ONEIDA INDIAN NATION TERRITORY, N.Y. — Before the street here was paved and running water taken for granted, a group of Oneida Indians stood along a dirt road and watched as one of the donated trailers that made up their community burned.
Inside, two of their members lay dying. Outside, frantic calls for help went unanswered.
“I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for you,” an operator for the nearby town’s fire department told one of the callers that night in 1976, according to a transcript provided to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Well, everybody’s waiting for you guys,” the caller pleaded.
“I know it, but we just can’t go. We have orders that we cannot go.”
The Justice Department would later order the city of Oneida to provide police and fire services to the Indian territory and to work toward lessening the tensions with the tribe that had grown so intense that local officials said they feared for the safety of first responders and the town’s mayor had issued an order for them to stay off the territory. But by then, as Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter tells it, his aunt and uncle had died and the tribe had come to a realization: They were on their own.
“After the fire, at least for me, I believed we had to do something for ourselves,” said Halbritter, standing one recent afternoon not far from where a business empire grew out of the fire’s ashes.
The multimillion-dollar Turning Stone Resort Casino, about 30 miles east of Syracuse, transformed the Oneida Indian Nation from a tribe unable to save its own members into a financial and political powerhouse willing to take on the National Football League and the billionaire owner of Washington’s football team on behalf of Native Americans.
How a 900-member tribe in central New York came to wage a fight to pressure the Washington Redskins to change its name is, in many ways, an American success story. But it is also one fraught with internal dissension, bitter legal battles and decades of controversy, much of it centered on Halbritter, a Harvard-educated former iron worker respected by many and reviled by others.
In recent weeks, Halbritter has met with NFL executives, members of Congress and his local religious leaders about the team’s name, explaining why he believes the word is a racial slur that needs to go. On Tuesday, he sat beside President Obama during a meeting of a dozen tribal leaders at the White House and thanked him for his remarks on the name issue.
Halbritter, 63, is not the first Native American to object to the team’s name, but he has become one of the most prominent, attracting a new level of acclaim and criticism in the process. Supporters hail him as a great leader who has pulled his people out of poverty and is defending their image. Opponents condemn him as an opportunist who has amassed a fortune at the expense of others.
What none of them dispute is that he is a formidable adversary who has faced tough fights before.
Two days before meeting with the NFL, Halbritter stood in front of a room of Native Americans from 26 tribes and mentioned the fire in a speech.
“I learned what ‘redskin’ means through my family — and specifically, through the experience of seeing them left to die by a local fire department that didn’t think it was their responsibility to help us because we are Native Americans,” he said. “They saw us not as individual human beings or fellow Americans, but as people that didn’t deserve to be treated as equals. They saw us as redskins.”
Turning Stone comes into view even before drivers exit the New York State Thruway.
The casino was the first to open in the state in 1993, but over the years, it has built itself into more than just a place to gamble. Its golf courses have hosted PGA tournaments; its concert hall attracts big-name bands. “Exit 33: The Party Starts Here,” declare banners along the grounds, touting the new $33 million entertainment complex featuring a barbecue restaurant and dance hall straight out of a Texas town and a nightclub that would impress even a Miami crowd.
Dan Jones, who heads VIP services at the casino resort, said Halbritter likes to tell a story about how when he purchased the land, the farmer who owned it said it was some of the most fertile in the area. “When Ray tells this story, he usually smiles and says, ‘It’s still some of the most fertile farmland,’ ” Jones said.
The question is: How fertile? The Oneida Nation does not publicly share its financial information. Even so, there have been glimpses over the years that annual casino revenue ranges between $200 million and $400 million. In documents the Nation sent potential investors for a casino expansion in 2002 that were obtained by the Post-Standard of Syracuse, it reported total revenue of more than $232 million at Turning Stone. This year, in a landmark agreement with the state, the Oneidas agreed to give 25 percent of their net gambling revenue from slot machines to the state, or an estimated $50 million, New York officials announced.
But that is only part of the Oneida empire, which Halbritter presides over as chief executive as well as tribal representative.
In addition to an animation company and the Indian Country Today Media Network, the tribe owns a chain of gas stations, with convenience stores that sell cigarettes the Oneidas manufacture — free of state taxes. It also has become a political player, spending more than $3.2 million on lobbying and making $257,000 in political contributions between 2005 and mid-2012, according to a Common Cause/NY report. Last year, Halbritter donated $5,000 to Obama’s reelection campaign and almost $31,000 to the Republican National Committee.
Under the agreement reached in May with New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), the tribe would pay a percentage of its casino revenue to surrounding jurisdictions and the state would ensure the Oneidas a monopoly on casino gambling between Syracuse and Albany. It also would end scores of land-claim lawsuits against the tribe, freeing the federal government to take 25,000 acres into trust for the Nation, making parts of Oneida and Madison counties Indian territory.
The pact has already met some resistance — just as an agreement two decades earlier between the tribe and the state did. That deal between Halbritter and Cuomo’s father, former governor Mario Cuomo, allowed the Oneidas to open their casino without sharing any revenue with the state.
In a recent interview, the elder Cuomo said he saw Indian gambling as a way to remedy centuries of unfair treatment at the hands of the federal and state government.
“They didn’t have hospitals. They didn’t have schools,” said Cuomo, who grew up in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. “I felt I could understand their plight. They had nothing.”
But what ultimately swayed the governor was Halbritter. “Halbritter came to us,” Cuomo said, “and made the case in our language.”
It was a language Halbritter learned relatively late in life. The son of a nurse and grandson of an influential Oneida clan mother, he became an iron worker, laboring at one point in the underbelly of Washington’s Metro system. He was in his 20s when he moved into a trailer on the Oneida’s 32-acre territory and was designated a representative of the matrilineal tribe. He attended college in his 30s, first Syracuse University and then Harvard Law School, graduating from the latter in 1990, the same year Obama became the law review’s first black president.
Harvard classmate Heather Kendall-Miller, who is also a Native American, recalled seeing Halbritter, by then a father of six, standing at a public phone taking care of tribal business.
“When I left here, I sort of wasn’t thinking of coming back,” Halbritter said. “But there was so much need, so many issues.”
It was just before exams when he received word that a newly built bingo hall had burned down after a brief siege by dissident tribe members. They had accused Halbritter and others of misappropriating some of the $7 million to $8 million that the bingo hall brought in each year. Asked about those claims, Halbritter reiterated what prosecutors found at the time: There was no evidence to justify them.
Construction started on Turning Stone even before the state approved a casino, Halbritter said. It now attracts 4.5 million visitors a year and employs 4,500 people. It is also a source of tension, both inside the tribe by those who describe Halbritter as a dictator and outside by those who have seen the financial benefit flowing in only one direction.
Former Republican state assemblyman David R. Townsend Jr. said he was originally an enthusiastic backer of the casino, which promised to create jobs in a region that had gotten used to losing them. But the businesses that flourished along the periphery of the casino were almost entirely tribe-owned. Non-Indian businesses, he complained, found it hard to survive against competitors that paid no taxes.
Once welcomed on the Indian Territory, Townsend said he eventually found himself turned away by the police force that now patrols it.
Halbritter has become a wealthy man, with some claiming he’s a billionaire — a status he denies.
But his critics say not all Oneidas have flourished alongside him. Tribe members tell of receiving stipends of $16,000 a year, but only if Halbritter approves them.
“If you engage in what Halbritter considers an act of dissent or ask for an accounting audit of what the casino makes, then you’re systematically stripped of all of your membership,” said Doug George-Kanentiio, the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association who is married to Halbritter’s first cousin, Grammy-award-winning singer Joanne Shenandoah. “He answers to no one,” he added.
Halbritter said no Oneida has ever been stripped of his or her membership, that he doesn’t act alone and that the tribe’s books are open to members.
But Shenandoah’s sister, Danielle Shenandoah, 42, said her cousin is the reason she left the area where she grew up. She was a single mother of three living in a trailer on the territory in 2002 when, she said, Halbritter ordered the tribe’s police to shackle her in front of her 6-year-old and take her to a federal holding facility in Pennsylvania — all because she wouldn’t let them inspect her home. By the time her trailer was demolished, 13 other families had lost their homes and had staged a “March for Democracy.”
