Elizabeth Larson has the story, first published in 2008
Late last month, the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomos Citizens Business Council informed several dozen members of its intent to remove their tribal membership, an action taking place not just locally but around California and the nation.
Between 60 and 74 members have reportedly been told they will be removed from the tribe's rolls unless, as a result of a half-hour appeal hearing granted to those who request it, the council chooses to let the members remain.
The appeal hearings to determine the future for these potential disenrollees began this week.
Tribal Chair Tracey Avila said this week that questions surrounding these tribal members and their entitlement to be included among the band's number have been an issue for years, going back to 1990.
This is the largest disenrollment action the tribe has ever taken, she concedes, as the tribe prepares for a January election to determine who will be tribal chair, as well as two other seats.
A June 14 election was decertified, and the tribe's election committee – dominated by Avila's family – has ruled that her challenger for the seat, EJ Crandell – who won the June election – has been disqualified from running.
Crandell and other tribal members, including potential disenrollee Luwana Quitiquit, say the disenrollments are purely political and retaliatory.
The tribe's own enrollment ordinance states that disenrollment is possible on three grounds: the person obtained enrollment by error, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; they became a fully recognized member of another tribe without relinquishing their Robinson Rancheria membership; the person is a descendant of a disenrollee and doesn't otherwise meet membership requirements.
The ordinance doesn't allow for disenrollment due to adoption, which traditionally has been a common practice among American Indians.
However, the tribal council has passed a resolution to strike the adoption process, which Quitiquit and Crandell say is an ex post facto law, which is prohibited in the tribe's 1980 constitution, just as it is the US Constitution.
If it's truly the case that Robinson's disenrollment is born out of politics and animosity toward rival families, the Robinson band wouldn't be unique. That's because attempts to reduce tribal membership through these types of actions aren't new to Lake County, California or the nation.
On Nov. 10, 2007, 25 members of the Elem Colony were removed from that tribe's rolls, including the last native speaker of the tribe's language. Then-chairman, Ray Brown Sr. acknowledged the move to County News in a previous interview, saying that the move was justified because many of the people were adopted into the tribe and weren't blood relations.
To date, an estimated 2,000 Indians have been disenrolled by 15 California tribes – not including those currently proposed at Robinson, according to John Gomez, president of the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO), a group that focuses on human and civil rights issues.
Bureau of Indian Affairs Deputy Regional Director Dale Risling, based in Sacramento, said “quite a few” tribes are going through disenrollments currently.
He said his agency hears about most of them through the media, and not directly, since they don't usually have a role in settling the disputes because of tribal constitutions. “The ones that we really get are the ones that require our involvement.”
Tony Gonzales, spokesman for the American Indian Movement-West, said gaming tribes decertifying members has become a big problem nationwide as well.
That's because a lot is at stake, with gaming tribes across the nation generating revenues in the realm of $46 billion.
“Unfortunately, in the process to gain more money for themselves, they are decertifying members,” said Gonzales. “The irony, too, is they're adopting non-Indians into their tribes.”
Some blame gaming for disenrollments
In California, Gomez said the vast majority of disenrollments have occurred since the passage of Proposition 5, the Tribal Government Gaming and Economic Self-Sufficiency Act of 1998 that allowed gaming on tribal lands, and Proposition 1A, passed in 2000, allowing tribes to operate slot machines and banked and percentage card games.
He said it's mostly the gaming tribes who carry out reducing membership in this way. “I don't believe it's just about greed. I think it's about greed and retaining political power.”
Gomez was among 200 people disenrolled by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in 2004. Two years later, as many as 175 more Pechanga tribal members saw their membership disappear. “Both times it just happened prior to regularly scheduled elections for tribal council.”
The Redding Rancheria's first tribal chair, Bob Foreman, and his family – all 76 members – were disenrolled in 2002 after their lineage was questioned. Despite providing DNA samples to prove their ancestry, Foreman – who had been tribal chair for 20 years – was pushed out of the tribe.
Gomez said Foreman, who incidentally was born in Nice, went on to be a founding member of AIRRO.
