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Leading Native Interest Groups Must Step up on Dismemberment

Open letter to the leaders of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Native American Rights Fund (NARF), and National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA):

Dear Native Leaders,

Each of your organizations, founded at critical moments in native history–NCAI in 1944, NARF in 1970, and NIGA in 1985– have and continue to play vital roles in the political, legal, and economic development of Native nations. I write you all now to request that you continue to remain vital and relevant by taking an unequivocal stand against spurious disenrollment practices that destroy the human and civil rights of individual native citizens and threaten the sovereign powers of all Native nations.

NCAI is the largest (over 250 member nations) and one of the oldest interest groups representing indigenous peoples. The organization was born during the turbulent period when the federal government was aggressively moving to politically and legally terminate over 100 tribal nations. NCAI fought against giving state governments’ greater jurisdiction over tribal peoples and their resources, and fought against relocation policies that compelled thousands of tribal citizens off their homelands and into major urban areas.

NARF was one of the first native legal interest groups established in 1970 at the start of the native self-determination era, staffed by hardworking and earnest native and non-native lawyers and other legal professionals with the critical mission of assisting indigenous peoples recover and enforce their sovereignty, defend and enhance treaty rights, and hold the federal government accountable to its trust obligations to Native peoples.

NIGA was formed in 1985 in anticipation of the economic opportunities that the early gaming operations might provide for native communities who were desperately looking for alternative economic means to produce revenue that was not dependent upon federal lawmakers.

There are, of course, dozens of other native interest groups that focus on any number of critical issues vital to indigenous peoples– the Indian Child Welfare Association, The National Indian Education Association, the International Indian Treaty Council, The Native American Journalists Association, The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, and the Native American Indian Court Judges Association– and while each of these groups do important work, your three organizations, both because of the subject matters you address and range of indigenous peoples you affect are the prime bodies wielding significant influence in Indian Country and beyond.

As we all by now, more than 70 native governments located within the boundaries of 20 states have already or are in the process of dismembering their communities by banishing, disenrolling, or denying citizenship to several thousand native citizens. Evidence gathered over the last 20 years strongly indicates that the overwhelming numbers of these actions have been politically and/or economically motivated.

If this is the case in any of these instances, such actions violate the human and civil rights of those individual native citizens and put all Native nations at risk. At the very least, even the suspicion of such violations should be addressed before the matter is taken away from us and we are forced to accept a resolution from the federal government that not of our choosing.

To avoid yet another sovereignty-diminishing decision, it is incumbent upon our accepted pan-national leadership to tackle this issue without delay. We certainly have the capacity to comprehend that protecting the rights of both individual tribal citizens and their Native nations are not only possible, but are, indeed, two sides of the same sovereign coin. Our political, legal, and economic leaders must finally step forward with swift, decisive actions to identify the tribal governments that have acted in illegal and unethical ways as well as to exonerate those who have undertaken these grave actions for legitimate reasons. It is critical that they also provide the same for tribal citizens so that bonafide citizens may finally go on with their lives secure in their fundamental political liberty as Native citizens.

To date, I am not aware of any official, public stance taken by any of your organizations in response to political, legal, and cultural terminations of native citizen rights that threatens all Native people’s sovereign existence. I call upon you to act, following the outstanding examples of the National Native American Bar Association and the Association of American Indian Physicians, to enact strong resolutions that urge tribal political leaders to reconsider disenrollment policies.

Last year these organizations took a clear stand because it had become blatantly apparent that the consequences of statelessness—the horrific mental, physical, and economic consequences that result when citizens are robbed of their identities, health care, and access to justice—go beyond individual suffering to ultimately cause deep, abiding damage to all of Indian Country.

Each of your mission statements tout your core commitments to the pursuit of sound ethical policies grounded in traditional values, such as kinship. Each one of your organizations has certainly demonstrated that commitment in response to outside threats or when attempting to right past wrongs done by outside abusers, such as state officials and the federal agencies.

I have read many variations of statements that implore your members to protect and enhance their citizens’ membership rights based on the sense of belonging to a Native nation—a powerful and organic psychological bond that joins the people and differentiates them from all other peoples—which is at the heart of what it means to be indigenous.

