PABLO, Mont. - Tribal voters on the Flathead Indian Reservation will head to the polls Jan. 18 to decide whether to abolish blood-quantum requirements and allow all descendants to become members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The proposal has sparked bitter divisions among the current membership. Opponents charge that opening up the rolls will overwhelm tribal services, deplete government coffers, decrease fish and wildlife populations and destroy the cultural integrity of the tribes. Proponents argue that descendants have been denied membership status too long and that the time for justice has come.
"Our major goal all along is that all of our family members become enrolled," says Regina Parot, a spokeswoman for the Split Family Support Group, which got the issue on the ballot. "Our main purpose is to put families together."
Following years of debate and a string of setbacks, the support group successfully gathered enough petition signatures last year to force the upcoming federal secretarial election. Tribal traditionalists and many political leaders have blasted the move, saying it will lead to extinction.
"When we all speak alike, when we all look alike, that will be the end," says Tony Incashola, director of the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee. "It's not the color that's so important to the traditional people, it's the value system. It's not necessarily looking Indian, but acting Indian. The debate now is not based on the values of who we are culturally, but on material values" such as per capita payments, schooling and housing assistance, employment preferences and the like.
If approved, the constitutional amendment would abolish the one-quarter degree blood quantum that was established in 1960, and allow any person born to Salish or Kootenai members between Oct. 28, 1935, when reservation residency was instated as an enrollment requirement, and May 5, 1960, to be eligible for enrollment. In addition, it would open membership to any person born on or after May 5, 1960 "who can prove lineal descendancy from biological parent(s) or from lineal ancestors" of the tribes.
Mike Dolson, an attorney and instructor at Salish Kootenai College, is a staunch proponent of the proposed amendment. Like many others, Dolson is an enrolled tribal member, but his children aren't because of the blood quantum rule.
"I've always believed children have a birthright," Dolson says. "Under the original tribal constitution, the offspring were automatic members. That's more appropriate to maintaining a people. We're all descendants. And if it is a birthright, then we've stolen that from a lot of people for a lot of years. Fears that people have about it destroying our tribe I think are misplaced."
A demographic study recently commissioned by the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council indicates that enrollment has reached its peak at about 7,000 members under the current blood-quantum restrictions, and membership will continue to decline.
That's because blood lines are thinning as more and more tribal members marry non-Indians or otherwise dilute their quantum by having children with partners who have less than the minimum standard of Indian blood, says researcher Deward Walker Jr., describing the phenomenon known as "out-marriage."
Walker concludes that a council counterproposal to keep the one-quarter standard but allow the inclusion of all Indian blood to be included as the total blood quantum would only offer a temporary fix, and enrollment numbers under that scenario would also eventually plummet. The BIA ruled at the regional level last year that the council-backed measure can not be considered until the lineal descendancy election is decided.
Walker's report also predicts that if voters approve the descendancy amendment on Jan. 18, membership could conceivably double almost immediately. By 2025, Salish and Kootenai members could number more than 24,000 based on a 2.4 percent annual growth rate, he says.
Upon receipt of the projections, tribal leaders asked department heads and others to predict how such increases would impact programs and services. Not surprisingly, virtually every branch of tribal government reported that the potential flood of new members would overwhelm current staffs and budgets.
"It can't be overemphasized that any increase in our client population would increase the workload of an office already operating at maximum capacity," tribal prosecutors reported. "At this point, any increase in case load would mean a corresponding increase in staff and facilities in order to even minimally meet the responsibilities of this office."
But Parot and other proponents argue that no one knows how many descendants will apply for membership or how many will choose to live on the reservation. The impact on services, she adds, could be minimal because many descendants are in their 40s or 50s, have established careers, and likely won't seek any type of government assistance.
"There's a lot of assumptions going on that aren't based on anything factual," she maintains.
As of mid-2002, the Salish and Kootenai rolls included only 90 full bloods, about 1,800 members who fell between one-quarter blood and just less than full blood, about 3,100 members who were registered between one-quarter and one-half blood, and about 1,900 members who were one-quarter blood or less.
"Some of our values have been broken over the years, and that's why we were deluded and diluted," says Incashola, the culture committee director. "It's not a birthright. The tribe does not owe anybody anything. But I owe everything to the tribe to be a member. To me, color is not the main ingredient here. It's your language and your culture, and I'm afraid many of these people who want to become members don't think those things are important."
But Parot, Dolson and others say there's not enough evidence to say that descendants, if they are allowed to join, won't live their lives in a traditional way.
"I don't think it's going to be lost," Parot says. "Many descendants want to be a part of the tribes because of the uniqueness, which is what culture is about. They're proud. Tribal people should stick together, and we don't believe our children should be denied membership. We want this decided by the people."
Under secretarial election rules, at least 30 percent of the more than 3,000 eligible tribal voters must cast ballots for the results to be valid. On Dec. 24, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy denied a request from traditionalists to halt the election on grounds that the qualifying petition was "fatally flawed" and the BIA failed to provide proper oversight. A pending appeal could still stop the balloting in its tracks.