Mark Benjamin of the Fresno Bee continues to report on the despicable actions of the Chukchansi Indian of Coarsegold, who, for some reason think shrinking their tribe is a good thing. The Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians is disenrolling tribe members -- about 100, according to some within the tribe. Tribe officials announced last week that they were thinning the tribe's membership but declined to state the total.
Enrollment in the tribe means a stake in the profits of its Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino near Coarsegold -- from a few hundred dollars to nearly $1,000 a month.
Former tribal council member Dora Jones said Monday that disenrollment hearings were held in December, but final decisions were delayed because of a leadership upheaval.
Jones, fellow incumbent Morris Reid and two other members of their tribal council slate beat incumbents favoring disenrollment in a tribal election last December, just before the disenrollment hearings.
That election resulted in a power struggle between competing councils that came to a head with a near-riot near the casino in February.
In council appointments after the confrontation, the tribal council has grown more heavily pro-disenrollment while members of Jones' group were removed.
The group represented by Reid and Jones has filed an appeal with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in an attempt to return to power, but the government has taken no action.
In a written statement last week, the tribal council said it is following a membership audit done 12 years ago, which it said shows that people were invited into the tribe in the 1980s even though they lacked Chukchansi qualifications.
The federal government was paying tribes more if they had larger memberships. As casinos were built and profits rolled in, some tribes began to disenroll to increase tribal members' shares.
"During the audit, the tribe discovered individuals that did not meet the criteria for membership," the tribal council's statement said. "Although some individuals were not valid members themselves, or even of Indian descent, they held high positions within the Tribe."
It has been determined that these individuals then allowed for others to be enrolled and receive benefits, the tribe's statement said.
A spokeswoman for the tribe said last week that tribal leaders won't discuss their decision. In previous interviews, Chukchansi officials said they will pay for DNA tests to ensure legitimate enrollment.
One of the people recently disenrolled was notified last week by certified letter. "It's a dig at you," said James Herr Jr., "telling you that you're not good enough."
Herr, a tribal elder, said he was getting about $950 a month from the tribe.
"It was nice getting a little more, but we don't need it," he said. "Some of those people were living on a fixed income and it may be the difference between having the lights on or not."
Tamara Punkin, whose father was on the tribal council that brought the casino to the Chukchansi rancheria, said her family's petition was not done properly, resulting in their disenrollment.
She said she went from "Being Chukchansi to nothing now."
Jones, the former tribal council member, said the council isn't finished.
Next, she said, it's going to seek to exclude allotments, which define areas within the tribe's traditional lands. About one-third of the roughly 20 allotments could be carved out of the tribe's historic boundaries, leaving another 200 to 300 members at risk of disenrollment.
One tribal member, an elder from an allotment in danger of being excluded, said he expects to be disenrolled soon.
He would not give his name because he worries about retribution by the council and its enrollment committee, which determines tribe membership.
"If your allotment is not in a particular area you are out of the tribe," the tribal elder said. "I am pretty sure we are going to get it next."
The issue is not tribal integrity, but greed among a few families that want to share in the tribe's casino revenue, he said.
"They can kick me out," he said, "but they can't take my heritage away from me. I know what I am."
More disenrollment will follow if the federal government takes no action, said Kenneth Hansen, an associate professor of political science at Fresno State with expertise in American Indian issues.
"I think it's only getting worse because the BIA has given the council a blank check to run their tribe into the ground if that's what they want," he said.
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