Greed helps fuel a disturbing trend in Indian Country
First in a Series
By Robin A. Ladue
While tribes can and should claim sovereignty, to disenroll members whose families have been a part of the historical, cultural, and familial connections of the tribe is nothing short of self-imposed genocide.
Who is a Native American? Is one a Native by virtue of the “amount” of Native blood (quantum) that one carries? Is it, as Wilma Mankiller said, someone with even one drop of Native blood (descendancy)? It is someone whom the United States government says is Native? Is it someone enroxlled in a nonfederally recognized tribe? Is it someone who is enrolled in a federally recognized tribe? It is someone who isn’t enrolled in any tribe? Is it someone who lives on a reservation? Is it someone whose tribe has been terminated and who has been relocated from their tribal lands? Is it only those who have indigenous blood? Or is it simply anyone who is born within the confines of the United States of America?
Well, “yes” to all the above but the last statement.
Growing up, this writer’s father, the son of a survivor of Cushman Boaring School, would shake his head at the foibles and squabbling between the members of our tribe, the Upper Cowlitz (Taidnapam) and the Lower Cowlitz (Cowlitz). “Damn, he would mutter. “We don’t need the U.S. government to do us in. We can do it all on our own.”
There is no better example of this statement than the ugly actions against one’s own tribal members, disenrollment. The practice of disenrollment has now impacted thousands of Native people. But, how did things come to such a situation? The answer, as it so often is when people act in horrific ways against other people, is money. In the case of some California tribes, the loss of per capitas (individual financial payouts from tribal resources) is well over a million dollars. But, deeper than that, are the loss of lands, homes, income, culture and a voice in the direction of their tribe.
As so succinctly put by Marty Fire Rider, of the California American Indian Movement, “Gaming has brought (Native people) the dominant culture’s disease of greed.”
The first real attempt to categorize and quantify whom a Native is, was during the course of the designing and implementation of the allotment system for those included in the tribal rolls, based on the “amount” of Native blood a person had. It was hoped that, as Native people married non-Native people, they would “disappear” and be assimilated into the now dominant and the valued world of white privilege.
The reservation system, particularly after the Dawes Act of 1887, gave individual Native people the “right” to own land, which was very often sold out of Native hands and into the hands of white people. During this time, particularly from 1887 to 1934, more and more of the land previously claimed as ancestral land, disappeared from the landscape of Indian Country.
The loss of land, coupled with the horrific imposition of the residential schools where children were murdered, had their hair cut, were beaten for speaking their language, and where they were forbidden to practice their spiritual beliefs, led to the loss of the Native world and culture for millions of Native children.
It is in this boiling cauldron of laws preventing Native people the right to raise their own children, to practice their own spiritual beliefs, and to retain their own lifestyle that the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. The Howard-Wheeler Act of 1934 is often referred to as the “Indian New Deal.” It was the first of several (not many) steps to reverse the traditional goal of assimilation of Native people into American society.
It is ironic that a piece of legislation intended to return control and self determination to tribal people has actually become a foundation for self-termination of tribes through disenrollment. It should be noted that the Howard-Wheeler Act did not apply to Native people in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) or Hawaii.
John Collier, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, pushed the Indian Reorganization Act through the legislative process. He saw the value of Native cultures and beliefs and confronted the powerful economic interests that benefitted from the loss of land from Native people. The IRA was intended to give governmental control and tribal sovereignty back to tribal people, although within a subordinate relationship to the United States.
The implementation of the IRA provided a brief period of hope for Native people before the United States Department of the Interior implemented the destructive program of termination and relocation. There were provisions in the act that had been added by Congress in 1954. While, once again, the stated purpose of termination was to “assimilate Native people into white American culture, in fact, it was simply a means of power brokers gaining access to the rich and untouched resources in Indian Country.
With the flick of a pen, the Klamath tribe of Oregon, along with 61 other tribes, ceased to exist along with their reservation, resources and treaty rights. Many of the Native people from the terminated tribes were forcibly moved to urban areas.
The status of Native people did not make a change for the better until the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975. This act was intended to allow federally recognized tribes to enter contracts and to deal directly with government agencies. It also reversed the official United States Government policy of termination and relocation that took place in the preceding decades and centuries. The act allowed tribes to gain greater self-rule. It put an end to the practice of allotments and helped tribes promote education, health, and other programs.
The act firmly established the tribes’ rights to determine who was and wasn’t considered a member of the tribe and to make decisions as to what the criteria would be, such as quantum or descendancy, to determine membership in the tribe. It is this last point, along with economic factors, that has led to thousands of Native people being disenrolled from their tribes.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 established the basic right of Native tribes to their sovereignty, limiting states’ ability to limit casinos, bingos, and other gambling operations of tribal lands. While the success of individual casinos has varied, where there has been success with Native American casinos, with it has often come the scourge of disenrollment.
Disenrollment is defined as “a loss of citizenship within a Native American tribe.” While it sounds as if this is simply a removal of a Native person’s name from the rolls of any specific tribes, it strips Native people of their history, their culture, health, housing, and education benefits. Native people who lose their tribal membership lose the right to any say in the directions of their tribes and, in many cases, lose the connection to their community.
One of the most notorious cases of disenrollment is that of the Nooksack 306. The Nooksack tribe is a tribe with approximately 2,000 members. It’s a coastal Salish tribe, located in the northwest corner of Washington State. The tribal council of the Nooksack tribe made what appeared to be arbitrary decisions to disenroll 306 members under what the now illegal tribal council deemed to be their right as a sovereign nation.
One of the tribal members, Katrice Romero, claims there is no personal reasons for disenrolling the 306. Rather, she says tribal officials are simply trying to protect the integrity of the Nooksack’s membership. Romero went on to state that the tribe does not have enough resources to care for the membership.
If this were the real reason for disenrollment, the question would be the methods in which the disenrollment of the 306 occurred. The tribal council that implemented the process of disenrollment refused to hold elections and, by the constitution of the tribe, is now illegal. By the laws of the Nooksack constitution, disenrollment ordinances must be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To date, this has not occurred.
Gabe Galanda, a Native American attorney based in Seattle, has worked hard to help the Nooksack 306 retain their status as tribal members. The Nooksack tribal council, in opposition to Galanda’s attempts, retaliated against him and disbarred him from tribal courts. Judge Susan Alexander made a ruling that clearly stated that the Nooksack had denied Galanda due process. Galanda, despite the obstacles thrown up by the illegal Nooksack tribal council, has provided support and excellent advice to the Nooksack 306. Hopefully, more Native attorneys and tribal people will join Galanda in his attempts to stop the horrendous process of disenrollment.
The bitterness among so-called legitimate members and those who face disenrollment will not be easily resolved. While tribes can and should claim sovereignty, to disenroll members whose families have been a part of the historical, cultural, and familial connections of the tribe is nothing short of self-imposed genocide.
At least 80 tribes are now practicing disenrollment, resulting in thousands of Native people losing their rights. This situation is likely to continue and, given the huge profits of some gaming operations, it may well worsen.
The next article in this series will examine, in more detail, the long-term cultural, familial, and economic ramifications of disenrollment. It will also examine the means that tribal people have to retain their enrollment. Given the apparent stance of the current administration, it will be even more important for Native people to retain their already limited population base rather than help the government accomplish its long-stated goal of making Native people disappear forever. ♦