Pop stars, politicians, and heads of states and nations are subject to all kinds of metaphorical slings and arrows from the public. One of the most memorable examples in recent history was the appearance by a random wild-haired woman in a red dress at a rally during Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “I can’t trust Obama,” she said. “I have read about him and he’s not…he’s not …He’s an Arab!”
Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter hasn’t been called an Arab–yet–but a fashionably coiffed woman in a green jacket stood up at a press conference on October 30, and gave a two-minute harangue claiming Halbritter is not an Oneida Indian, and had to be escorted out.
The woman is New York Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, who served as chief of staff and legal counsel from 2003 to 2009 to former Assemblyman David Townsend, a politician with a long history of opposing Indian sovereignty and self determination. Tenney’s district includes parts of Oswego County and Oneida County.
The press conference took place at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, after Halbritter and other Oneida Nation representatives held an hour-long meeting with NFL officials to talk about changing the offensive and racist the name of the NFL's Washington Redskins.
The Oneida Indian Nation, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, launched a public relations campaign over the past two months called “Change the Mascot" that has sparked a national conversation about changing the name and mascot of the Washington team and successfully raised awareness about just how mean and ugly the word “Redskins” is.
Tenney was on a rip at the press conference. “I’m a member of the New York State Assembly. I have a document from the National Archive that says Ray Halbritter is not an Oneida Indian,” she said, waving a piece of paper in the air.
“Excuse me, ma’am, if this were the New York State Assembly…” the moderator began, but Tenney talked over him. “This is not the New York Assembly,” she said, “I just want [someone] to answer the question if Mr. Halbritter is a legitimate Oneida Indian. I’m on my way to meet the NFL right now.”
Throughout her tirade, Tenney switched between identifying herself as an elected official and as a private attorney, representing who she called “a full-blooded Oneida Indian” that Halbritter “was trying to steal. . . land from. . .” The identity switching made it unclear if Tenney was using her official capacity to promote her private law practice.
The moderator, Joel Barkin, warned Tenney that the press conference was for credentialed media only and she would be removed if she didn’t stop. She didn’t stop. Some people in the audience began heckling her.
“How dare you use that term ‘a real Indian’ – are you kidding me? That’s deplorable,” one man said. “It’s garbage,” someone else said. Tenney finally walked out with the parting remark that she is suing Halbritter in “two lawsuits.”
“Well, it’s never boring when you come to an Oneida meeting,” Halbritter said as Tenney left the room. Halbritter declined to comment for this story.
Now that the “Change the Mascot” campaign has been so successful, supporters of the “Redskins” name have shifted tactics to attacking one of the men leading the movement, The Nation wrote.
According to a Washington Post article published yesterday, the NFL spoke with Melvin Phillips, a member of the Oneida Nation who supports the ‘Redskins’ name. Phillips is Tenney’s client and is in a long running legal dispute over land with the Oneida Nation. Tenney set the meeting and participated in the conversation which occurred over Skype.
“The formula for this particular kind of prejudice is as old as it is offensive,” Oneida Indian Nation’s vice president of communications, Barkin said. “First Native peoples were forcibly removed from their lands, then they were herded onto reservations, then they were dehumanized as mascots; and now, the most committed bigots of all pretend their leadership’s ancestry and heritage doesn’t even exist. While the fact an NFL franchise is using a name that is defined as a racial slur is bigger than any one person, the nature of this attack on a respected and recognized Native American leader whose family members were killed because of their race is bigotry at its worst and shocks the conscience.”
Tenney has been preoccupied with the full-bloodedness of Oneida Indians or lack thereof for some time. According to her biography, “The foremost example of Claudia’s dedication to principles of fairness and equality is her ongoing effort to resolve the issues between the Oneida Nation, local governments, private citizens and bona fide Oneida Indians [emphasis added].”
In pursuit of her “principles of fairness and equality,” during her tenure as Townsend’s legal counsel Tenney filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking reversal of its decision to take 13 acres of land into trust for the Oneida Nation. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), one of a multitude of anti-Indian sovereignty organizations that popped up in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to the unprecedented success of Indian gaming.
CERA’s view of sovereignty is clearly described on its website: “Sovereignty itself is, of course, not subject to law, for it is the author and source of law; but in our system, while sovereign powers are delegated to the agencies of government, sovereignty itself remains with the people, by whom and for whom all government exists and acts,” the group says. “But these Indians,” it continues, “are within the geographical limits of the United States. The soil and the people within these limits are under the political control of the government of the United States, or of the states of the Union. There exists within the broad domain of sovereignty but these two. There may be cities, counties, and other organized bodies, with limited legislative functions, but they are all derived from, or exist in, subordination to one or the other of these.”
Tenney’s years as chief of staff to Townsend surely informed her actions toward Halbritter and the Oneida Nation. In July 2008, Townsend sent a flier to an unknown number of households in Oneida and Oswego counties, claiming that ''cigarette smuggling rackets originating on New York's Indian reservations are transferring huge sums of money to Middle East terror groups.'' He cited a report called ''Tobacco and Terror: How Cigarette Smuggling is Funding our Enemies Abroad,'' that purported to connect the sale of untaxed tobacco products on Indian reservations to Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaida, but provided little substantive evidence to support the claim.
The report was prepared by the Republican staff of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security as the result of an ''investigation'' launched by Republican Peter T. King of Long Island, New York and cited unnamed ''sources'' in unspecified federal and New York state law enforcement agencies and a ''convicted tobacco smuggler turned confidential source'' who makes no mention of Indian tobacco sales, but claims that ''the big fish make hundreds of thousands a week, most of which goes to the Middle East in cash or trade transactions.''
The cover page of Townsend’s flier juxtaposed the headline ''America's Indian Nations … Gambling With our Security?'' over a photograph of the Oneida Nation’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino, clearly implying that the Nation is involved in illegal activities. Asked why he put the photo of Turning Stone on his flier, Townsend said, ''Because it's a casino, because it's gambling.'' Asked if he had any proof at all the Nation was involved in smuggling anything, Townsend said, “No.”
But New York’s indigenous peoples aren’t the only targets of Tenney’s “dedication to principles of fairness and equality.” The Vote Smart website shows Tenney votes against every bill promoting social justice or benefits to working families and the middle class, including prohibiting wage discrimination based on gender, race or national origin, rent regulation, marriage equality, an increase to the minimum wage, a moratorium on fracking, a farm worker bill of rights, and more.
Details are still fuzzy regarding the real reason Tenney met with NFL officials on Friday and why the Washington NFL football team owner Dan Snyder would want to meet with her–unless they consider Halbritter an enemy for advocating against a team name that’s a racist slur and they are having an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend moment.