The preamble to NCAI’s Constitution declares that “we, the members of Indian and Alaska Native Tribes ... in order to secure to ourselves and our descendants the rights and benefits of traditional laws of our people to which we are entitled as sovereign nations ... to promote the common welfare of the American Indian and Alaska Natives .... do establish this organization....”

The “traditional laws” of virtually every Native nation embraced and welcomed a diverse citizenry and protected the sovereign autonomy of every soul in the community. And the term “common welfare” is an all-encompassing phrase that ensures the rights and integrity of every member of the community.

And NARF leaders, your organization specifies five broad principles that you aspire to fulfill: 1) preserve tribal existence; 2) protect tribal natural resources; 3) promote Native American human rights; 4) hold governments accountable to Native peoples; and 5) develop Indian law and educate the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.

There is no question in my mind that each of these core principles naturally and emphatically embraces those suffering because of our own tribal dismemberment policies. How can you claim to be “preserving tribal existence” if you choose to ignore the political and cultural citizenship rights of every bona fide tribal member and ultimately the threat to sovereign rights of individuals and nations?

We frequently hear that our children are sacred and that they are our greatest natural resource. If that is true, then why are you not offering your services to protect the rights of the many native children who have been or are facing disenrollment? Promoting human rights? What better way to do that than by standing beside those who have been culturally and politically terminated by their government when the preponderance of evidence shows the charges are likely false or trumped up?

Those targeted for disenrollment have sometimes been denied due process and equal protection of the law and have struggled to find, much less be able to afford, competent legal representation. Galanda-Broadman, a private, native-owned firm, has taken on some clients in the Pacific Northwest—the Nooksack 306 and some Grand Ronde members--but NARF, as a leader in the field and a large team of attorneys, should be working hard to make sure that those facing dismemberment receive all the due process safeguards every individual is entitled to.

Finally, to the leaders of NIGA. Your organization consists of 184 Native nations, along with other individuals and businesses. In the minds of many, gambling revenue is viewed as the chief catalyst not only for the powerful economic recovery taking place in many native communities, but also as the dominant factor that has propelled dozens of tribal nations to cast out otherwise legitimate citizens. Some have alleged that it’s simple arithmetic—the fewer members, the greater the per capita payment for those remaining in the nation.

There are many forces outside Indian Country actively working to discredit and dismantle the powerful economic engines that many tribal nations have become. Accountability is therefore critical. If you don’t take a stand against tribal corruption, wherever it exists, then the nations you represent become vulnerable to those who would like to end or at least dramatically diminish tribal economic and political power. Silence jeopardizes the system that has allowed so many of our nations to move beyond simple survival to revive and thrive.

Our nations are at a profound crossroads. In some respects we have made tremendous strides in recovering and exercising greater chunks of substantive authority. We are taking significant steps to revitalize and strengthen our languages, are doing a much better job protecting our children, and are utilizing our treaty rights to bolster our economies and improve the lives of our peoples.

But in other respects we continue to be stymied by a host of federal rules and regulations, conflicting judicial precedents, extraordinary crime rates, state officials who continue to view our governments as temporary and not quite legitimate, and a larger public that holds contradictory views of our cultures, governments, and identities.

When our own Native governments make self-serving citizenship decisions that violate our own historic values and traditions, they insult all that we are, all we have inherited, and all we have to pass on. It is time for the leaders of our keystone organizations to step out of the shadows and clearly denounce such unethical and unjustifiable practices. Add your voices to the growing chorus of those opposed to the political termination of native citizens when that happens in violation of our histories of united kinship and when it is carried out without due process or equal protection of the law.

Your organizations have provided leadership and inspiration in many critical areas. Do not let our histories record that you passively stood by and looked the other way as our sovereignty rotted from the inside out—cheapened, weakened, and destroyed by our own actions.

David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) is a citizen of the Lumbee Nation and holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of several books, including Hollow Justice: Indigenous Claims in the US (2013); The Navajo Political Experience, 4th ed. (2013); and The Hank Adams Reader (2011).