Native American basketball players show who’s got game

The Rez Runners’ Hunter Osceola dribbles against Cheyenne Arapaho’s Kiahree Kerns in an early round of the Native American Basketball Invitational.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
The Rez Runners’ Hunter Osceola dribbles against Cheyenne Arapaho’s Kiahree Kerns in an early round of the Native American Basketball Invitational.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America


By Tristan Ahtone, ALJAZEERA America

PHOENIX — Coach Andrew Bowers was exhorting his players on the court at the US Airways Stadium, his voice cutting through the din of cheering spectators, the squeaks of basketball shoes, the shrill blasts of the referee’s whistle.

“Defense!’’ he roared. “Lock it up! Lock it up! Lock it up!’’

The 18,422-seat stadium is the home of the Phoenix Mercury, a Women’s National Basketball Association franchise. But that wasn’t the team on the court. Bowers is the coach for the Rez Runners, a team of young men from the Seminole, Miccosukee and Winnebago tribes from Hollywood, Florida, where their home court has an audience capacity of just about 200.

By halftime on Saturday, they were tied 31-31 against the Cheyenne Arapaho team in the final game for the gold championship at the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI).

The Cheyenne Arapaho, representing the tribe of the same name from Oklahoma, have been NABI champions five times. The Rez Runners had made it to the quarterfinals before but never this close to the big prize.

The two teams knew each other. Well.

“It’s a rivalry. It’s not friendly at all,” said Trewston Pierce, an 18-year-old Seminole tribal member and a Rez Runner. “We’re looking to smash ’em.”

At halftime, a victory for Pierce and the Rez Runners was fragile but within grasp.

For five days every July, 128 high school teams from the United States, Canada and New Zealand compete in the nation’s largest Native basketball tournament. The prizes: a trophy, T-shirts, hats and — most important — bragging rights.

For many in Indian Country, basketball is the game of the gods, just as hockey is to many Canadians or soccer to many Brazilians. It’s not clear how it gained such a foothold or why — it just is — but it does have a style and name among those who have been initiated: Rez Ball.

“We’ve been playing this way for decades,” said Tahnee Robinson. “It’s in our blood.”

Robinson was the first Native American drafted into the WNBA, after a fruitful career playing college ball in Nevada, and has been playing professionally overseas the last few years — Israel, Bulgaria, Ukraine, China and now Poland.

“Depending on where you go overseas, they play a fast pace, and some other places they like to really play with more finesse and set the ball up and things like that,” she said. “Rez Ball is a fast-paced game where anybody on the court can bring up the ball at any time.”

Guards, shooting guards, posts, forwards — it doesn’t matter what your position is; in Rez Ball, anyone can take the ball up, and everyone is on the hook to pass, break and rebound.

“It’s just good court sense,” said Robinson. “Just knowing that that person is going to be there without you even having to look.”

In other words, Rez Ball is more democratic — or more chaotic, depending on how you want to look at it.

Coach “Big John” Andreas, center, celebrates with his team, Apache Nation, after it defeated Brotherhood, representing the Winnebago tribe, 43-42, in the first round of play.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Coach “Big John” Andreas, center, celebrates with his team, Apache Nation, after it defeated Brotherhood, representing the Winnebago tribe, 43-42, in the first round of play.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

The air conditioning roared in the modest Phoenix College gymnasium. Outside, the temperature hovered in the triple digits, but inside, brown faces and black hair filled the stands as Northern Thunder squared off against NN Lady Magic for the title of Girls Silver Champion.

“A lot of people in Indian Country love basketball,” said John Andreas, a coach from White Mountain Apache, Arizona. “It’s a part of life. Navajos, they herd sheep. Cowboys they get the cows together. Natives, they love to play basketball. That’s just the way it is.”

In many ways, the NABI is like Gathering of Nations or even Indian National Finals Rodeo: Teams, spectators and families get together to mingle, catch up and support.

