To her Oneida Indian Nation wolf clan, she was a leader who helped re-establish an Oneida identity after more than a century when almost all members had left their ancestral homelands
And to the world, she was a proponent of traditional Indian ways who ultimately took her nephew, Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter, to task for challenging those ways as he created a gambling-based set of enterprises worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Shenandoah died early Wednesday morning in Oneida Castle after battling illness for quite some time, family members said. She was 77.
“I have spent countless hours in defense of our sovereignty, land and traditional ways,” she was quoted as saying in the 1993 book, Wisdom’s Daughters: Conversations with Women Elders of Native America.
“One day we will again stand before the world as a people who have overcome great odds and survived as a nation,” Shenandoah said.
It was Shenandoah who with her husband a half century ago moved back to ancestral lands in the outer district of the city of Oneida with the goal of re-establishing the Nation’s presence there.
And as Halbritter rose to prominence in the tribe during the 1970s, it occurred at a time when Maisie Shenandoah herself was selected to the important post of Wolf Clan mother. Women have great authority in the governance of the six tribes of the Haudenosee, or Iroquois Nation.
But aunt and nephew later clashed as Halbritter pursued first a bingo hall and then a casino as a path to prosperity for the poverty-stricken Nation. A lengthy power struggle ensued that left Shenandoah and her family dispossessed of their benefits and their voice in tribal affairs.
Halbritter offered brief condolences in a prepared statement Wednesday.
“The Oneida Nation mourns the loss of one of its members, Maisie Shenandoah,” he said. “The Nation’s thoughts and prayers are with her and her family.”
The Oneidas would have no further comment, spokesman Mark Emery said.
But there’s more to the tale.
A twin’s memories
Shenandoah’s twin sister Elizabeth Robert, declined to comment Wednesday on the situation between her sister and Halbritter.
What she did recall was the kind of person her sister was. Loving. Caring. Hard working.
The twins were born on Onondaga Nation Territory south of Syracuse, where many Oneidas had gone to live after the Nation lost virtually all of its land in the 19th century.
Above all, though, Maisie Shenandoah was a leader, Robert said.
Shenandoah was selected as clan mother in 1977 and fulfilled her duties for the next three decades, according to her obituary.
In that role, she had the duty of selecting leaders from within her clan, serving as a political adviser, spiritual leader and spokeswoman for the Oneidas.
Daughter-in-law Cheryl Schenandoah can attest to Maisie Shenandoah’s values.
“She taught me that no matter who you meet, no matter what you think, be kind to everyone, no discrimination,” Schenandoah said.
Shenandoah and her daughters were among three dozen tribal members who in 1995 formally “lost their voice” in Nation affairs — meaning they were not eligible for Nation programs and services.
At issue was the Nation’s direction under Halbritter, who negotiated an agreement in 1993 to open Turning Stone Casino in Verona. To Shenandoah and some Oneidas, it meant a focus on greed and not tradition.
In a 2001 New York Times article, the writer said Shenandoah characterized her nephew as “an overfed despot with a taste for Italian suits, ruling from a white palace near the New York State Thruway.”
Halbritter said in that article that his aunt was fighting to maintain a past that was not always productive for the Oneida people.
“Sometimes, people are sort of imprisoned in poverty so long that they begin to believe that the bars are there for their own protection,” Halbritter said.
‘Her life’s dream’
If Shenandoah died without a voice in Nation issues, the Oneidas made substantial progress during her lifetime toward a goal she’d always held, instilled by her mother, Mary Winder, who in 1920 began pressing the federal government on the issue of land.
“Her life’s dream, as passed on to her by her mother, was to create a homeland for all Oneidas,” Maisie Shenandoah’s obituary reads.
She is survived by six children, three sisters, 20 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. The funeral is Saturday.