“He used me as an example to show any Oneidas who stand up against him that he will attack any aspect of your life,” Shenandoah said.
Halbritter said his cousin was removed from her trailer at a time when the Nation was conducting inspections to identify trailers that might be fire hazards. “We’re responsible for the welfare and health of children as well as people who don’t believe there should be any kind of oversight,” he said.
Two decades ago, Shenandoah’s mother and others tried to oust Halbritter through the Confederacy of Iroquois Nations, according to letters written at the time. The confederacy, which includes the Oneidas, asked that the federal government strip Halbritter of his power. Ada Deer, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the time, complied with the wishes of the confederacy leaders. But almost immediately, she recalled recently, she received “word from on high” to reinstate Halbritter as the federally recognized Oneida Nation representative — a move she attributed to his political connections.
To this day, she said, she isn’t sure it was the right decision. Halbritter “may put on a good show for outsiders,” Deer said, “but he was very disrespectful to me.”
Halbritter dismisses the episode as family ugliness. But outsiders have also made allegations about unfair financial practices. According to a series of lawsuits dating back to 2005, a massive contract to expand Turning Stone allegedly turned into a windfall for a Halbritter sibling. The tribe required $18 million of the work go to businesses owned by Oneida Indian Nation members, which turned out to be what a 2012 New York state Supreme Court appellate decision described as a “shell corporation” controlled by Barry Halbritter, Ray’s brother. The contract, the court noted, entitled Barry Halbritter’s firm to tack on an 8 percent markup for forwarding payment requests from subcontractors to the lead contractor.
Ray Halbritter said the Nation has a preferred bidding program for Oneidas and that many members have availed themselves of it.
As for the modest annual payouts to members, they are fixed at a level so members still have to work, a tribal spokesman said. The rest of the casino profits are reinvested in the Nation. Oneidas have access to free health care, education, day care and housing.
One of the tribe’s elders, Birdy Burdick, 73, said that growing up, she had no hope of going to college. “It was just survival mode,” she said. “Then everything changed — boom. And you ended up with some pride under your belt. There were so many opportunities for Oneidas.”
She was in her 60s when she went to college and got a bachelor’s in fine arts. “It was like coming alive, really,” she said.
During a lobbying trip to the District last month, Halbritter walked into the office of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), and she handed him a newspaper. His picture was on the front, along with an article that quoted his critics at length, including a New York assemblywoman who has denounced him as a fraud.
“It just shows you’ve elevated this to a conversation that most people are taking seriously,” said McCollum, who co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus and has called for the football team’s name to change.
The Oneidas have spent tens of thousands of dollars on their “Change the Mascot” campaign, commissioning studies, hosting a symposium and scheduling radio ads to run in every city Washington’s team visits this season. They’ve won over legions of newspaper columnists, NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas and Obama, who said he would think about changing the name if he owned the team. But they’ve yet to make headway with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or team owner Dan Snyder, who called the name a “badge of honor” last month in an emotional letter to fans. The Redskins declined to comment about the Oneidas’ campaign, but officials have pointed repeatedly to a nine-year-old poll showing that 90 percent of Native Americans had no issue with the team’s name.
Halbritter told the congresswoman he wasn’t bothered by the criticism he’s endured, that he was used to the “bigotry playbook.”
What did bother him, he said, was that in a city filled with symbols that reflect the nation’s values, the name of the football team does the opposite. What bothered him, he said, were studies that show the word damages how Native Americans see themselves.
“People say there are more important issues,” Halbritter said, “but there are no more important issues than your self-image.”
Last week, at a gathering of hundreds of tribal leaders at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Halbritter walked the room, accepting business cards and accolades. At one point, a leader from an Alaskan tribe asked to take a picture with him. “I’m just so proud of what you’re doing,” she gushed.
The day before, Halbritter had been among a group of tribal leaders invited to the White House. He not only thanked Obama for wading into the name controversy, he also gave him a present.
It was a football jersey from a high school in Cooperstown, N.Y., that had stopped calling itself the Redskins in favor of the Hawkeyes. On the back was the name of the country’s first African American president, a reminder that change was not so unthinkable.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.