Native American? The tribe says no
By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Native American tribes are facing allegations of greed and racism as they purge members from their rolls and deny the applications of others.
The expulsions have sent tremors through Indian country. Thousands of Native Americans have lost their cultural identities and access to tribal benefits, such as medical care, housing and education. Certain gaming tribes divide casino profits among members, in some cases thousands of dollars a month per person. Those expelled lose their cut.
Tribal officials say they're protecting legitimate members by making sure everyone in the tribe is qualified.
As sovereign nations, tribes have the final say in who can — and cannot — join. Each tribe determines what degree of Indian blood is necessary for membership, a requirement that varies among the 561 federally recognized tribes.
In California, at least 2,000 Native Americans have been taken off the rolls of their tribes since 1999, says Laura Wass, executive director of the Many Lightnings American Indian Legacy Center, an education and advocacy group in Fresno. Disenrollments have surged with the rise of Indian casinos, she says.
Thousands of Native Americans elsewhere have lost, or may lose, their tribal status. An upcoming vote at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma could deny citizenship to more than 1,000 of the tribe's 260,000 members.
"The motive varies from tribe to tribe," says Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, an archive for contemporary Native American issues. "I would say money is at the bottom of a lot of it."
Mary Chapman of Fresno was disenrolled from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians last month, along with 20 members of her family. About 250 members of the tribe have been disenrolled this year, Wass says, and about 400 others have received letters questioning their status.
The 1,200-member tribe, which opened a casino in Coarsegold, Calif., in 2003, expelled Chapman because she didn't meet the eligibility criteria in the tribe's constitution, a complex set of categories based on ancestry, according to a disenrollment letter sent to her by the tribe.
Mark Levitan, attorney for the tribe, wouldn't discuss numbers. There is a moratorium on enrollment until the tribe completes an audit of every member's eligibility, he says, and tribal leaders "are a government that's responsible for following their own laws."
'Just kicked to the curb'
Chapman, 69, says she traces her Chukchansi lineage to her great-great-grandmother. She blames the tribe's move on casino-related greed, which Levitan disputes.
He says the tribe does not yet distribute casino profits to members and has to show it is meeting the needs of the tribe before it can do so.
"As far as they're concerned, I'm a non-Indian," Chapman says tearfully. "I feel totally displaced, totally homeless. Just kicked to the curb."
She feels helpless, she says, because there's nothing she can do: "There's no way to fight it."
State and federal courts do not have jurisdiction over Native American membership disputes, says Kevin Gover, law professor at Arizona State University and former assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs.
"Congress has not given individual Indians the right to sue their tribes," he says.
Gover does not believe disenrollments are up because of gaming but says casino profits raise the stakes. He thinks expulsions are most often related to feuding families that form political factions.
"The majority family will throw the others out," he says. "It's clannish and unworthy of institutions that claim to be nations."
Yvette Champlain told The Providence Journal that she and dozens of her relatives were kicked out of the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Rhode Island this year because she questioned how the tribe spent $1 million it received from Harrah's Entertainment, which had been planning a casino with the tribe. "They don't want real accountability," she told the newspaper.
The casino plan was rejected by Rhode Island voters this month.
Tribal councilman Randy Noka declined to discuss the specifics of Champlain's case but says her allegations are false.
Members must be able to document that they're descendants of Narragansetts listed on a tribal roll from the 1880s, Noka says. The tribe has about 2,500 people enrolled.
"It has nothing to do with personalities or politics," he says. "Tribes have a responsibility to look out for their members. No one would expect to recognize someone that isn't a member of their family as a family member.
"You don't want anybody who may be looking to benefit from opportunities, who don't deserve them, to take away from someone who truly is a member," Noka says.
"If someone does have a definite interest in trying to prove themselves to be a member, and can prove it, they deserve every benefit other tribal members receive."
At the Cherokee Nation, a membership dispute centers on the Cherokee Freedmen, who are descendants of former slaves owned by Cherokees or, in some cases, descendants of free blacks who lived with the Cherokees. After the Civil War, the Cherokees, who had sided with the Confederacy, signed a treaty with the American government granting freedmen and their descendants tribal citizenship.
The tribe, which ratified a new constitution in 1976, has denied freedmen citizenship for much of the past three decades.
The tribe's highest court ruled in March that freedmen could obtain citizenship. Since then, more than 1,500 have enrolled, tribe spokesman Mike Miller says.
The dispute didn't end there. After Cherokee citizens circulated a referendum petition, Chief Chad Smith called a special election for February 2007 to consider changing the constitution. The proposed amendment would limit citizenship to those of Indian ancestry, based on membership rolls from the early 20th century. Those whose ancestors were freedmen would not be eligible.
Marilyn Vann's membership hangs in the balance.
"I've always considered myself a Cherokee Native American with African blood," says Vann, who says she is Cherokee, Chickasaw and black, and that being listed as a freedman means her Indian ancestry is ignored.
Vann, a petroleum engineer in Oklahoma City, says she was shocked when her citizenship application was rejected in 2001. She reapplied after the court's ruling in March and is now a citizen.
She wanted to join so she could vote and "have a voice in the affairs of the tribe," she says. "I did not come to my tribe to get something."
The Cherokees do not pay gaming profits to members. The money funds the government, social services and job creation.
Vann believes the tribe fears the freedmen's voting power. Littlefield's assessment is more blunt: "It's racism."
Just action or greed?
Some recently disenrolled members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in California cite greed.
John Gomez Jr., 38, helped found the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization last year to address civil rights issues. Gomez and about 130 adults in his family were disenrolled from the tribe in 2004. Another family of about 90 adults was kicked out earlier this year.
"Both were large families that opposed the leadership," he says.
The Pechanga Indians run a lucrative casino in Temecula, Calif., and split the profits among tribe members. Each member of Gomez's family used to get about $15,000 a month, he says. Once they were disenrolled, the payments stopped and the money went to remaining tribe members.
In an e-mailed statement, Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro says courts have consistently upheld tribes' sole responsibility for determining their citizenship. He noted that a state court this month dismissed a suit brought by disenrolled members. His tribe has 1,370 members.
The allegation of casino-related greed "is ridiculous, irresponsible and simply distorts the facts," he says. "This is about determining who is a rightful citizen and who was enrolled under false pretenses."
Michael Madariaga lost his membership this year.
The tribe had hired John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, to trace the family's lineage.
Johnson determined that Madariaga's family can be traced to one of the original members of the tribe. "They did disregard my findings," Johnson says.
Madariaga, 43, and his family lost access to tribal benefits, including the monthly casino payout and meals for the elderly, he says. He lost his job at the casino. The children had to leave the reservation school.
Madariaga's 89-year-old grandfather, Lawrence, has prostate cancer. After his health insurance was cut off, he didn't take his medications for a few months, Madariaga says. Now, he's dipping into his retirement to pay for them.
'Took a lot out of' grandparents
Madariaga describes his grandfather as an integral member of the tribe who helped upgrade the water system and bring electricity and phones to tribe members. "He designed and helped build the health clinic," he says of his grandfather.
Madariaga says disenrollment "took a lot out of" his grandfather and grandmother, Sophia, 86.
"The anger, the stress, that's not good at their age and for their health," he says. "When they were cut off from the health benefits, they were very stressed."
But the hardest part hasn't been losing benefits and casino payouts, Madariaga says.
"What matters is taking away our heritage," he says.
"It's like taking your family and wiping them out of history."