For Native Americans, Losing Tribal Membership Tests Identity



April 01, 2014 3:07 AM

Some of the 79 people told by the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde they were enrolled in error. Seated on floor are Russell Wilkinson and Mia Prickett (holding the drum). Seated second row from left are Nina Portwood-Shields, Jade Unger, Marilyn Portwood, Eric Bernando, Debi Anderson, Val Alexander. Standing are Antoine Auger, left, and Erin Bernando. Photo: Don Ryan/AP
Some of the 79 people told by the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde they were enrolled in error. Seated on floor are Russell Wilkinson and Mia Prickett (holding the drum). Seated second row from left are Nina Portwood-Shields, Jade Unger, Marilyn Portwood, Eric Bernando, Debi Anderson, Val Alexander. Standing are Antoine Auger, left, and Erin Bernando. Photo: Don Ryan/AP

In western Oregon, members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are engaged in a debate over what it means to belong.

The tribe’s enrollment committee is considering kicking out an entire family that traces its lineage back to the founding of the modern tribe more than a century and a half ago. The family is related to Chief Tumulth, leader of the Watlala, a tribe that controlled river traffic along a key section of the Columbia River.

“If you search for ‘Chief Tumulth,’ you’ll find that he’s, as some people claim, the most famous Chinookan chief that there ever was,” says Jade Unger, Tumulth’s great, great, great, great grandson.

After Unger heard about Chief Tumulth as a teenager he began to study the tribal language, Chinuk Wawa, and learned the traditional methods of hunting and fishing. Studying his ancestors, he began to learn about himself.

Eventually, Unger was enrolled at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In 1855, Tumulth played an early role in the confederation’s founding by signing an important treaty with the U.S. government.

Unger says for nearly 30 years his family was embraced by the tribe, that is, until last September, when everything changed. The tribe’s enrollment committee told Unger and 78 members of his family that a recently completed audit showed they were enrolled in error.

“I’m not worried about me. I know I’m fine economically,” Unger says. “I’ll make it. But there’s people in my family that are going to be devastated by this, people that are dependent on their elders’ pensions. There are people that are going to lose their homes.”

Back in 1995, the tribe opened its Spirit Mountain Casino, and for the first time, members began to see a financial benefit. Within a few years, the tribe began to tighten its enrollment requirements. In fact, under the new standards, Unger’s family wouldn’t be let in today.

His ancestor may have signed a key treaty in the formation of the Grand Ronde, but Chief Tumulth was killed before the reservation was officially recognized in 1857. Unger says that information was well known to the committee members who approved their applications.

“There was no error,” Unger says. “It was very deliberate and it was unanimously agreed upon that we had a background and we had a right to belong here in this tribe.”

Tribal Council Chairman Reynold Leno wouldn’t discuss pending cases. But he says the audit was needed to correct inconsistencies in the tribal record.

“Tribes are made up of families and families know their own history,” Leno says. “And when you have people that don’t kind of fit into that family-type scenario, it kind of draws a question. And I think that’s what a lot of people wanted looked into.”

While he says any disenrollments that result from the audit are unfortunate, he says the tribe has a constitution — and it’s his job to uphold it.

“It was given to us by the Supreme Court to set standards and regulations for our enrollment, and I think people should respect that,” Leno says.

But both in and outside of Oregon, disenrollments are raising questions. David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Lumbee Nation, estimates that as many as 8,000 U.S. citizens have been cast out of native tribes over the last two decades. And Wilkins worries tribal disenrollments could be putting tribal autonomy in jeopardy.

“At some point there’s going to be enough clamor raised by disenrollees that there is going to be a congressional hearing or there is going to be some presidential proclamation or there is going to be a Supreme Court decision that might seriously impinge on what is a true sine qua non of a sovereign nation, that is the power to decide who belongs,” Wilkins says.

Grand Ronde is still reviewing the results of the audit, which means more disenrollment letters could go out.

Unger acknowledges he might lose his federally recognized status, but he says nobody can take away his identity as a native person.

“That’s, hands down, way more important to me than any little chunk of money I might get in a per capita payment,” Unger says. “I don’t care about that. I care about my tribe. I feel like I belong. We belong.”

And Unger says that’s the one thing he wants to hold on to.


Original Broadcast: NPR

March 15 Vote Could Reverse WA Indian Tribal Membership Purge


On March 15, 2014 a very important vote will take place on the Deming, Washington Reservation of The Nooksack Indian Tribe. The Tribe has attempted a mass disenrollment of more than 300 enrolled tribal members. Represented by Gabe Galanda of Galanda Broadman, several lawsuits have been filed in tribal court and in federal court. Elections of the Tribal Council and its officers, however, could alter the balance of power and the attempted purge.

Galanda says that the elections are essentially a referendum on the disenrollment. “The results of the primary signaled that the current Council lacks a mandate for that mass disenrollment,” he says.  “In the general election the Nooksack People, who have been silenced in all political forums for the last fourteen months, will rightfully have a say in the matter.”

In the case of most American Indian tribes, historically the tribes have had the power to determine tribal membership. For centuries tribes “banished” people as punishment for serious offenses. In recent years, however, a trend has been evident with tribes canceling membership, or “disenrolling” tribal members due to claims of inferior membership qualification.

While the most recent trend evidences the most cases arising in California, the practice is not exclusive to California and there are cases throughout the United States. Recent mass disenrollments are spreading along the West Coast to Washington and Oregon as well. Although there is no way to know exactly how many Indians have been disenrolled, the numbers are substantial. One activist group says at least 5,000 tribal members were disenrolled in California alone between 2000 and 2008.

Motivation for the disenrollment trend nationally is hotly debated. Some experts point to internal personal squabbles or political factional differences as the source of the trend. Others point to the simultaneous enrichment of tribes from casino gambling. Tribal governments universally deny that greed or power is motivating disenrollment, declaring that they are upholding membership rules established in valid internal constitutions. As proof, they say they are removing people with tangential connections to the tribe, who joined primarily for benefits, services, scholarships and in some instances monthly checks financed by the casino profits.

Galanda believes that the federal law, the Indian Civil Rights Act and the Tribe’s own Constitution guarantees the Nooksack 306 constitutional rights that have been violated and he’s hoping to convince the courts that he’s right. So far he has been unsuccessful in the tribal courts but neither Galanda nor his clients are giving up.