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Disenrollment Tragedy: Family of 1855 Treaty-signer Getting Booted

Tribal members facing disenrollment from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde could see a decision today.

The weekend before Thanksgiving has long been the day of thanks for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde because it was Restoration Day.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Grand Ronde Restoration Act on November 22, 1983, ending three decades of termination, and this year the Grand Ronde celebrated November 22-23 with a healing ceremony at the Atudship rock mound, a powwow, traditional music from the tribe’s Canoe Family and even a commemorative 30th-anniversary coin to be mailed to tribal members.

Tribal chairman Reyn Leno delivered a speech that, some tribal members, made strong points about holding onto Indian identity and spirit, even when the government tried to take it away.

Members of one extended family found the remarks poignantly ironic because they have received letters saying they face disenrollment as the Grand Ronde conducts an enrollment audit. “Hearing [Leno] talk about what it felt like to go through termination brought tears to my eyes because you are doing this to us right now,” said Mia Prickett, part of a 79-member family group that is facing disenrollment.

Her family’s hearings before the enrollment committee may begin as early as today, December 9. So far this year, 15 members have been disenrolled.

“It was a little bittersweet,” Prickett said about hearing Leno and other elected leaders speak at the Restoration Ceremony. “On one hand, when you take yourself out of the equation and you look at it from a holistic perspective as being one of 6,000 tribal members, I feel very proud that we’ve come back from termination and we are as successful as we are and we have as much culture as we do… and feeling a true sense of pride in my family and in my tribe.”

But, she added, “Hearing council talk about how difficult it was to go through termination and how termination took away their membership and took away their identity and tried to strip them of their heritage and took away their home… Hearing them say that, I also felt threatened, that they’re doing this same thing to their membership right now and there was not even a bat of an eye as [Leno] read this prepared script about termination. There was no remorse in it. No acknowledgment that we are in the room and feeling that our days are numbered.”

Family members received letters from the tribe in September saying they had been enrolled in error, but they say their history with the tribe is clear: Their ancestor, Tumulth, was a leader of the Cascade Indians along the Columbia River who signed the 1855 Willamette Valley Treaty in which the United States assigned 27 disparate tribes bands and Indian communities to become the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

But before the tribe was formally created in 1856, Tumulth was executed, hanged with nine others by the U.S. Army.

That history has not changed, but the Grand Ronde has changed its enrollment requirements. “When we were enrolled 20 years ago, having a treaty-signer ancestor was enough,” said Marilyn Portwood, a family matriarch. “That went through the enrollment committee, the enrollment department, tribal council and the legal department. Seems like pretty good evidence.”

What’s new, she said is, “We don’t have an ancestor on the restoration roll, and that is now a requirement.” Tumulth had been executed before he could sign any of the documents that are now part of the restoration roll.

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The tribe issued a statement that said the ongoing enrollment audit grew out of the Tribal Strategic Plan for 2010. “The plan directed Enrollment to audit all enrollment files and applications, track reasons for denials, and audit blood quantum records with the goal of strengthening the Grand Ronde Family Tree,” the tribal statement said. Grand Ronde tribal chairman Reyn Leno and several council members did not respond to requests for comment on this family’s case.

As has been the case with many tribes, enrollment questions seem to be related to creation of a tribal casino. The Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Casino opened in 1995. Tribal enrollment boomed from about 3,500 members then to about 5,000 by 1999. The tribal council presented a constitutional amendment that year with more restrictive enrollment requirements. Membership has grown by another 800 or so in the last 14 years.

The issuance of per-capita payments has also created tensions, and appears to have created a schism between people who were enrolled before or after the casino. “Before the casino, we were enrolled and we were welcomed into the tribe. And now that the casino is there … well, I think greed is definitely a factor for some,” said Nicomi Levine, another member of the Tumulth descendants.

Several family members note they were welcomed into the tribe by unanimous votes of the enrollment committee and council. Not just once, but 79 times. The tribe even cited the family’s ceded lands in the Columbia Gorge — a recreation and tourism hot spot along the Columbia River near Portland — to block a proposed off-reservation casino there from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

Family members issued a press release saying that up to 1,000 Grand Ronde members could face disenrollment during the audit, and that the tribe is hiding the scope of disenrollments by sending out letters to one group at a time. They tell ICTMN this estimate comes from two tribal employees but admit they have no documentation. Family members say that given the furor when Washington State’s Nooksack Tribe recently announced it would seek disenrollment of 306 members, the Grand Ronde leadership is hiding the extent of potential disenrollments.

In the statement released on December 19, the tribe said, “the statement that up to 20 percent of the tribe is being disenrolled is simply not true.”

The Tumulth descendants say the tribe appears to be withholding critical enrollment documents as well. Concerned they would be going blind into their sessions with the enrollment committee, at least 66 of the Tumulth descendants hired Seattle attorney Gabe Galanda to represent them. (He also represents the Nooksack 306.)

Citing the turmoil and “visceral heartache” that disenrollments cause throughout Indian country, Galanda said, “The Grand Ronde, to their credit, have a process of appeals and due process in tribal court.”

He added, however, that it is especially disconcerting that the Grand Ronde have used the Tumult descendants’ ceded lands in the Columbia Gorge, “to assert ancestral ties to the Gorge to the exclusion of other tribal governments. Now they are trying to disenroll the very people who give them that right.”

The tribe said there is no copy available of Leno’s speech at the Restoration Ceremony, but he appears to have sounded a similar theme on a radio show last month. Asked about restoration, Leno said: “Too many people tend to want to think in 1983 is when we became Indians again, but living here at Grand Ronde I know totally a different story — that when we got terminated we never did quit being Indians. There’s no pencil or pen created yet that can take away history and culture. In 1983, I totally look at that as the day … the government finally said … ‘Grand Ronde is here and we made the mistake of thinking we could sign a piece of paper and take that away.’”

The Tumulth descendants are hoping Leno does not use that pen against them.