SENECA FALLS, N.Y.—Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people witnessed more destruction of their homes and sacred spaces on Aug. 3 when Cayuga Nation Police, under orders from Clint Halftown arrived at a house in the Town of Varick to demolish the structure. The Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people are commonly known as the Cayuga people in American parlance.
At least three structures, including a house and barn, were demolished late Wednesday night with more possible as Halftown seeks to knock down what he claims are uninhabitable properties and perilous eyesores. But others, including Cayuga Nation members and residents of the houses, say Halftown’s motivation is far more vengeful and sinister.
Halftown occupies a strange position. He is federally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the leader of the Cayuga Nation. But a significant portion of the Cayuga Nation views him as illegitimate and dangerous, an ongoing tension that has manifested in harmful clashes starting in early 2020, with another large episode in summer 2021, and now the current demolition. Witnesses to the latest property destruction in Varick and Seneca Falls claim he is “hungry for power and money.”
According to a press release from Halftown’s spokesperson, the properties demolished were “uninhabitable.” According to neighbors, friends and activists who witnessed Hafltown’s payloaders rip the structures apart, this is untrue, and before tearing one house down, Cayuga Nation Police had entered the residence and roughly pulled Wanda John from the house, handcuffing her and making her watch the destruction. A picture was posted online showing bruising on John’s arm from the incident.
While Halftown and his police force, which some say blurs the lines between legitimate law enforcement and personal henchmen, claim that John hadn’t lived in the house during several checks over the last months, she was a resident at least as late as July 2021 — when Halftown also threatened to knock down the house but was deterred by the presence of activists who caught word of the threat early.
Leanna Young, a Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ member and faith keeper, says she heard that John had been arrested and that she was by herself at her residence, and when she arrived at the house, police and bulldozers were lined up. “We heard on one of the walkie talkies, ‘You’re ok to demo.’ The payloader knocked down the chicken coop, they knocked over the shed and they were starting to tear down the barn,” she said, adding that the barn had been the place where sacred ceremonies had been held since the structure on Route 89 had been torn down by Halftown previously.
County code enforcement arrived and put a stop work order on the barn destruction due to it being a historical site and one of the first houses built in Varick. Since work had to be stopped on the barn, Young said, attention was turned on the house. “You can see they made it uninhabitable. Now they’re claiming in their press release that the reason why they did it was because it was inhabitable — it was very habitable,” she said.
Summer youth group had been held in the house three hours before the destruction began. “Those children are retraumatized because they watched their first sacred place go down, their first schoolhouse go down, first community spot go down. Their safe place has been desecrated again.”
Charles Bowman witnessed (and videoed) the destruction and was part of the group that gathered to protest it. “Even nonnatives were so emotional that we were all yelling from the road for him to stop — they said they can’t do anything.”
Bowman said that he and a few others gathered along the road by where the destruction occurred were pepper sprayed by Cayuga Police officers during the protests.
“I saw the guy start to lift his canister and he starts to spray and I’m just starting to get my face turned and I’m walking away and I can just feel the liquid hitting the back of my head,” he said.
A Native American woman standing near Bowman was also sprayed heavily. “They just completely soaked her. She had to get taken in an ambulance last night — it was bad. I had to shower with Dawn dish soap for about an hour, and when I was trying to sleep, if my skin got warm, it would just start burning.”
Bowman said that Varick Town Supervisor Bob Hayssen had “told the guys doing it to turn around and see what was being destroyed, but none of them would even look.”
Phone calls to the Bureau of Indian Affairs were not answered and the mailbox was not accepting more voicemails.
Perhaps sensing the attention that the action was going to generate, Halftown put out a press release late Wednesday night through his spokesperson, Maria Stagliano, who works for a D.C.-based crisis communications and public relations firm. It alleges that “there were several recent instances of violence and gun wielding by trespassers/criminals in the area.”
Further, it alleges that while Halftown’s Cayuga Nation police officers were leaving after the demolition, some were sprayed with pepper spray, racial slurs were used and protesters tried to prevent officers from leaving. It’s important to note, though, that videos being passed around social media (though they have since been taken down) portray the officers using the pepper spray.
It also insists that the demolitions were “done safely and lawfully,” and that the houses were confirmed vacant at the time of demolition, though it does not list the criteria the nation used to confirm said vacancy.
In a follow-up press release issued Thursday afternoon, Stagliano sought to portray Wanda John as a criminal who has been running a mail-order drug trafficking scheme in one of the demolished houses. It also states that John has not been paying rent on the house that was demolished for several years.
“While local and out-of-town non-Cayuga agitators want you to believe Ms. John was removed from her residence, that is just false,” said Halftown, quoted in the release. “She lives in another Nation house, where she refuses to pay rent, but was free to return last evening. We are disturbed by the evidence found in her presence in Varick and are glad criminals can no longer use that property as a base of operations. The Nation’s law enforcement will work with federal authorities on the investigation moving forward.”
Managing Editor Matt Butler contributed reporting to this story.