“As far as we’re concerned, we would rather not be involved in enrollment issues,” “But if an issue comes up, we have to comply with their laws.”
Dale Risling - Bureau of Indian Affairs
Gene and Alice Sloan have been fighting for their rights for 25 years. After wrongdoing was discovered, former tribal chairman Gene Sloan was disenrolled. Their crime? Exposing the criminal activity
For years, tribes in California and across the country have been kicking out members – sometimes over objections that those being “disenrolled” have legitimate claims to being part of the tribe. In most cases, the federal government can do nothing, and hasn’t tried.
That’s what makes the Sept. 22 federal district court ruling against the Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria so unusual. The appeals court ruling essentially told the tribe to let 22 members back in, or risk losing most federal benefits. The tribe has 60 days from the ruling to file an appeal.
But don’t expect the ruling to start a trend. The tribe had an unusual constitution which allows the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to withhold money if they believe the tribe is kicking people out without reason.
Most California tribes do not have this kind of provision in their governing documents. The Cahto Tribe was also able to vote and change their own constitution in 2006 to get rid of the provision — but the disenrolled members filed their appeal in 1999, so they were still subject to the old rules.
The ruling also helps illustrate the strange relationship that California tribes have had with the federal government in general and the BIA in particular. Some critics of tribal disenrollment have praised the BIA’s pursuit of this case — while maintaining that the agency has a checkered history in terms of protecting the rights of tribal people, and still needs major reform today.
“The court decision says they did not move legally,” said Dale Risling, Pacific region director of the BIA, which brought the suit. “So we have to consider the actions the tribe takes from this point on. If the Sloan-Heckler family are not including, it looks like we probably wouldn’t be able to recognize the actions of the Council.”
Risling didn’t lay out a specific dollar figure, but did say there is a lot at stake for the tribe: “They get some of their basic budget funding for the operation of the tribal government, they get housing grants, road services money, various federal program monies.”
This money would remain unspent with the BIA, Risling said. If the federal fiscal year came to an end without the tribe resolving the membership issues, he added, the money would permanently go back to the federal government.
According to the tribe’s website, they have a reservation of about 200 acres near the town of Laytonville, population 1,200, 170 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101. About 250 people live there, but there are only about 50 voting members in that group.
The ruling comes 16 years, almost to the day, when 22 members of the family, many of them direct descendants of a prominent deceased chief, were disenrolled from the tribe. For years, Gene and Alice Sloan have led the group as they sought reinstatement, and become a noted leader in the larger movement of disenrolled former tribal members. The case dragged out for years, partially because it had to go through a long standard internal review at the BIA.
The tribe does have another source of income — but the Red Fox Casino is known as the smallest tribal casino in the state. It’s an alcohol-free facility. It lists just 93 slot machines and a few gaming tables, but according to Gene Sloan, there’s only about 30 to 40 operating at any given time.
Like many tribal disputes, this one starts with the casino. Sloan served on the tribal council for several years in the 1970s, he said, and spent one year as chairman. In 1995, responding to complaints from tribal members that they were getting little or no income from the casino, he said he and others started looking into the operation and found accounting issues suggesting someone may have been skimming money. (OP: GREED)
The situation quickly escalated, and the FBI and Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department came onto the reservation to keep the peace. The Sloan-Hecklers were able to get their critical appeal in 1999, but then the case disappeared into a long process through the Indian Board of Internal Appeals within the BIA, which had to rule on jurisdictional and process rules before the agency acted. Last December, the Sloan-Hecklers’ longtime attorney, Tim Vollman, died in a bicycle accident before being able to see the case through.
Laura Waas, central California director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), said that the power to do good today came from actions decades ago designed to rid the federal government of giving benefits to American Indians in California. The Cahto Tribe’s unusual constitution comes out of what is known as the termination era.
From the 1940s through early 1960s, the federal government sought to assimilate many American Indians into the larger culture. A big part of this was taking away federal recognition of many tribes. California, with numerous small tribes, was particularly affected. The effort peaked with the Termination Act passed by Congress in 1953. READ MORE
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