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Appeals court won't stop Oneida Nation evictions
Monday, April 5, 2004

Four Indian families face removal from their homes on the Oneida Nation in New York after a federal appeals court on Friday refused to stop the tribe's eviction orders.

In a unanimous decision, three judges of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said they couldn't intervene in the dispute, which has pitted family members against each other. One of those being targeted for eviction is Maisie Shenandoah, the 72-year-old aunt of Ray Halbritter, the federally-recognized representative of the tribe.

The families claim they are being unfairly targeted because they have spoken out against Halbritter's policies, including a home beautification program at issue in the case. But in an eight-page ruling, the judges said they were restricted by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which provides only limited federal court jurisdiction over internal tribal disputes.

"Even though the actions of the ruling members of the [Oneida] Nation may be partly inexcusable herein, we can only remedy those wrongs which invoke the jurisdiction of this court," wrote Judge Ellsworth A. Van Graafeiland.

The ruling came just a month after oral arguments were heard in Manhattan. At the time, dozens of tribal members, mostly elderly women, showed up at the courthouse, an incident that did not go unnoticed by Van Graafeiland.

Neither did Van Graafeiland entirely ignore the plight of the families. He quoted the writings of Alexander Hamilton, a framer of the U.S. Constitution, that warned of the danger of oppressive governments.

"If this danger exists in cases such as the instant one, and the presence of twenty or thirty Indian women engaged in prayer in the courtroom and adjoining hallway when this appeal was argued is some indication of its possible existence, Congress should consider giving this Court power to act," he wrote. Van Graafeiland, in a dissenting opinion in an unrelated case concerning treaty rights, previously questioned the Oneida Nation's continuous existence as a tribe.

The court's sentiments provided some hope to those facing eviction. But Diane Schenandoah, one of the named plaintiffs, said this weekend that the families would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and would ask the 2nd Circuit to delay any evictions pending the appeal. Schenandoah said she and her three children would be rendered homeless without outside intervention.

The tribe has not moved to demolish any homes deemed unsafe for living. A tribal judge has delayed the eviction orders pending talks with the tribe, which has also offered alternative housing to the families.

Previously, the tribe did demolish the home of Danielle Patterson and held her in police custody for allegedly assaulting a police officer at the time of the demolition. In the appeal, the plaintiffs used Patterson's situation to argue that their personal freedoms are infringed by the actions of the tribal government.

The court, however, was not convinced and ruled that the loss of homes was "an economic restraint, rather than a restraint on liberty." The judges said the tribe's actions did not rise to actual banishment, a situation that is reviewable under the Indian Civil Rights Act in the 2nd Circuit.

The Oneida Nation operates a financially successful casino and resort. According to published reports, the facility turns profits in the $70 million range annually.

Get the Decision:
Shenandoah v. Halbritter (April 2, 2004)

Earlier Court Ruling:
Shenandoah v. Halbritter (August 8, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Oneidas for Democracy -
Oneida Nation -

Related Stories:
Appeals court hears Oneida Nation eviction case (03/03)
Oneida Nation families decline offer from tribe (11/20)
Oneida Nation evictions highlight rift within tribe (10/29)
Oneida Nation judge delays eviction of families (10/28)
Oneida Nation families await answer on eviction (10/27)
Eviction of Oneida Nation families delayed (10/24)
Oneida families fight eviction from homes (08/13)
Judge won't halt Oneida Nation evictions (8/11)
Oneida families lose homes waiting on court (8/1)
Oneida Nation issues eviction orders against families (7/30)
Oneida Nation sends inspector to homes (06/12)
Oneida Nation members compare tribe to Hitler (05/13)
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Demolition of Oneida woman's home turned into film (5/8)
Oneida woman's home demolished (10/23)
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Accusers of Oneida official won't testify (8/9)
Oneida official accused of harassment (7/17)
Film showing at school canceled (4/17)
Oneida Nation offers home to member (12/19)
Video clears up little in Oneida dispute (12/10)
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