“It’s very important to remember that this is all about the youth,” said Andreas. “This is our way of life.”

There are myriad Native basketball tournaments across the country during the year. The NABI is the largest and is focused entirely on high school students, with the purpose of attracting scouts. By allowing only 128 teams per year to compete — 64 each for boys and girls — organizers hope to keep the quality of games high and to match NCAA brackets.

Roughly 1,600 student athletes attend annually, and teams must apply to play and follow guidelines. All players must be tribally enrolled and in high school and must attend educational seminars while participating.

“You can teach so much through the game of basketball,” said Yvonne DeCory, manager of the South Dakota Many Feathers team. “You can build character. You can build self-esteem. You can teach math.”

Because of NCAA rules, the big division schools don’t recruit at the NABI — only community and tribal colleges. However, the very prospect of a college career is enough for many coaches to push their kids.

“A lot of these kids are onsika. That means kind of poor, a little bit,” said Many Feathers coach William Good Eagle Jr. “Most of these kids don’t get a chance, or they’re too scared. We just want them to get out and try it.”

Overwhelmingly, coaches said basketball was also a way to keep kids off the street and out of trouble. With so many depressing statistics available to describe day-to-day Native life, a basketball game can be a huge breath of fresh air as well as an unassuming nod to a brighter future for the next generation.

“We may be seeing future councilmen or tribal chairmen on these courts,” said Martha Tommie, a Seminole tribal member and spectator. “Why wouldn’t we want our kids to blend together and our tribes become friends as youth? Then when they’re older and wiser — ‘Hey, remember us? Let’s help each other out.’”

Rez Runners Matthew Winsett, left, and Ryland Moore get ready for their championship game at the US Airways Center.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Rez Runners Matthew Winsett, left, and Ryland Moore get ready for their championship game at the US Airways Center.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

It was quiet in the locker room, save for the sound of a few basketballs bouncing. The boys stretched as the sounds of music and the muffled voice of an announcer filtered down the halls and through the concrete walls of the stadium.

Ryland Moore had A$AP Ferg on his headphones, Mathew Wingett listened to J. Cole, and Trewston Pierce listened to a mix of 50 Cent and traditional Seminole hymns.

Coach Bowers had something to say to the Rez Runners.

“Intensity — let’s start it out from the beginning,” he intoned. “Punch ’em in the mouth, like we always say. Make ’em not want to play anymore. Intensity. That means on offense and on defense.”

The boys nodded. They knew what they had to do.

“We said ‘one game at a time’ the whole way here,” said Bowers. “We’re at that last game. Go get what’s yours. Go get what’s yours. Let’s go! ‘Win’ on three.”

The boys huddled up and in unison yelled, “One, two, three, WIN!”

Hori Poto, center, girls’ coach for New Zealand’s Nga Hau E Wha, with his team during pool play against Fort Yuma, an intertribal squad.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Hori Poto, center, girls’ coach for New Zealand’s Nga Hau E Wha, with his team during pool play against Fort Yuma, an intertribal squad.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

Basketball is important not just to Native communities in North America; it has made its way to tribes in other parts of the world.

“Our major sport in New Zealand is rugby,” said Ramari Leonard, the delegation head and a coach for Nga Hau E Wha. “Our Maori youth grow up dreaming of becoming an All Black, so usually, basketball becomes secondary.”

Nga Hau E Wha, or “four corners,” is named that because team members represent Maori tribes from across the island nation. Essentially, it’s a Maori all-star team.

“For Maoris, when we come to do our tournaments, we have a cultural night, and it’s an expectation that each tribe will perform,” said Leonard. “That is a highlight of the tournament, and that’s what we expected, so we’re a little bit intrigued that it doesn’t happen [at the NABI].”

At the NABI, Native culture isn’t front and center like at other events, at least not what one might easily identify as Native culture. Instead, basketball is the culture, and despite the difference in basketball customs, tribes from both sides of the Pacific are finding more similarities than differences.

