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Disenfranchised tribal members stage protest

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A group of nearly 50 protesters demonstrated outside the California state capitol to bring attention to the increasing problem of tribal disenrollments.

Former members of the Redding and Enterprise Rancherias were nearly equally represented at the event. Both Rancherias have been embroiled in separate disputes with their respective tribal governments over their disenrollments.

At Redding, the tribal council ousted 76 tribal members, predominantly of the Foreman family, late last month. They have been involved in a dispute over whether they are the descendants of original Redding Rancheria tribal members. The Foreman family claims they have the DNA evidence to prove that their matriarch was the descendant of an original tribal member.

Meanwhile, at Enterprise, 70 tribal members were expelled late last year and have formed a splinter group called "Enterprise I." The name is in reference to the former name of their Rancheria before tribal members at the second Enterprise Rancheria sold off their lands in the mid 1960s to the U.S. government after the building of the Oroville dam on the Feather River that created Lake Oroville.

Some of the descendants from the second Enterprise Rancheria, or Enterprise II, eventually made their way onto the rolls of the Enterprise I and eventually formed a majority of the tribal council and were able to expel lineal descendants of Enterprise I, who have now formed the new Rancheria.

Reports of malfeasance were made by several tribal members at the hearing to bar the tribal members at Enterprise including not allowing members sympathetic to the disenrollees to vote.

"Basically, they made sure that we couldn't win," said former Enterprise vice-chairman Robert Edwards, who was among the disenrollees.

The problem of disenrollment has been increasing at an alarming rate in California and is in no way restricted to these two tribes. In fact it is becoming a statewide problem. Several controversies surrounding tribes lightening their rolls have occurred in the last four years including, but not limited to, the Maidu Berry Creek Rancheria, in Northern California, the Mono-Chukchansi of Table Mountain Rancheria in Central California and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Southern California.

Though interfamilial tensions are par for the course in Indian country, the latest round seems to be sparked at least in part by gaming. For instance, the Redding Record Searchlight reported that members of the Redding Rancheria will receive somewhere in the neighborhood of an additional $12,000 a year, or $1,000 a month in per capita payments.

While Enterprise does not yet have a casino or a gaming deal with the state, apparently one is in the works to build a large casino near a three year-old outdoor amphitheater that serves as a venue for major rock and pop acts just north of Sacramento. It can easily be surmised that remaining tribal members stand to gain bigger profits.

Indian legal experts say that though the system is flawed there is not much that can be done about the problem given tribal sovereignty. The BIA is reluctant to get involved in internal tribal matters and often shies away from interfering. Judges have also proven to be gun-shy on any intrusions into Indian enrollment matters.

The other option for the tribes seems to be some kind of legislative action at the federal level. In letters from two northern California congressmen to the tribes obtained by Indian Country Today, both Wally Herger, R-Calif., and John Doolittle, R- Calif., said they would forward the matter to the BIA.

One person who thinks that he may have an answer to the legal problem is Mark Maslin, who though not a member of the Redding Rancheria is married into the Foreman family and serves as their spokesman.

Maslin claims that the legal grounding for his family's case is ironically rooted in the controversial Public Law 280. PL 280 is a federal statute that largely removes federal responsibility for tribal law enforcement and gives it to the states. For this to happen Maslin said that "the attorney general would have to say that there has been a violation of our (disenrollees) civil rights."

The law is controversial because it has stripped away tribes rights to police themselves. There have been several efforts in recent years to have the law at least modified if not done away with by the California Department of Justice. However, PL 280 also covers civil law as well as criminal law and though it has never specifically addressed civil law, Maslin thinks that it might be grounds enough. The problem is that addressing the law that broadly might produce tribal opposition because of fears over eroding sovereignty.

Though civil cases are often remanded to tribal courts Maslin said that he is dubious that disenrollees could get a fair trial. Maslin claims that until the advent of gaming tribal courts were often under-funded and were generally ineffectual.

Maslin said that his group has "opened a formal inquiry" with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., while Edwards reports that there is pending litigation in their case.