WASHINGTON (CN) — The Cayuga Nation in upstate New York has sued the secretary of the interior for approving a “wholesale change” in how the tribe selects its leaders, removing the process from the hands of clan mothers and replacing it with a “deeply flawed” mail-in survey.
The Wednesday lawsuit, which also takes aim at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, claims the government acted after “months of secret meetings” that cut out critical members of tribal leadership.
The matriarchal tribe says it has given its clan mothers a prominent role in selecting members of the tribal council since “time immemorial,” but that the government decided to replace that centuries-old tradition after consulting with only one group of the tribe’s leaders that the federal government recognizes.
That group, referred to in the complaint as the Halftown Group, had been lobbying for years to stir up government support for a mail-in survey to replace the traditional leadership selection process.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the effort in 2015, but in 2016 the BIA’s Eastern Regional Director Bruce Maytubby told another group of Cayuga leaders that the Halftown group was going ahead with its mail-in survey plan. Defendant Maytubby told the second group of leaders, referred to in the complaint as the Jacobs Group, that he had been meeting alone for six months with the Halftown group.
Maytubby supported the mail-in survey in June 2016, calling it a “viable way of involving the Cayuga people in a determination of the form and membership of the government.”
“Plaintiffs, including the Cayuga Nation Council of Chiefs and clan mothers, immediately objected to the Halftown Group’s effort and to defendant Maytubby’s prejudged conclusion regarding its validity, pointing out that Cayuga law precludes mail-in survey campaigns from being used to choose governmental representatives and instead entrusts that solemn responsibility to the clan mothers, working directly and deliberatively with citizens through their respective clans,” the complaint states.
The government did not respond to requests from the Jacobs Group and the clan mothers for information about the secret meetings with the Halftown Group, and Maytubby eventually gave them 27 days to answer questions on whether tribal law would allow the mail-in survey to proceed, according to the complaint.
Even after the Jacobs Group submitted declarations saying the mail-in campaign was unlawful, Maytubby ruled in December 2016 that the government would recognize the Halftown Group as the leaders of the Cayuga Nation. Maytubby said the traditional process did not select the government with the consent of the people it governed.
The clan mothers and the Jacobs Group reject this.
“While the United States may, under certain circumstances, interpret nation or tribal law in order to make a recognition determination, it may not impose its own views of good governance or beliefs about the most effective governmental structures on sovereign Indian nations,” the complaint states.
The Jacobs Group says the federal government initially denied them an administrative review of the decision, saying the actions could be reviewed only in Federal Court.
The BIA eventually relented, but affirmed Maytubby’s decision. The Halftown Group then sued the Jacobs Group and clan mothers, winning an injunction that blocked them from setting foot on Cayuga land.
The Seneca County Supreme Court stayed the injunction to let the Jacobs Group and clan mothers file their federal lawsuit.
Neither the Cayuga Nation nor the Department of the Interior responded to requests for comment sent after business hours on Thursday.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is unpopular on many reservations, viewed as a domineering intrusion of Anglo power. Its familiar acronym, BIA, is said to mean “Boss Indians Around.”