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Oneida Nation families lose court challenge
Monday, August 11, 2003

A federal judge is refusing to get involved in a dispute between the Oneida Nation of New York and tribal members who say they are victims of retaliation for opposing the tribal leadership.

Unless a higher authority steps in, or the tribe changes its mind, four families who live on the 32-acre Oneida Reservation will lose their homes next week. The tribe considers the homes unsafe for living and plans to demolish them August 20.

Among those who is being evicted is Maisie Shenandoah, the 71-year-old aunt of Oneida representative Ray Halbritter. Shenandoah and her allies say the only reason they are being targeted is because they have criticized Halbritter.

But in a 15-page ruling issued on Friday, U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue said there was no evidence that the tribe is violating the civil rights of its members. Citing long-standing principles of federal Indian policy, he said he had no jurisdiction to interfere in matters of tribal self-government.

The battle over the homes dates back at least three years, when the tribe began what has been called a "beautification" campaign. The tribe's housing department sought to inspect homes on the reservation in order to ensure their safety.

Some tribal members tried to prevent the inspections but were unsuccessful. One woman, Danielle Patterson, was arrested while trying to resist a forced inspection, a November 2001 scuffle with tribal police that was caught on videotape.

Patterson eventually lost her trailer home to the beautification program. The tribe offered her a four-bedroom home rent free for six months but she refused.

"Why would I pay rent to them for a house that I could never own?" she told The Syracuse Post-Standard in December 2001. "Why would I pay rent to them if I already own my own home?"

The tribe has made the same offer to the current set of evictees, led by Maisie Shenandoah. In his decision, Mordue cited the offer as tipping the case in the tribe's favor.

But the major reason for Mordue's refusal to get involved is the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) of 1968. Although the law imposes certain U.S. constitutional guarantees -- such as freedom of speech -- on tribal governments, the courts have ruled that the standards are to be set by tribes without federal or state review.

The only way out of this limitation is to seek what is called a writ of habeas corpus, which is a challenge to detention by a tribal government. Detention doesn't necessarily have to involve being put in jail, it can involve parole or other related actions -- most notably permanent banishment from a tribe.

In the case of the plaintiffs, none have been stripped of their tribal membership or have been forced to leave the reservation. They argued that taking away their homes will have the same effect, but Murdue dismissed the claims as not falling under ICRA.

"Insofar as allegations by various plaintiffs concerning retaliatory conduct by defendants such as withholding of housing and/or heating assistance, withholding of government distribution checks and confiscation of boats and automobiles, and even the destruction or threatened destruction of their homes, it is clear that these alleged incidents concern economic restraints and/or personal property rather than actual liberty interests," he wrote.

Get the Ruling:
Shenandoah v. Halbritter (August 8, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Oneidas for Democracy -
Oneida Nation -

Related Stories:
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)
Oneida Nation residents fear destruction of homes (5/9)
Demolition of Oneida woman's home turned into film (5/8)
Oneida woman's home demolished (10/23)
Oneida woman's home will be demolished (10/22)
Oneida woman won't appear before court (09/24)
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)
Police video documents Oneida scuffle (12/7)
Oneida Nation disputes homes (11/20)

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