Some Celebrate, Others Decry Oneida Gift to HLS

A $3 million donation by the Oneida Indian Nation last month will likely boost Harvard Law School’s status as a leader in Native American law.

But the gift is also drawing the fire of some of the tribe’s members who say the nation’s head did not clear the donation with the tribe.

The donation will fund the Oneida Indian Nation professorship of law and, in the meantime, sponsor visiting professors whose chairs will bear the nation’s name.

Robert A. Williams, a professor at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, has been named the first of these visiting professors.

Williams, who has taught a course in Indian law at Harvard Law School (HLS) during each winter since 1999, called the honor “the most significant professional recognition” he’s received.

“It was a wonderful surprise,” he said of the Oneidas’ gift. “It makes sure that Indian law will be taught on a continuous basis.”

Ray Halbritter, an alumnus of HLS and the Oneida representative who helped put the gift in place, also said he feels the endowment will strengthen the study of American Indian law at the school.

“We are confident that the kind of scholarship for which the Law School is known worldwide will help create a better understanding of the complex legal issues faced by all American Indians today and in the future,” Halbritter said in a written statement at the time of last month’s announcement.

“We don’t want to leave any field of legal study uncovered,” said HLS spokesperson Michael A. Armini. “It’s an area where we’re already ahead of almost every other law school.”

But Halbritter’s role in the donation has drawn criticism from some.

Halbritter heads Oneida Indian Nation—the tribal organization formally recognized by the federal government—and is chief executive officer of the nation’s business enterprises.

Halbritter established the Turning Stone Casino Resort in New York, which is now a multimillion-dollar source of income for the nation, and is credited with implementing health and education programs for its people.

But some claim that Halbritter should not be recognized as leader of the Oneidas, and that he has inappropriately exercised his power, both in the past and with this donation.

“That donation that Harvard got, that wasn’t approved by the Oneida people,” said Vicky Schenandoah, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneidas who said Halbritter is her first cousin.

Schenandoah and others in the tribe say that Halbritter fails to represent traditional Oneida values and accuse him of using strong-arm tactics to quiet opposition.

“He said about the traditional Oneida people that they offer nothing,” Schenandoah said.

In May 1995, several dozen Oneidas participated in a “March for Democracy” to demand greater representation in tribal government.

Several opponents of Halbritter said steps had been taken to remove him from power.

But the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a department in the United States federal government, continues to recognize Halbritter as head of the Oneidas.

Schenandoah said her sister’s non-tribal, privately-owned house was torn down on Halbritter’s order because of the opposition they posed to the tribal leader.

Halbritter was unavailable for comment, but Mark Emery, a spokesperson for the Oneida Indian Nation, said the houses of about a dozen Oneidas were torn down for safety reasons.

“It was just unsafe,” Emery said. They were “living in pretty awful conditions.”

Halbritter was democratically elected, Emery said, and “every government has some people that are not happy with what the government is doing.”

Armini, the HLS spokesperson, had no comment on the opposition to Halbritter.

To the visiting professor, Williams, the opposition to Halbritter represents a political squabble, not a response to injustice.

“Tribal people play politics for keeps,” Williams said. “That’s the nature of democratic politics.”

And of the nation’s decision to donate to Harvard, Williams said: “The Oneidas are quite able and brilliant entrepreneurs.”

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu.