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Disenrollment Clubs

A few weeks ago, I read the following paragraph in an NPR article about the Cherokee Freedmen:

"This is not a club; you can't just claim to be Cherokee and show up and be included," says Cara Cowan Watts, a vocal member of the Cherokees' tribal council.

The Cherokee Nation is the largest of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. It boasts more than 300,000 members, and like many Indian nations, it fiercely defends its right to self-governance.

"This is absolutely something that we have to defend. And the Cherokee people overwhelmingly voted in the Constitution that we want to remain an Indian tribe made up of Indians," Watts says.

An Indian tribe made up of Indians? Given Cowan-Watts’ heritage, I found her recent remarks to be alternately funny, absurd and revisionist. Less amusing is the following statement:

“It appears that Marilyn Vann [one of the leaders of the Cherokee Freedmen] is a non-Indian insurgent terrorizing Cherokee nation families, children, elders and leadership. She and her allied terrorists attack the Cherokee people with weapons of mass disinformation and falsehoods. Marilyn is aligned with anti-Indian sovereignty groups and inside self-serving malcontents who seek to destroy the Cherokee Nation if the Cherokee Nation doesn’t give them what they want…her fellow Indian Freedmen allies want $50,000,000.00, allotment land, and apparently the right to operate gaming facilities…”

It would be easy to dismiss such an email as racist propaganda and nonsense, but the reality is it was forwarded widely on March 27, 2007 by Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) Council member Cowan-Watts as she was spearheading the Cherokee Freedmen removal petition. Five years later, her close friend and ally, CNO Supreme Court Judge Troy Wayne Poteete would have a hand in the removal of 2,800 CNO citizens from the tribal rolls. Cowan-Watts at a whopping 1/256 and Poteet at 1/32 Cherokee by blood via their CDIBs, had insured the largest disenrollment of any tribe in history.

But they were only following in the footsteps of a “few” others who have joined this elite sovereignty club. The Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, Boise Fort Band of Ojibwe, California Valley Miwok Tribe, Chippewa Cree (Rocky Boy Reservation), Cold Springs Rancheria, Comanche Nation, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Creek Nation of Oklahoma, Dry Creek Rancheria, Elem Indian Colony, Enterprise Rancheria, Grand Portage Band, Guidiville Rancheria, Isleta Pueblo, Jamul Indian Village, Las Vegas Paiutes, Laytonville Rancheria, Lummi, Maidu Berry Creek Rancheria, Mashpee Wampanoag, Mille Lacs Band, Mooretown Rancheria, Narragansett Tribe, Pala Band of Mission Indians, Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, Pinoleville Rancheria, Prairie Band Potawatomi, Puyallup Tribe, Redding Rancheria, Robinson Rancheria, Sac & Fox of Iowa, Saginaw Chippewa, San Pasqual Indian Band, Santa Rosa Rancheria, Sauk-Suiattle, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Shinnecock, Snoqualmie Tribe, Table Mountain Rancheria, Te-Moak Western Shoshone, Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, Viejas Band of Mission Indians, and a few others have all joined in the merriment under the guise of “sovereignty”; a word that many of these tribe’s officials couldn’t spell ten years ago, much less manipulate into its current genocidal form. Sovereignty demands ethical practice for it to hold any merit. We continue to stand on the sidelines when we define disenrollment as an internal issue. “Internal Issue” has become the coined phrase for the removal of many people who have been generationally involved in their tribal communities. These removals are not paper resolutions batted around in the council chambers of various tribes regarding which new firm to hire for the new “addition to the casino”. These decisions directly impact the social, cultural, and at times economic well-being of actual people. If the decision of Indian country is to place sovereignty over humanity, then we all stand condemned.

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The case of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California is a prime example of the level of absurdity that this nouveau disenrollment scheme pushes as self-determination. When elder Lawrence Madriaga’s entire family was dropped, it sent out a reality check. How could a man who had lived on the reservation his entire life be removed? When the tribe hired professional genealogist/anthropologist Jim Johnson to assist them in refuting the family’s ties to the tribe, he determined the opposite. The Madriaga family was Luiseno. Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro fired back that they did not have to listen to the findings of a professional as they were a sovereign nation. He and his council also proceeded to remove all of the family’s children from the reservation school. Another tribe targeted a twelve year old and told his family that they had previously made a “miscalculation” in enrolling him shortly after his birth.

Sovereignty has become a smokescreen for illegitimate behavior, racism, nepotism, and narcissism. Even tribes who can look back to histories which included banishment know that nations in today’s world cannot simply send away their own or act as though they were never there.

I recognize that disenrollments are not the work of the community at large, but rather those who control the power structures within them. It seems our complacency as tribal members or citizens has allowed some of our tribes to sink to the level of the Lions, Kiwanis, or—more appropriately—Knights of Columbus, in terms of function and stature in the international community.

ICT contributor Steve Russell writes in his new book Sequoyah Rising:

"The elders who practice the old ceremonies and ignore the tribal government are not just a band of eccentric primitives. They are on the right track, the only track, to continued life as sovereign peoples rather than social clubs. The only way to win and keep the hearts and minds of our people is to create tribal structures that rein in the high-handedness and self-seeking behaviors that infest tribal governments today.”

(p. 84/85 Sequoyah Rising: Problems in Post-Colonial Tribal Governance Steve Russell Carolina Academic Press Durham, N.C. 2010)

James Murray wrote in the Tahlequah Daily Press back in 2008, “White Indians, like Cowan and Poteete, mistake race for culture, blood for community, and exclusion for strength.”

Tell the CNO I hear they have 2,800 new slots open and I am coming down this week to join the club. Now where is my $50,000,000.00?

Cedric Sunray is an enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians (at least for now) and of Scottish, Choctaw, and Cherokee ancestry. He can be reached at