ROMULUS, N.Y.—A small row of cars sits mostly silent outside of an abandoned house down a dirt road in a heavily wooded area in the depths of Romulus, New York. The house isn’t much to look at, at least from the outside. Surrounded by overgrown grass, muddy soil and a tossed-out couch in front, it looks every bit the abandoned property that it is—yet a small group of people camp outside in tents and cars, dutifully keeping watch.

Building upon similar actions in Ithaca and throughout Tompkins County, a group of over 20 activists from the Ithaca area have been traveling up to Romulus each night since early last week in order to protect family homes there, which belong to the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ Native American tribe, from potential eviction (Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ is the original, vernacular name for the Cayuga Nation). They sleep in shifts, with at least one person in front to keep an eye on any comings and goings in front of the houses—they are guarding several, with about 13 families facing possible eviction.

This iteration of the story starts earlier this month, but the need for guards is rooted in events that took place just before the pandemic began in 2020. A murky power struggle atop the Cayuga Nation resulted in Clint Halftown seizing control of at least a part of the 500 person tribe, which then led to an ugly stretch of tumult that featured Halftown bulldozing several houses and buildings and a subsequent press conference that devolved into physical altercations between protestors and Halftown’s police force. Though many Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people do not recognize Halftown’s role as leader, he has perhaps the most powerful ally in his corner: the federal government, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs does recognize Halftown as the official tribal leader.

Now, Halftown has allegedly threatened to circumvent the law, skip any court proceedings and evict several Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ families that live in the area around Romulus and Seneca Falls. The night-watch, organized by activists to answer the calls for help from tribe members, helps to deter Halftown from the bulldozing option that was seen last year.

An attempt to contact Halftown for comment was not returned.

Wanda John, one of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ elders whose home is under threat, said last week that while several families had been paying rent on their homes when they initially moved their years ago, they felt that Halftown’s secrecy regarding where the money was going (in other words, that it was going to directly benefit him instead of the tribe) was reason enough to stop their payments.

That was compounded by, as John tells it, a recent meeting in Batavia, NY with titleholders of the tribe’s properties. Halftown had threatened that anyone who attended the meeting would be fired from Cayuga Nation work, according to John, and they subsequently were, leaving them without income.

“He’s serving the community with eviction papers, but that didn’t work, so now he’s trying to get us for back rent,” John said. “He’s seeking $600K. […] It’s a dictatorship, it’s one man running the whole show.”

John clarified that those under threat are prepared to work out some sort of financial plan, but not if Halftown is the recipient of the payments, specifically. She came to one of the properties in question last summer in order to clean it up and maintain it, as it had been abandoned.

The question of whether or not the activists’ presence helps the situation drew a short response from John.

“It does,” John said, trying to remain succinct in order to not reveal any more information than necessary. Halftown’s actions last February clearly still scare John. There have not been any similar attempts during this current stretch of tension.

“He did it because he feels he’s above the law, above everybody,” John said. “And now, see, all he gets is a slap on the hand. Because he’s still up there. […] How can the federal goverment, BIA, let someone like [him] stay as the federal rep?”

Two of them, Jenn and Claudia, are both Cornell University students who had shown up for a week straight of overnight stays. They were staying in their car doing homework during the first shift. If they saw something suspicious, likely either a municipal police force or one of Halftown’s controversial Cayuga Nation police officers, they would begin to beep their horn to awake the rest of the campers at that property.

(Photo by Ellie Pfeffer)

“I kind of see it as a duty, these aren’t our lands, these are their lands,” Claudia said. “If they’re in danger of being illegally evicted, and its within my reach […] anything we can do to help, I feel a need to do my duty.”

Local activism groups have been trying to adjust, given that their night watches have now stretched nearly two weeks, with some people there almost every night. It’s difficult to attract as many people each night the longer it goes on—schedules, priorities, etc. But the groups have been able to keep the properties protected so far, working in lockstep coordination with tribal elders, who have played a large role in making sure the activists do not overstep their bounds.

“As students in general, it’s easy to feel far removed from an issue,” Claudia said. “It might feel a little distant, but it’s really not. Knowing that the elders are guiding us and giving instruction, that’s definitely the main reason why I’m here.”

(Photo by Dekwan Perry)

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com