Moments after Jason John stepped out of the Cayuga Nation’s Tribal Court, he was rushed to the hospital.
On Tuesday, Sept. 6, he was escorted by his lawyer Michael Benson out of the unassuming building that houses the court, past a gate guarded by Cayuga Nation Police, and across NYS Route 89. John appeared sluggish and dazed.
Demonstrators waited on the other side of the highway. Just six holding signs with hand drawn messages like, “Free Big J” — a nickname for John. He was briefly embraced, before a minivan driven came around the corner and he was loaded in.
Benson said, “I want him to a hospital immediately.”
Cameron Seneca was in the van when it pulled up to the roadside. He stepped out, made room for others to step in, and stayed on the roadside as John was raced down the road.
John was going into diabetic shock, friends and family have said.
“He looked like he didn’t know where he was,” said Cameron Seneca, now careful not to take another step back onto the grass, off of the state highway and onto the Cayuga Nation territory, fearing arrest by what is supposed to be his own government. Across the street, the Cayuga Nation Police (CNP) stood guard and milled about. Between 20 and 30 officers were present, some in an official uniform, others in paramilitary garb: combat boots, bulletproof vests, and face masks. Surveillance drones fly over head.
John’s arrest, which occurred on Aug. 28 was followed by three more arrests on Sept. 3, of Carlin “Woody” Seneca, Elijah Jimerson, and Theresa “Aubie” Longboat.
These arrests figure into a nearly two decade long dispute within the Cayuga Nation around the leadership of Clint Halftown, who has served in the capacity as Federal Representative of the Cayuga Nation by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs since 2003.
The leadership dispute
The Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people, or Cayuga, are from what is now called the Finger Lakes region of New York State, primarily around the northern shore of Cayuga Lake. There are around 500 Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people total. The Cayuga Nation is a recognized sovereign nation with a land claim of over 64,000 acres, outlined in the federal Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794. But New York State violated this agreement, and took the lands from the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people, scattering the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ people across North America.
New York State doesn’t recognize that the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ have a claim to a reservation, but the Cayuga Nation contends that the state cannot override the federal Canandaigua treaty which established its reservation.
The Cayuga Nation’s sovereign rights on land purchased in the area outlined in the Treaty of Canandaigua has been upheld in federal court. The Nation owns a patchwork of properties throughout Seneca and Cayuga counties within their federally recognized 64,015 acre reservation.
Halftown is credited with being the business-minded force acquiring much of the Nation owned properties that build up the landmass of the Cayuga’s sovereign nation, but has come to be pilloried as a “dictator” by a faction of the Cayuga Nation that identifies as “traditionalist” Cayuga people. All four of the people arrested in the Cayuga Nation are aligned with the traditionalist faction.
Halftown, and the six person Cayuga Council that he leads, have derided the traditionalists as a group of “criminals” that are not supported by the majority of Cayugas — a view which traditionalists counter saying that Halftown’s leadership is illegitimate.
Maria Stagliano, a crisis communications specialist with the D.C.-based public relations firm LEVICK who represents the Cayuga Nation as a spokesperson, said that there are just about 20 people within the traditional Cayuga group. “I think it’s a very small number, and I think that they are very much misleading how many people are a part of this group.”
Leanna Young, a Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ traditionalist, said that this number is likely over 100 across all Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people.
Traditionalists have supported a narrative that Halftown’s ascendancy to his position undermines the systems of traditional Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ governance. They don’t recognize Halftown’s courts as legitimate, let alone any of the other institutions or regulations the Cayuga Council has established.
Joe Heath, legal counsel to the traditional Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ Council of Chiefs and Clanmothers, called the Cayuga Nation Tribal Court a “kangaroo court.”
“This is a court that has been set up in order to consolidate [Halftown’s] power and to use against its citizens,” said Heath.
Across 14 Cayuga Nation owned properties that they live on or occupy the traditionalist faction has refused to pay rent over the years. Across these properties, Halftown’s Cayuga Nation Council asserts a debt of over $700,000 has accrued.
The Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ Council of Chiefs and Clanmothers, a self-identifying traditionalist governing body, and other traditionalists say that Halftown was supposedly removed from his position as temporary representative or “seat warmer” in place of a chief of his Clan by his Clanmother in 2004, which should have revoked his ability to be the federal representative of the Cayuga Nation for the BIA. But Halftown, a member of the Heron Clan, ignored the orders of his Clanmother, Bernadette “Birdie” Hill, say the traditionalists.
Halftown has always disputed this narrative. Hill passed away in 2015.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a traditional government composed of six Indigenous nations, of which the Cayuga Nation is one, united under a constitution known as the Great Law of Peace, or Gayanashagowa. The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee does not recognize Haltown as leader of the Cayuga Nation.
But in 2019, as the tension around the dispute of leadership grew, the Cayuga Nation received its clearest indication from former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney over who the leader of the Cayuga Nation is.
With the dispute over leadership settled in the eyes of the BIA, Halftown would proceed to demolish Lakeside Trading in Seneca Falls in Feb. 2020, along with space that traditionalists said were used for ceremonial purposes.
Reaffirming an earlier 2016 decision from the BIA, Sweeney wrote with stark detail that, “at no point […] has the department considered the Haltown’s governmental authority to be limited in any way. The Halftown Council is the Nation’s government for all purposes.”
Jason John’s arrest
Differing accounts of clashes between the two groups have pervaded their conflict, and the recent arrests are no different.