“I’d like to think our interactions with the Native Americans would be positive so they think well of Maori people,” said Leonard. “It’s more about the social context. The game is just a reason why we come together.”

Rez Runners basketball coach Andrew Bowers.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Rez Runners basketball coach Andrew Bowers.Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

Three minutes left on the clock, and the Rez Runners were ahead, 60 to 47.


“Try and run the clock if you can,” said Bowers as the boys gathered around him. “If they give it to you and it’s there, take it. If not, pull a Steve Nash. Go in, dribble it back out. All right?”

The 30-second timeout buzzer blared, and players from Cheyenne Arapaho began trickling back out onto the court. The crowd screamed.

“Three minutes,” yelled Bowers. “Three minutes until you get what you deserve. Challenge all shots. Let’s go, guys.”

Fans called out to the team, “Goooooooo, Rez Runners!’’ Top 40 hits blared over the stadium’s sound system, and the Rez Runners did exactly what they were supposed to: They ran down the clock and took shots when they could.

With about 10 second left on the clock, Cheyenne Arapaho suddenly lost energy, like runners who had crossed the finish line and had no reason left to run. The buzzer rang, and then a cheer rose from the crowd.

The final score: 66 to 51. The Rez Runners had their first NABI title.

The boys claimed their shirts, hats and trophy, then moved on for photos. The next day, some of the Rez Runners would fly back home, while the rest would drive — a two-day journey back to the tip of Florida, the homeland of the Seminole tribe.

“Our young people are just like the whites, the blacks, the Mexicans, whatever,” said Yvonne DeCory. “They put their sneakers on just like them, one at a time, and lace ’em up. But Natives? We got game.”

First Nations ceremonial shaming rite targeted at federal government

An ancient First Nations ritual steeped in symbolism is going to take place in the nation’s capital this summer.


 by Carlito Pablo on Jun 25, 2014,, Vancouver BC


First Nations carver Beau Dick says a copper shield, like the one he holds, will be shattered in Ottawa in a symbolic gesture of anguish.Carlito Pablo
First Nations carver Beau Dick says a copper shield, like the one he holds, will be shattered in Ottawa in a symbolic gesture of anguish.
Carlito Pablo

A copper shield will be smashed on Parliament Hill, an act believed never to have been done before in Ottawa. Called copper cutting, the ceremonial shaming practice will evoke what many consider to be a broken relationship between the federal government and Canada’s aboriginal people.

“Our coppers are a symbol of justice, a symbol of truth, a symbol of balance,” according to Beau Dick, a renowned carver from Vancouver Island’s Namgis First Nation.

At his UBC studio, the resident artist in the department of art history, visual art, and theory explained that breaking copper constituted an insult in old times.

“It is banishment. It is an expression of extreme disappointment and anguish,” Dick explained to the Georgia Straight.

The ritual, indigenous to Natives of the Pacific Northwest, had not been practised for decades until the 59-year-old artist revived it last year.

After marching for a week from the northern tip of Vancouver Island with relatives and supporters, Dick shattered a copper shield in front of the B.C. legislature in Victoria on February 10, 2013.

During a gathering at UBC later last year to celebrate his artist residency, the idea was born to perform the ceremony in Ottawa. One of those present at that social event was Giindajin Haawasti Guujaaw. Also a famous carver, Guujaaw is a former president of the Council of the Haida Nation.

When aboriginal representatives meet on Parliament Hill on July 27 for the shaming ceremony, it will be Haida copper that will be split.

“We’re facing a federal government here that has shown total disregard for the environment, for the wildlife, for the people of the coast, and we want to express that in the best way that we can and that’s in the breaking of the copper,” Guujaaw told the Straight in a phone interview.

Foremost among the grievances is Ottawa’s recent approval of Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway oil pipeline, a $7.9-billion project that has divided First Nations in B.C.

“It’s a one-show pony over there. They’re only interested in oil,” Guujaaw noted.

