that they have the power to do under Iroqois and US law), and to this day there is no representative of the New York Oneida on the Council. This decision was ratified by the US Department of the Interior and then reversed the very next day after intense pressure from Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). While the Department of the Interior could not force Halbritter onto the Council, he did remain in charge of the Oneida, this probably didn't bother Halbritter much as he reportedly did not show up to Council meetings for years, despite being chosen represent his people on it.[4]

Halbritter then turned on his own people. He began to
strip Oneida status from dissenters who opposed his heavy-handed actions. To take one’s Oneida citizenship is akin to removing one’s American Citizenship: one cannot vote or receive services. In effect, these people were evicted from their homes (which were razed), had their health care, educational allowances and stipends removed, jobs taken away, were isolated from their family and social circle and sealed out of their religious organizations. In 1995, Halbritter, in fact, sealed the Wolf Clan’s Longhouse (religious and social building) and ordered the arrest of anyone entering. [1, 6]

The secretive regime also
refused to comply with the 1988 Indian Gaming Act and refused to hand over audits to the National Indian Gaming Commission from 1993-96. While Halbritter eventually acquiesced to the Commission (only because they threatened to close the casino), the Oneida themselves have never been able to see the financial accounting books of the organization. The abuses continue: laws of the Nation are also constructed in secret by non-Oneida lawyers and the police have been accused of illegal surveillance, breaking and entering and abuse of Nation members. [1, 3, 4, 5]

Today, the conflict continues, though Halbritter maintains the upper hand. Upstate non-Iroquois from the area tend to support the Casino (which has over a 1,000 jobs) and the plight of the Traditionalist, anti-gambling Oneida is ignored. The spin doctors of Oneida Nation Inc have largely played it off as a “family conflict” over “greed and money,” but of course the Oneida are all closely related and the Traditional opposed the creation of the casino in the beginning. For examples of spin, see editorials in
Daily Sentinel, Oneida Dispatch, and the Daily Sentinel who all seem more concerned about money and jobs than democracy and justice; note that the Sentinel claims that the revocation was an act of ‘whites,’ but the BIA was headed by a native american and all the parties involved were natives. [4]

What can you do to help? For one, avoid the Turning Stone. You can tell others, especially those planning trips to Verona to gamble, about Halbritter. Write letters to the editor, complain in public. Let the word get out that one man has taken a nation and turned it into his own business and that when there are complaints against him, he responds with secrecy and violence. More actively, you can help the
Oneidas for Democracy, representing the traditional voice; they need money and material assistance to continue their struggle. They also have a list of officials and news outlets that one can send letters to. A petition has been set up online for support of an investigation.

Will we tolerate tyranny in our own backyards? Will the people of the United States back up their own rhetoric of democracy and freedom when it doesn’t profit oil revenues? Will the people of New York reject the generations-old practice of ignoring the Haudenosaunee and instead embrace our history of resistance to oppression? So far, it doesn’t look good.

-Posted by Jesse

A Historical Journey, by Doug George-Kanentiio
Mountain Views: A Perspective on Strawberries and the Seneca Casino Deal, from the Niagara Falls Reporter by John Hanchette
Oneida Indians Move to Unseat Casino Boss, from The New Standard, by Katherine Comp
The Oneida Report (and here), from the Christian Peacemaker Teams
Docket: Shenandoah, et al v. Halbritter, from The Center for Constitutional Rights
Native Americans Under Siege, from Sacred Lands


joe said...

This is the god's honest truth. When all those people's homes were being demolished the anarchists were the first to respond to help those people. The baby liberals and progressives didn't do anything until everything was destroyed. There are documentaries about the demolition, one's buy Bill whateverhisnameis from Binghamton IMC.

NYCO said...

Jesse, you might be interested in the Onondagas' year-long series of presentations in Syracuse on "Land Rights and Our Common Future," which are starting next week.




Ricardo Flores Magon said...

"To the reactionists of today we are revolutionists, but to the revolutionists of tomorrow our acts will have been those of conservatives."

Concsience said...

F em
F em all
Indian reservations and soveriegn land are RACIST

Natalie said...

Care to elaborate, conscience?

Tim Conway said...

Where's the opposing viewpoint represented here? Maybe this is true, maybe it isn't! What we have in this article is one side of the story...

Jesse said...

The beauty of a blog is that it's an opinion place, like an op-ed in the newspaper, so I don't really feel obligated to give "both sides." I do my try to be accurate and research to the best of my ability the things that I write (I do think I'm obligated to do that), but I don't think I have to waste my precious time and effort to defend a slime of a man like Ray Halbritter. There are simply more important things in my life and I don't think I could defend him with good conscience.

That said, I'm also of the philosophy that there is no such thing as an unbiased article in the world; every author has his or her own biases that they write into their pieces; some (like bloggers) are willing to admit their biases while others work to hide them. My advice is to question all news and all articles, and if something is important, to research yourself. I know it takes more time, but, in this case for instance, I believe the oppressed Oneidas are worth the effort.

PS: If you ever disagree with one of my posts, feel free to comment and you can even indulge in writing a counter post; we will put up all writings that are sent to us that meet our submission guidelines. So Ray Halbritter, if you're reading this, I challenge you to defend yourself. I don't think I'll get a response, but when do dictators feel the need to explain themselves?

Ahniwanika said...

Jesse, thank you so much for taking the time to do the research and write what you have here. We value and appreciate it.

I will be putting this up http://oneidasfordemocracy.org/

kabespir@comcast.net said...

I want to thank you and hope that you will leave this very IMP! info up. The "siege" against the Oneida Traditional People in Oneida Indian Nation-Business, NY is still going on!
It is wonderful to see that the world is NOT forgetting, much to OIN-Business' chagrin and SHAME!
Excellent work, Jesse!
In Peace & Justice,
Kabespir, International Native and Metis Women's Council