On Aug.28, John had gone to the Cayuga Nation Tribal Headquarters — the same building that houses Cayuga Nation Police and Tribal Court — to supposedly talk to CNP along with Dylan Seneca, a member of the Cayuga Nation from the traditionalist faction, about an incident where the CNP supposedly intimidated the children of Carlin Seneca while they were at a store in the Falls area buying food.
The Cayuga Nation issued a statement on Sept. 9 that John was treated well while in custody after his arrest, and in Cambria County prison. Young, who is John’s cousin, says he spent two days in the hospital after being released from Cayuga Nation Tribal Court — the building he’d originally been arrested outside of. He is currently stable, and in a safe place, Young says.
CNP is seen by the traditionalists as Haltown’s personal muscle, often referring to them as “mercenaries” employed to terrorize and intimidate them, and drive them away from the area that is their ancestral home.
Stagliano said, regarding the number of CNP officers, “I understand that the quantity might seem concerning, but again, this is a very unpredictable group. They’re a little explosive. And they’re a little extreme. And so the Nation is trying to do their due diligence with being prepared.”
According to Dylan Seneca, his aim was to question the CNP— why they’re willing to work for Halftown. Seneca said that CNP grew tired of his and John’s line of questioning, and one of them said that they were going to be arrested on charges of trespassing.
The Cayuga Nation announced on the day of John’s arrest that he had been taken in on an outstanding warrant for not having made an earlier court appearance — which he was apparently unaware of — and charges of criminal mischief, and making a terroristic threat against Clint Halftown.
Dylan Seneca said he was able to get away, but John was apprehended, arraigned before Tribal Court Judge Joseph Fahey that night and then sent to Cambria County Prison in Pennsylvania to await trial. The Cayuga Nation began to contract with the private Pennsylvania prison in 2018, which is almost a four and half hour drive away from the Cayuga Nation Tribal Court. The distance, traditionalists say, is to isolate them when arrested, though New York State’s county jails will not accept tribal prisoners.
John will have to appear at Cayuga Nation Tribal Court again on Sept. 27.
His lawyer, Benson, said that he does not believe that the court can even try him since John himself is not an enrolled member of the Cayuga Nation. John is enrolled as Onondaga, though his mother, relatives say, is Cayuga and is only registered as Onondoga due to different enrollment practices being followed in Canada, where John was born. Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ is supposed to follow a matrilineal line, but this technicality should put him out of the Cayuga Nation Court’s jursidiction.
Carlin Seneca’s Arrest
Carlin Seneca was arrested, according to a Cayuga Nation release, on a tribal court warrant for felony Criminal Mischief.
On Sept. 3, he was apprehended when CNP escorted an asbestos inspector at 7 in the morning to a partly demolished Cayuga Nation owned property on County Road 124 in Romulus, NY, known as “the Varick.”
The property is currently being occupied by the traditionalist faction of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ even after a payloader was sent their on Aug. 3 and partly demolished it. The house had been held by the faction for years after originally being purchased by the Cayuga Nation as executive housing and a place for guests to the Nation who were visiting from out of town.
Instead, the traditionalists have said they were using the house for a small day care and Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ culture program. It was also a base of operations for a cannabis business that the traditionals ran. Selling cannabis is legal in the Cayuga Nation, which owns and operates its own dispensaries, but it’s supposed to be done in accordance with the Nation’s laws and licensing systems. The traditionalists like Young feel Halftown has created legal barriers to them being able to provide for themselves, while criminalizing them.
A Cayuga Nation release asserts that Varick property was primarily used as a base for a cannabis business, and was uninhabitable.
The demolition of the Varick house was considered by traditionalists as an act of retaliation by Halftown for their criticisms of him. They say that they conducted sacred ceremonies at the site, and that Halftown’s ordered demolition was also an act against their shared ancestral culture.
Soon after the demolition of the Varick House on Aug. 3, campers from outside the Cayuga Nation, siding with the traditionalist Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ, have flocked to the property, setting up tents and staying overnight to attempt guard it from further destruction under the call of the #HalftownMustGo campaign.
On the morning of Carlin Seneca’s arrest at the Varcik, Campers at the site claim 40 to 50 CNP appeared at the site to escort an asbestos inspector. The Cayuga Nation has released that they sent half that number.
Campers sided with the traditionalists say Carlin Seneca was swarmed by CNP. A Cayuga Nation media release stated that he was charged with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and felony possession of a weapon in the third degree. Witnesses siding with traditionalists say he was holding a lacrosse stick. The Cayuga Nation cite a nearby machete and sawed off shotgun in connection to the charge.
Elijiah Jimerson and Theresa Longboat’s arrest
After hearing about Carlin Seneca being arrested, Jimerson and Longboat, a mother and son who are 60 and 35 years old, approached the Cayuga Nation Tribal Court on State Route 89 around 9 a.m. on Sept. 3, reportedly feeling distraught at the news of Carlin Seneca’s arrest and wanting him to be released.
The Cayuga Nation released that they blocked the entrance to the Cayuga Nation Offices with a pick up truck, and after a brief struggle were arrested on the charges of obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Jimerson, the Nation’s release states, was found to have metal knuckles in his possession and was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the 4th degree.
Carlin Seneca, and Jimerson both held at the Cambria County prison until Tuesday, when they were arraigned in Cayuga Nation Tribal Court and released. They’re next appearance is scheduled for Sept. 27.
Correction 09/13/2022: This story originally stated that the Cayuga Nation does not have a reservation. Several updates were made to this correction in order to add more context and clarity.
Correction 09/14/2022: Clint Halftown was originally reported as being the chief of the Heron Clan, rather than as a temporary representative or “seat warmer” in place of a chief when he was removed from that position by his Clanmother in 2004.