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More violence, surprise demolitions on Cayuga tribal lands as leadership dispute continues

Remains of Cayuga farmhouse
Megan Zerez
Remains of the farmhouse where Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' elder Wanda John once lived.

As the sun set, Wanda John’s son emerged from his mother’s half-demolished farmhouse in rural Seneca County. The walls are a mess of splintered wood and plaster, tufts of pink fiberglass strewn about.

The family has been at the site trying to salvage what they can — drums and rattles used in sacred ceremonies, old lacrosse trophies, a toy in the shape of a turtle that belonged to one of the grandchildren.

John’s former home is one of several Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’, or Cayuga Nation buildings demolished last week on orders from the tribe’s federally recognized leader, Clint Halftown.

John’s family said they believe the surprise demolition was an act of retaliation for their past criticism of Halftown.

The property also housed a barn and makeshift longhouse where she and other Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ held ceremonies and traditional language lessons for the tribe’s children.

The Varick longhouse had been a temporary replacement for a longhouse Halftown demolished in 2020.

Longhouse at Cayuga Nation
Megan Zerez
John and her family had constructed a makeshift longhouse in a barn on the property.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, of which the Cayuga are a part, does not recognize Halftown as leader of the tribe. However, the U.S. federal government considers Halftown the Cayuga Nation’s official representative, which gives him control over the tribe’s federal funding.

That’s led to clashes over the years. Some of Halftown’s critics said the leader uses the surprise evictions and demolitions to target those who criticize him.

“One of them put his foot on the back of my neck”

John has lived in the house in Varick for the past two years.

But she said she had no warning before Cayuga Nation tribal police hired security guards and a demolition crew showed up at the house on Wednesday.

“I got dragged out of my house. I had bruises all over. They slammed me down on my front porch, I thought I was gonna pass out,” John said. “And then one of them put his foot on the back of my neck here.”

Her bruises were still visible several days after the incident.

John said she managed to call her daughter-in-law before police took away her cell phone and handcuffed her in a police car.

“Vacant and neglected”

Video posted to social media shows bulldozers on site and a growing crowd of onlookers outside the rural property, some clashing with police and guards.

Demolished Cayuga house-stop work order
Megan Zerez
Seneca County officials arrived on scene and issued a stop work order, still visible on the front of the house. Workers continued with the demolition despite the order.

Seneca County inspectors also arrived at the site midway through the demolition and issued a stop order, though it appears that the demolition continued after the intervention.

In a statement, the tribe’s federally recognized representatives, Clint Halftown and Sharon LeRoy, said John hadn’t paid rent. The statement also accuses John of selling marijuana illegally out of the home, though sale of the drug is legal on tribal land.

A spokesperson said Halftown ordered the demolition of the house because it was vacant and neglected.

Protestors disputed those claims at a demonstration Friday evening. About 20 people, including members of other Haudenosaunee tribes, gathered across the street from a Cayuga Nation-owned dispensary as tribal police looked on.

“Taking care of each other”

Bear Clan Sachem (chief) Sam George said John had kept the Victorian-era farmhouse in excellent condition.

“We had the [Seneca] County Attorney take the [building] code people down there and they said [the house] was in immaculate shape, until [Halftown’s] destruction,” George said.

As for rent, George said community members sometimes pitched in to help John pay the bills during the pandemic.

“We were taking care of her, taking care of each other,” George said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”