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Disenrollment from Native American tribes leaves families 'culturally homeless'

By Gosia Wozniacka

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 11:43 a.m. MST

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."

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