The Haida artist also mentioned cutbacks to Fisheries and Oceans Canada undermining the conservation of marine resources that many Native groups rely upon for food and cultural purposes. Guujaaw said he doesn’t expect anything to change on the part of the government anytime soon.

As to what aboriginal people want to put across to Ottawa, Guujaaw said: “The message will be the ceremony.”

In the past, copper was a marker of Native wealth and status, according to Eldon Yellowhorn, chair of SFU’s department of First Nations studies. When chiefs held a potlatch, the metal was given as a gift, said Yellowhorn, who hails from Alberta’s Piikani First Nation.

Although the planned breaking of copper may be symbolic, he noted that it’s indicative of Native sentiment about processes around projects such as oil pipelines. “Many of them feel that they haven’t been consulted,” Yellowhorn told the Straight by phone, “so I’m sure this is a way of illustrating to the government that they’re not pleased.”

Like broken metal, frayed relationships can be restored, but there should be amends, according to Dick. “There has to be atonement,” he said.

On Wednesday (July 2), Dick and Guujaaw will meet at the UBC First Nations House of Learning for ceremonies to kick-start a cross-country journey to Ottawa. Dick’s five-year-old grandson and an almost 90-year-old aunt are coming along.

“We as a First Nation group want to move forward together in unity with our fellow men to create a better world,” Dick said. “I think that this is where we start this notion of reconciliation and unity.”

US Ambassador Keith Harper: Violence Against Indigenous Women ‘Global Scourge’

Gale Courey Toensing, Indian Country Today


Describing violence against indigenous women and girls as a “global scourge,” Keith Harper, the United States ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, called on the world peace organization to use everything in its toolbox to address the problem and urged the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to raise awareness of it throughout the U.N. system.

“As we prepare for the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, we express great concern that indigenous women and girls often suffer multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and poverty that increase their vulnerability to all forms of violence. We also stress the need to seriously address the high and disproportionate rates of violence, which takes many forms, against indigenous women and girls worldwide,” Harper said on Tuesday (June 24) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. ”Indigenous women and girls have the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as everyone else, and a common recognition of those rights must underpin efforts to address violence against indigenous women and girls.

The remarks were delivered in a Joint Statement on Eliminating Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls on behalf of 35 of the council’s 47 member states – Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Congo, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, St Kitts and Nevis, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The statement was not a U.S. statement, but Harper and his team led the effort, working with the 35 different countries to come up with a statement that all of them agreed on, a staff member at the U.S. Mission said. Since the U.S. led the process, the U.S. ambassador read the statement before the council, the staff member said.

One of the key elements to stopping violence against indigenous women and girls is providing access to justice systems, Harper said. “Improving access to justice and empowering Indigenous Peoples are critical to this effort,” he said. Given that access, Indigenous Peoples themselves may well be in the best position to combat violence against indigenous women and girls, Harper noted. “They are closer and better able to address the issue when provided with tools and the legal capability to stop the violence. We will strive to, and encourage other states to, where appropriate, enable and empower Indigenous Peoples to better address these issues themselves by providing resources, adopting legislation and policies, and taking other necessary steps in an effort to stop the cycle of violence that affects them,” he said. He also stressed the need for coordination and dialogue between state and indigenous justice institutions to help improve indigenous women and girls’ access to justice and bolster awareness campaigns, including ones directed at men and boys.

Harper suggested a series of actions necessary to help end “the global scourge of violence against indigenous women and girls,” including comprehensive support services for survivors and improved data collection to determine the scope of the problem. “It will demand intensified measures to provide accountability for perpetrators and redoubled efforts to prevent abuse,” he said. He emphasized the need to respect and promote reproductive rights. “[T]he right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, and access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services must be integral to our efforts to end violence against indigenous women and girls,” Harper said.

