Tribal Disenrollment: The New Wave of Genocide

Guest Commentary

Editor’s Note: This commentary was originally published in Native Max magazine. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Tribal disenrollment has become a very contentious issue, but it’s not a new trend by any means. It’s a growing trend akin to a modern day genocide that has “legally” eliminated thousands of Native people across the United States.

As sensationalist as that sounds, tribal disenrollment does not just nullify a person’s tribal affiliation, it strips them entirely of their cultural identity.

Although it is true that they will always be Native by blood and spirit, they are no longer recognized as being Native American by tribal, state and federal governments. Therefore, they are deemed ineligible to receive the benefits and privileges that are granted to enrolled tribal members, such as access to healthcare; housing, tribal schools, various social and educational programs; land allotments; per capita payments; as well as tribal and federal educational stipends and grants. However, the greatest loss that comes from this theft of their identity is that the connection that we all have as native people to our community, to our traditions and to each other is severed.

But let’s be honest, the ramifications of disenrollment go beyond just affecting the social, economic and spiritual well-being of those who are facing disenrollment and those who have been disenrolled. It threatens the relationship between tribal leadership and their constituency because it calls into question the fairness and legality of their motives, which seem to be fueled by greed and political corruption. It threatens the continued economic growth and stability of tribal and native owned business ventures because the negative press surrounding tribes involved in disenrollment battles may cause investors to second guess or pull their funding. It threatens our federal funding as well as our recognition as tribal entities, since funding and federal/state tribal recognition is often determined by the number of tribal members. What’s worse is that it CAN happen to anyone, at anytime and in any tribe regardless of their blood quantum, ancestral lineage, traditional participation or community standing.

In article 33 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People states that:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.
  2. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures.

Meaning that it is entirely up to the tribes to determine the criteria and procedures that an individual must meet and undergo to be considered for tribal membership. State and federal governments still maintain their own criteria for determining who is native, but, when it comes to tribal membership, the tribe has the final word as sovereign nations. Herein lies part of the problem because corrupt tribal leadership has learned to exploit our sovereignty as means of legally justifying this new wave of cultural genocide, which they do by amending tribal constitutions and disputing the accuracy of the original tribal rolls.

In my tribe, our constitution states that in order to be enrolled you must meet the following requirements:

The membership of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians shall consist of the following persons, provided they have not received land or money as an adult by virtue of being enrolled as members of another Indian Tribe:

(a) All persons whose names appear on the official membership roll of the Tribe as of October 14, 1966, and
(b) All persons who are of at least one-eight (1/8) degree Otoe-Missouria Tribal blood.

Dual Enrollment Prohibited. No person who is an enrolled member of another federally recognized tribe or band of Indians shall, at the same time, be a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians.

This was not always the case. Before our constitution was amended in 2009, an individual had to possess at least ¼ degree of Otoe-Missouria blood. Many tribes use blood quantum and descendantship to determine membership eligibility, but the use of blood quantum has always been questionable when determining tribal membership. Mainly because tribes can amend the degree of blood required to be a tribal member and because eventually there will not be enough people with the “appropriate” amount of blood to be considered native by federal standards. It used to be that the blood quantum was lowered to allow for an increase in membership, but now the trend is raising the blood quantum to limit or decrease membership. When this change in policy occurs, individual members as well as entire families that have lived within their tribal communities and whose lineage is undeniable can and are being disenrolled.

Now the issue of tribes disputing the original tribal rolls as grounds of disenrollment is more complicated. The original tribal rolls that are used to determine membership are based on either the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act), Durant Roll, or other BIA compiled rolls. There are two major problems with using these rolls to determine descendantship, the first one being that the rolls only reflect membership within a very limited time frame. Within tribal constitutions, they can specifically base descendantship on a specific year’s roll. For example, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe’s constitution states that membership shall consist of of persons and descendants whose names appear on the rolls taken in 1882, 1883, 1885 and 1891. The second problem with using these base rolls do not accurately reflect tribal membership because they often exclude many key figures in tribal histories. Not to mention that the rolls incorrectly recorded native names, excluded children and members unable to sign due to illness, reluctance, etc.

Take for example the Grand Ronde tribal members facing disenrollment, the grounds for their disenrollment have to do with the their ancestor not being listed on the original tribal roll. They are the proud descendants of Tumwalth, the leader of the Wah-lal-la band of Tum-waters. In 1855, he was one of 47 tribal leaders that signed the Willamette Valley Treaty that led to the formation of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. He was executed a year before the tribe was formally created, which explains why he was not included. However, when his descendants enrolled with the tribe, the evidence that they presented to prove their lineage and the prominent role that Tumwalth played in the formation of the tribe was deemed valid and his descendants were granted enrollment. So the question that needs to be asked is why, after twenty years, are they now facing the revocation of their tribal membership when not even the tribe is disputing that they are the descendants of Tumwalth or the role that he played in their tribal history?

Tribes have used external audits of tribal records and historical documents to try and weed out the undesirables under the guise of strengthening the bloodlines and removing members with no tribal association.

Reggie Lewis of the Chuksani tribe is quoted as saying, “You have people who want to be tribal members, where no one knows who they are or where they came from. We are sworn to uphold the Constitution. And basically that’s what we try to do.”

Nice try, Mr Lewis. Of the 400 members that have been disenrolled over the last five years, many are tribal members that were born and raised on tribal lands and know their customs as well as where they came from. The argument that tribes are merely protecting the integrity of their tribal membership from people that only enrolled to receive the benefits of tribal services and per capitas is ridiculous. If a native can prove their ancestry and blood quantum and are granted tribal membership then they should be able to have access to tribal services and per capita payments for two reasons:

  1. They were able to prove and meet the criteria for enrollment.
  2. The tribe exercised their sovereign right to decide that they were tribal members.

Once a native is enrolled as a tribal member, it should not be able to be revoked unless they are found to be dually enrolled or their criminal behavior poses an ongoing threat to their tribal communities. Those are the only two instances in which the revocation of tribal membership should be tolerated.

Tribes can say that they are only trying to strengthen their communities, trying to uphold their tribal constitutions and that it has nothing to do with money, but disenrollment is all about money and control. It is a weapon that corrupt and small-minded tribal leaderships are using to bandaid waning profits from tribal business ventures and to get rid of their political opposition. You don’t see non-per capita tribes revoking the membership of their people en masse, despite the fact their financial conditions are far more dire. You don’t see non-per capita tribes pushing their tribes towards extinction because they are too lazy and irresponsible to address declining profits and too proud to decrease or suspend per capita payments until they are more financially stable. Per capita payments are a blessing and not a right. Preserving the continued existence of the tribe should be a priority over continuing profit sharing.

There is no honor or justice in taking away an individual or family’s cultural and spiritual heritage because of political corruption and greed. We have struggled for centuries to maintain our heritage and existence against the never ending threat of cultural genocide by the government and mainstream society. It’s just downright tragic that natives are being stripped of their cultural identities and land at the hands of their own native people. It makes absolutely no sense when you consider the cultural, genealogical, political, and economical implications that terminating a family’s tribal membership will have on current and future generations.

You many think that this will never be an issue you face, but the truth is this is an issue that affects us all. The moment that we start amending each other out of existence is the moment that we give the government and the mainstream permission to do the same. The moment we start telling tribal members that they are no longer native enough to be tribal members based on the colonialist established belief that we could be bred out of existence is the moment that we truly become the vanishing Indian.

Johnnie Jae is of the Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw tribes of Oklahoma. She is the managing partner of Native Max Magazine, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, and contributor to Native News Online.

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