Foreman died Nov. 19, and Gomez and other AIRRO members are traveling to Redding for his funeral this weekend, at which time they're expected to discuss possible action in response to Robinson's disenrollment move.
He said disenrollments often evolve around election disputes, as in Robinson's case. Similarly, Gomez said the Mooretown Rancheria of Oroville reclassified 30 percent of its membership and denied them voting rights so they couldn't participate in an election planned four days later. “The tribe still counts them as members but they're members without rights.”
Many tribal members will attempt to justify disenrollment actions saying that there is a question about ancestry, but he points out that such questions didn't arise when the tribes were counting members for federal government assistance.
As tribal rolls dwindle, federal funding also can go away, he said. However, the larger gaming tribes can afford to fund their own programs.
Quitiquit and some other tribal members facing disenrollment, many of whom asked that their names not be used at this time due to fear of retribution, said they felt Robinson Rancheria's casino and gaming had given rise to many of their current problems.
Rather than helping Indians get a leg up, they say that gaming is leading to expulsion of tribal members – among them veterans and elders – who may face a life on welfare without the support of their tribal communities.
Some Indian activists have even gone so far as to call disenrollment the “new Indian genocide.”
The problem is such a concern in Indian Country that last year, American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks said that the Bureau of Indian Affairs needed to intervene to stop the California disenrollments.
A Government Accountability Office report issued last month, titled “Confirmation of Political Appointees: Eliciting Nominees' Views on Management Challenges within Agencies and Across Government,” also recognizes the problem.
The report urged political leaders to ask the following question of nominees for the Secretary of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs: “Tribal membership disputes and tribal leadership disputes seem to be occurring more and more frequently. What experience do you have in working with tribal leadership and trying to resolve these types of disputes or in trying to prevent them?”
Far-reaching implications for loss of tribal membership
Gomez said AIRRO is seeing the same thing happening around the state – Indians stripped of lawful citizenship and all of the associated rights – from housing to education to health care to jobs.
When membership in a federally recognized tribe is lost, federal help goes away, he said. “It cuts across everything that has to do with their lives.”
The affects aren't just social or economic, but emotional and psychological as well, said Gomez. Being put out of a tribe has serious implications about identity for people who are being told they are no longer Indian.
If Robinson Rancheria goes through with its proposed membership reduction, Quitiquit said the implications could be devastating.
Among the first acts she expects is for disenrolled members to be banished from the rancheria. That would mean leaving their homes; Quitiquit's own family stands to lose two of an estimated 10 homes at stake.
Being cut off from the land also would mean they could be prevented from visiting the graves of their family members at the rancheria's cemetery, said Quitiquit. Gomez said that's happened in other areas.
There would also be a loss of education opportunities and funding, as well as Indian health services,which are critical due to the high number of tribal members suffering from diabetes and chronic diseases, particularly elders.
Those who hold jobs with the tribe also could be fired. She said some of the members in question already have been put on administrative leave from their jobs. A “no gossip” memo also was reportedly issued by Avila to staff, warning that discussion about the disenrollments would result in termination.
Quitiquit, who recently left her job as a cook for a program that provides meals to 24 homebound elders, said 20 of those elders are facing disenrollment. The four who would be left would not be enough to justify continuing the federally funded meals program.
Elders would lose their monthly retirement payments of $400, said Quitiquit. “All the elders are suffering right now because we don't have it.”
All members currently on the disenrollment list have had their payments suspended, including the $300 per capital payment plus a $2,000 Christmas bonus, funded through federal grants and revenues from the tribe's casino on Highway 20.
One elderly woman who is a caretaker for her grandchildren told Quitiquit she won't be able to make ends meet outside of the tribe.
Quitiquit said the tribal council, in its attempt to maintain power, can take these actions under the guise of sovereignty. “Forget about our civil rights.”
In the last election, many people voted for Avila because she said she was not for disenrollment, said Quitiquit. “We were completely fooled.”
She added, “If this is what happens to us, then down the road it's going to happen to the other tribal members they don't like.”