The issue of violence against indigenous women and girls needs more attention, Harper said, encouraging “the relevant UN mechanisms” – such as the Commission on Women’s Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – to use the UN’s existing tools more effectively to prevent and address the problem. He said the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to be held in New York in September should highlight the problem, spread awareness of it, and respond to it throughout the U.N. system. “The meaningful participation of indigenous representatives in the World Conference and its preparatory process will be essential in this regard,” Harper said.

Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, is the first citizen of a federally-recognized tribe to become an U.S. ambassador. He is new on the job: The Senate voted 52 – 42 on his confirmation June 3 and seven days later he hit the ground running as the 26th regular three week session of the Human Rights Council opened in Geneva on June 10.

RELATED: Keith Harper, Cherokee Nation Citizen, Confirmed as Ambassador




Research program helps diabetics lower stress levels

By Brandi N. Montreuil, Tulalip News

HHHM teamTULALIP- Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds is a research program focusing on Native American cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes patients residing on the Tulalip Reservation, or within 20 miles of the reservation. Their goal is to lower stress levels in patients resulting from CVD and diabetes management.

The program is taught through weekly sessions over a 3-month period, and is individually focused.  Participants are required to have a medical diagnosis of CVD, diabetes, or pre-diabetes. Culturally sensitive curriculum features coping skills and self-care techniques based on diagnosis requirements.

“Research found that Natives have this problem with CVD and diabetes. They are at a really high risk for getting these disorders. The idea is to try to find out what it is that is making them more at risk and to find an intervention,” said June LaMarr, program’s community principle investigator.

While the program does not treat diabetes patients as the Tulalip Diabetes Program offered at the Tulalip Karen I. Fryberg Health Clinic does, the project coordinator Michelle Tiedeman explains collaboration between the two programs ensures all healthcare concerns are addressed in patients.

“Their program focuses on the diabetes portion, we are addressing those symptoms of stress resulting from diabetes self-care management. The idea is we are hoping to lower those levels in order to increase those diabetes self-care behaviors that are needed to maintain glucose levels,” said Tiedeman.

In each session participants can expect help identifying stress triggers and develop tools to reach goals relating to diabetes care. Participants are requested to complete a base-line assessment, which includes a fasting blood draw, brief physical assessment, and a survey questionnaire, before starting their first session.

There is no cost to participate in the program, but participants are provided a small incentive for participating and can earn up to $190 in gift cards and checks.

“We are looking for people who are experiencing some type of stress in managing those diabetes self-care behaviors. We are trying to help them learn ways to feel less overwhelmed by everything they are asked to do, and help them basically fall into a healthy routine with their diabetes,” said Tiedeman. “We don’t want people to think they can’t participate in both diabetes programs, we want ours to be viewed as an additional service. Because it is a research project, we are hoping that the program is found effective, so we can look to the future and maybe offer something more sustainable in the community.”

Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds is funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. For more information in participating in the program or the program itself, please contact 360-716-4896 or email


Brandi N. Montreuil: 360-913-5402;

Not Happy! Natives Pan Pharrell’s Headdress Look on Elle UK Cover

 Photo by Doug Inglish. Source:
Photo by Doug Inglish. Source:


Pharrell Williams appears on a special-edition cover of Elle UK‘s July issue wearing a feather headdress, and Natives are not at all “Happy” about it. In fact, they’re tweeting their disgust on Twitter using the hashtag #NOThappy — a reference to Pharrell’s mega-hit “Happy.”

Pharrell earned smirks in January for wearing an enormous “Mountie”-style hat to the Grammy Awards — but he stuck with the look and it became a signature style. Which makes Elle UK all the more proud of themselves: “we persuaded ELLE Style Award winner Pharrell to trade his Vivienne Westwood mountie hat for a native American feather headdress in his best ever shoot,” reads promotional copy on the mag’s website. The photos were taken by Doug Inglish.

