An early story from 2006
Indians decry banishment by their tribes
Protesters say power struggles, mainly over casinos, have stripped them of gaming profits By Michael Martinez Tribune national correspondent Published January 14, 2006 PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- Dozens of American Indians in several states tried to launch a national movement this week as they protested the growing trend of Native Americans being denied profits from tribal casinos following political disputes.
They denounced what they said was tribal corruption during demonstrations outside the Western Indian Gaming Conference here, a meeting already overshadowed by the scandal over Capitol Hill lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to conspiracy to defraud Indians with casino interests of more than $20 million. Thousands of Indians nationwide--including 4,000 in California--have been stripped of or denied rightful membership in their tribes, and 75 percent of the California cases involved controversies over casinos, said Laura Wass, founder of the Many Lightnings American Indian Legacy Center in Fresno.
One of the protesters this week was Donald Wanatee, who lived for nearly all of his 73 years on an Iowa reservation but one day last spring went from tribal elder to outcast. His exile followed a struggle over a tribal casino that pitted Indian against Indian within the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. He, his brother and 16 other members of the tribe ultimately lost to a rival faction. Last May they stopped receiving their share of gaming profits amounting to $2,000 a month each in the 1,300-member nation in central Iowa, Wanatee said.
Disenrollments often are appealed to U.S. courts, but tribal leaders have defeated or deferred the challenges by asserting that Indian nations have sovereignty in determining membership. Tribal councils have defended the removals as legitimate and allowable under their constitutions, with due process given to all. Anthony Miranda, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association that sponsored the gaming conference, said his group did not involve itself in enrollment disputes, saying they were local matters. "As an association we view that as an internal government issue," Miranda said. "You really have to look at that on a tribe-by-tribe basis."
About 1,500 of the disenrollments occurred after an official challenge by another tribe member or leader who questioned a fellow member's blood percentage or alleged that an ancestor left the reservation or tribe's rolls decades ago, voiding descendants' standing, according to protesters here. In the other cases, Indians often were denied recognition after tribes imposed a moratorium on enrollments, despite the individuals' long-standing ties, said Mark Maslin, a protest organizer. Protesters reject explanations But the official explanations, protesters said, are a pretext for purging tribe members seen as a threat by a ruling faction, frequently after an argument over a tribal casino. In Maslin's case, his Indian wife, Carla, and 75 members of her extended family were thrown out of the 295-member Redding Rancheria tribe in Northern California in 2004 after a woman elder questioned a maternal lineage of Carla Maslin's grandmother. Each of the 76 lost $3,000 a month in casino profits, Mark Maslin said.
At stake is the wealth created by lucrative casinos, granted by the government since the 1980s to long-subjugated and impoverished Indian nations to promote economic development and self-sufficiency. In one tribe, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians in California, annual payments to each member exceed $100,000, according to one disenrolled family. Claiming civil rights violations, protesters demanded a congressional hearing to raise public awareness of the disenrollments, but Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, declined to comment.
While fellow protesters burned sage, some even asserted that tribal sovereignty, long a sacred political tenet among Native Americans, needs a system of checks and balances. "The corrupt tribal leadership has been using sovereignty as a personal tool to hurt you," said protester Vicky Schenandoah, 44, disenrolled and fired from her $20,000-a-year job as tribal language teacher in the Oneida Nation in New York in 1995 after she and dozens of other tribe members demonstrated for open meetings on casino operations. At the time, her casino rights paid her $1,500 a month.
"What's really happening in Indian country, with the weapon of a casino in place, the tribes are using that as a weapon of mass destruction against Indians that oppose them and anybody else," said John Gomez, 57, who was disenrolled from California's Pechanga tribe a few years ago and now is out of more than $100,000 a year in casino profit-sharing. Losing end of power struggle "They are planning to disenroll us and banish us from the tribe," said Wanatee, who was aligned with a faction that lost a power struggle over how to conduct 2003 council elections and casino operations. The dispute shut down the casino for half of 2003. "They are going to throw us off our land," he said. A spokesman for Wanatee's tribe declined to comment. In an encounter that illustrated the divisiveness caused by disenrollments, Lorena Foreman-Ackerman, 65, walked across a giant lawn outside the convention center and approached a member of the Redding Rancheria council that ousted her and 75 relatives.
Feeling trepidation at first while wearing a black T-shirt stating "Stop Tribal Disenrollment," Foreman-Ackerman was surprised to receive a hug from the council member, Jason Hayward. Representing the tribe in this week's gaming conference, Hayward has a son by a niece of Foreman-Ackerman's, she said. "I never voted for you to be out," Hayward told Foreman-Ackerman. "I should have said something. I think it was wrong." Foreman-Ackerman blamed another woman for starting rumors that led to the family's banishment. "To me, when somebody knows the truth and doesn't step forward ..." Foreman-Ackerman told Hayward, completing her statement with an expression of exasperation. But Hayward, approached by a reporter, said only: "I don't want to make speeches."