May 19, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

California Indian Tribes eject tribal members

6 min read

(NY Post) The six-page, single-spaced letter that Nancy Dondero and about 50 of her relatives received last month was generously salted with legal citations and footnotes. But its meaning was brutally simple. It is the decision by a majority of the Tribal Council, the letter said, that you are hereby disenrolled.

The Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, Calif., is a source of wealth for the Chukchansi Indians, a tribe that has purged more than 400 longtime members.

Nikah Dondero, who was disenrolled from the Chukchansi Indians, nonetheless proudly wears the Indian regalia representing her culture and traditions that she made by hand.

And with that, Ms. Donderos official membership in thePicayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, the cultural identity card she had carried all her life, summarily ended.

Thats it, Ms. Dondero, 58, said. Were tribeless.

Ms. Dondero and her clan have joined thousands of Indians in California who have been kicked out of their tribes in recent years for the crime of not being of the proper bloodline.

For centuries, American Indian tribes have banished people as punishment for serious offenses. But only in recent years, experts say, have they begun routinely disenrolling Indians deemed inauthentic members of a group. And California, with dozens of tiny tribes that were decimated, scattered and then reconstituted, often out of ethnically mixed Indians, is the national hotbed of the trend.

Clan rivalries and political squabbles are often triggers for disenrollment, but critics say one factor above all has driven the trend: casino gambling. The state has more than 60 Indian casinos that took in nearly $7 billion last year, the most of any state, according to the Indian Gaming Commission.

For Indians who lose membership in a tribe, the financial impact can be huge.Some small tribeswith casinos pay members monthly checks of $15,000 or more out of gambling profits. Many provide housing allowances and college scholarships. Children who are disenrolled can lose access to tribal schools.

The money and the immense power it has conferred on tribes that had endured grinding poverty for decades have enticed many tribal governments to consolidate control over their gambling enterprises by trimming membership rolls, critics and independent analysts say.

Sometimes it is political vendettas or family feuds that have gotten out of hand, said David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota who has studied disenrollment across the country. But in California, it seems more often than not that gaming revenue is the precipitating factor.

At least 2,500 Indians have been disenrolled by at least two dozen California tribes in the past decade, according to estimates by Indian advocates and academics. In almost all of those cases, tribal governments exercising authority recognized by the federal government have determined that the ousted Indians did not have the proper ancestry. According to 2010 census figures, more than 362,000 Indians live in California.

Tribal governments universally deny that greed or power is motivating disenrollment, saying they are simply upholding membership rules established in their constitutions. To that end, they often say they are removing people with little connection to their tribe, who joined mainly for services, scholarships and monthly checks financed by casino profits.

You have people who want to be tribal members, where no one knows who they are or where they came from, said Reggie Lewis, chairman of the Chukchansi Tribal Council. We are sworn to uphold the Constitution. And basically thats what we try to do.

The tribe has disenrolled more than 400 members in the past five years, and scores more are facing disenrollment hearings. Some members estimate that the tribes membership is now below 1,000.

Sometimes, disenrolled Indians are forced to leave tribal land though in California, many Indians do not live on the small reservations, which are also known as rancherias.

The Chukchansi tribe, whose 2,000-slot-machine casino is nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills nearYosemite National Park, gives members a monthly stipend of under $300 per person. But it also pays for utilities, food bills and tuition and Nikah Dondero, Nancy Donderos 32-year-old daughter, had to turn down a masters degree program after she was disenrolled last month, because she lost her scholarship.

Its like Im now a white girl with Okie kids, said Ms. Dondero, a mother of two.

Beyond benefits, critics of disenrollment say it can be psychologically devastating. It destroys their connection to their ancestors, their cultural heritage, their tradition, said Laura Wass, Central California director for theAmerican Indian Movement, an opponent of disenrollment. You have to go to iron gates and beg for entrance to your own land.

The fights over enrollment have bred a cottage industry for ancestry research. Many tribal governments now retain lawyers or researchers who comb through government archives for evidence of an individuals tribal authenticity. Companies that test Indian DNA have sprouted up around the country. The Chukchansi hired a formerBureau of Indian Affairsofficial with expertise in federal records to review the bloodline of every member.

In the case of Nancy Dondero, the disenrollment of her extended family came down to a single ancestor: a great-grandfather, Jack Roan, who died in 1942 at age 76. The tribes enrollment committee, appointed by the seven-member Tribal Council, determined Mr. Roan was not Chukchansi based on a will and personal affidavits in which he declared himself to be a member of another tribe.

At a hearing in September, the Roan descendants were allowed to present their own evidence, which included census and land records listing Mr. Roan as a Chukchansi. But the council rejected their argument, saying their documents included incorrect information submitted by whites. Mr. Roan was removed, and so were his descendants.

Paradoxically, Mr. Roans face has become an iconic image of the Chukchansi, thanks to a photograph taken by Edward S. Curtis, the renowned documenter of the American West, wholisted himas Chukchansi in a photograph taken in the 1920s.

One of Mr. Roans daughters, Ruby Cordero, is also considered a cultural pillar of the tribe because she is expert at basket weaving and among the last native speakers of the Chukchansi language. But at 87, she, too, has been disenrolled.

She was born and raised on that property, said Nancy Dondero, Rubys great-niece.

Disenrollments are not appealable. But in early December, the Chukchansi held tribal elections, which could result in new council members. (The vote is still being tallied.) If so, a different council could reinstate the Roan descendants, though that is far from certain.

Some Indian advocates like Ms. Wass say it is time for Congress to empower the federal courts or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide legal recourse to Indians who believe they have been disenrolled improperly.

Tony Cohen, a lawyer in Northern California who has represented Indians and tribal officials for three decades, said Congress could, for instance, enact legislation allowing Indians to sue tribal governments in federal court if they thought their rights were violated. But there is no such legislation pending, and Congress has shown little appetite for interfering in tribal membership issues.

I dont like seeing Congress interfere with Indian sovereignty, Mr. Cohen said. But I also dont like seeing tribal governments allowed to be, in essence, dictators.

Citing a 1978 Supreme Courtdecisionwritten by Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs says that tribal governments have sole authority to determine membership unless a tribal constitution allows intervention by the government. But such provisions are rare.

And some federal officials say that is exactly how it has always been.

The tribe has historically had the ability to remove people, said Kevin Bearquiver, the bureaus deputy director for the Pacific region. Tolerance is a European thing brought to the country. We never tolerated things. We turned our back on people.

  • Ian Lovett contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
  • This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 19, 2011


An article on Tuesday about thousands of Indians in California who have been kicked out of their tribes in recent years overstated the federal governments involvement in regulating tribes. The government recognizes the right of tribes to determine their own membership; it does not grant that power. The article also misstated the month in which the Chukchansi Indians held tribal elections. They were in early December, not in early November.


1 thought on “California Indian Tribes eject tribal members

  1. Worldwide Indigenous are losing how they track the real geneaology lines. This is part of the colonisers tactics. For Te Arawa the example to set in storytelling info passed down of Hinemoa & Tutanekai – if we marry out, we must encourage our tamariki to marry in for the balance. This is how the true lines are protected and continued!! These teachings are lost under Adult arrogance of intellectualism,religion, & uniformed thinking in control.
    Until we get back to the 1st example set by our ancestors Tamatekapua & Ngatoroirangi: The ranks of the ‘Ariki Tohunga & Rangatira’ as 1st in 2nd in authority over Tribal areas, then we will see the REAL DEAL GOVERNANCE appointment according to Whakapapa! Under the order of the Young Chiefs in charge. At the momment the face we see is FAKE MANAGEMENT having all the say.

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