RELATED: Dopey: Rapper Emerson Windy’s Native American Shtick Sparks Outrage
RELATED: Oklahoma Gov’s Daughter: A Woman in a Headdress Is “a Beautiful Thing”

The preview image was posted to Elle UK’s Facebook page, and has racked up hundreds of comments within a few hours. Offended Facebookers have also taken their complaints to Pharrell’s own page:

Pharrell Williams on the cover of the July 2014 collector's edition issue of Elle UK, shot by Doug Inglish.
Pharrell Williams on the cover of the July 2014 collector’s edition issue of Elle UK, shot by Doug Inglish.


Taino Ray: How can you do something so stupid and disrespectfulll.. you are not a Chief Pharrel.. The eagle feathers are sacred… Even if you are part Native the headdress is off limits… Its for Warriors and people of the plains culture.. You don’t have the right to wear that Pharrel… neither does Cher or Emerson Windy… You guys don’t get it…. You will learn the hard way by us Natives telling you so…

Gail Lichtsinn: You have no right to wear a headress that is so sacred to native people..Those headresses are earned and not worn to make a buck or draw attention..They have meaning and are worn by our men with pride and dignity..This is a mockery of a proud people..We are not a joke and take these things very seriously..Go back to wearing your OWN clothes

Sandy Johnson: I love your music! BUT…please don’t insult our Indigenous People by wearing a headdress. They are earned one Eagle feather at a time through acts of selflessness and bravery. Thank you.

And a few of the #NOThappy tweets:

gindaanis @gindaanis: Pharrell gets on the appropriation train. #NOThappy

Pamela J. Peters @navajofilmmaker: Idiot #NotHappy

Amy Stretten @amystretten: A Native American headdress is not a hat. Try again, @Pharrell. #NotHappy @ELLEMagUK @ELLEmagazine

We’ll probably have more on this story in the near future, as neither Pharrell nor Elle UK have commented on the controversy. As wrong as this sounds, it’s going to be said: You really should have stuck with the mountie hat, Pharrell.



Disenrollment Leaves Natives ‘Culturally Homeless’

Don Ryan / Associated PressMia Prickett sits at a table with a collection of family photos and holds her Confederated Tribe of Grande Ronde enrollment card along with a recent notice of potential potential disenrollment from the tribe in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.
Don Ryan / Associated Press
Mia Prickett sits at a table with a collection of family photos and holds her Confederated Tribe of Grande Ronde enrollment card along with a recent notice of potential potential disenrollment from the tribe in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.

By GOSIA WOZNIACKA Associated Press

Mia Prickett’s ancestor was a leader of the Cascade Indians along the Columbia River and was one of the chiefs who signed an 1855 treaty that helped establish the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon.

But the Grand Ronde now wants to disenroll Prickett and 79 relatives, and possibly hundreds of other tribal members, because they no longer satisfy new enrollment requirements.

Prickett’s family is fighting the effort, part of what some experts have dubbed the “disenrollment epidemic” — a rising number of dramatic clashes over tribal belonging that are sweeping through more than a dozen states, from California to Michigan.

“In my entire life, I have always known I was an Indian. I have always known my family’s history, and I am so proud of that,” Prickett said. She said her ancestor chief Tumulth was unjustly accused of participating in a revolt and was executed by the U.S. Army — and hence didn’t make it onto the tribe’s roll, which is now a membership requirement.

The prospect of losing her membership is “gut-wrenching,” Prickett said.

“It’s like coming home one day and having the keys taken from you,” she said. “You’re culturally homeless.”

The enrollment battles come at a time when many tribes — long poverty-stricken and oppressed by government policies — are finally coming into their own, gaining wealth and building infrastructure with revenues from Indian casinos.

Critics of disenrollment say the rising tide of tribal expulsions is due to greed over increased gambling profits, along with political in-fighting and old family and personal feuds.

But at the core of the problem, tribes and experts agree, is a debate over identity — over who is “Indian enough” to be a tribal member.

“It ultimately comes down to the question of how we define what it means to be Native today,” said David Wilkins, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and a member of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe. “As tribes who suffered genocidal policies, boarding school laws and now out-marriage try to recover their identity in the 20th century, some are more fractured, and they appear to lack the kind of common elements that lead to true cohesion.”

Wilkins, who has tracked the recent increase in disenrollment across the nation, says tribes have kicked out thousands of people.

Historically, ceremonies and prayers — not disenrollment — were used to resolve conflicts because tribes essentially are family-based, and “you don’t cast out your relatives,” Wilkins said. Banishment was used in rare, egregious situations to cast out tribal members who committed crimes such as murder or incest.

Most tribes have based their membership criteria on blood quantum or on descent from someone named on a tribe’s census rolls or treaty records — old documents that can be flawed.

There are 566 federally recognized tribes and determining membership has long been considered a hallmark of tribal sovereignty. A 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed that policy when it said the federal government should stay out of most tribal membership disputes.

Mass disenrollment battles started in the 1990s, just as Indian casinos were establishing a foothold. Since then, Indian gambling revenues have skyrocketed from $5.4 billion in 1995 to a record $27.9 billion in 2012, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Tribes have used the money to build housing, schools and roads, and to fund tribal health care and scholarships. They also have distributed casino profits to individual tribal members.

Of the nearly 240 tribes that run more than 420 gambling establishments across 28 states, half distribute a regular per-capita payout to their members. The payout amounts vary from tribe to tribe. And membership reductions lead to increases in the payments — though tribes deny money is a factor in disenrollment and say they’re simply trying to strengthen the integrity of their membership.

Disputes over money come on top of other issues for tribes. American Indians have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage in the U.S. — leading some tribes in recent years to eliminate or reduce their blood quantum requirements. Also, many Native Americans don’t live on reservations, speak Native languages or “look” Indian, making others question their bloodline claims.

Across the nation, disenrollment has played out in dramatic, emotional ways that left communities reeling and cast-out members stripped of their payouts, health benefits, fishing rights, pensions and scholarships.

In Central California, the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians has disenrolled hundreds. Last year, the dispute over banishments became so heated that sheriff’s deputies were called to break up a violent skirmish between two tribal factions that left several people injured.

In Washington, after the Nooksack Tribal Council voted to disenroll 306 members citing documentation errors, those affected sued in tribal and federal courts. They say the tribe, which has two casinos but gives no member payouts, was racially motivated because the families being cast out are part Filipino. This week, the Nooksack Court of Appeals declined to stop the disenrollments.

And in Michigan, where Saginaw Chippewa membership grew once the tribe started giving out yearly per-capita casino payments that peaked at $100,000, a recent decline in gambling profits led to disenrollment battles targeting hundreds.

The Grand Ronde, which runs Oregon’s most profitable Indian gambling operation, also saw a membership boost after the casino was built in 1995, from about 3,400 members to more than 5,000 today. The tribe has since tightened membership requirements twice, and annual per-capita payments decreased from about $5,000 to just over $3,000.

Some members recently were cast out for being enrolled in two tribes, officials said, which is prohibited. But for Prickett’s relatives, who were tribal members before the casino was built, the reasons were unclear.

Prickett and most of her relatives do not live on the reservation. In fact, only about 10 percent of Grand Ronde members do. Rather, they live on ancestral lands. The tribe has even used the family’s ties to the river to fight another tribe’s casino there.

Grand Ronde spokeswoman Siobhan Taylor said the tribe’s membership pushed for an enrollment audit, with the goal of strengthening its “family tree.” She declined to say how many people were tabbed for disenrollment.

But Prickett’s family says it has been told that up to 1,000 could be cast out, and has filed an ethics complaint before the tribal court. They say the process has been devastating for a family active in tribal arts and events, and in teaching the language Chinuk Wawa.

“I have made a commitment to both our language and our tribe,” said Eric Bernardo, one of only seven Chinuk Wawa teachers who also faces disenrollment. “And no matter what some people in the tribe decide, I will continue to honor that commitment.”