New Residency Requirement Targets Nonmembers, Angers Pueblo of Isleta

A story about a new residency ordinance at Pueblo of Isleta.

A recent ordinance enacted by New Mexico's Pueblo of Isleta has sparked controversy among tribal members, and prompted at least one family to leave the Pueblo.

The Pueblo of Isleta Residence Ordinance, enacted by the tribal council in 2010 and approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in early 2011, requires all members of the Pueblo who wish to reside within the Pueblo’s lands with a nontribal member to request written permission from the Pueblo governor. An amendment to the ordinance, approved last July, requires the nonmember to submit to a criminal background check.

While an ordinance granting the Pueblo the right to exclude anyone from its lands has been part of the Pueblo’s constitution since 1962, this new ordinance establishes procedures for nonmembers to request permission for residency. Should the applicant be approved, a “permission to reside” agreement must be signed. This agreement must be renewed every five years.

If the applicant is denied, he or she has the right to appeal to the tribal council.

This ordinance also applies to descendents of tribal members, defined as those with less than one-half but at least one-quarter Isleta blood, not enrolled in any other federally recognized tribe, and listed on the descendant’s roll maintained by the Pueblo. In the event of the death of a member, a nonmember’s permission to reside shall be revoked six months after the member’s death. If the nonmember has member dependents (defined as under 18, over 60 or mentally incompetent or physically challenged to the extent of requiring daily care), the nonmember can request permission to stay.

The Pueblo of Isleta issued a written statement from the Pueblo’s governor, Frank E. Lujan. According to the statement, “the intent of this ordinance is to know who resides within the lands of the Pueblo. The ordinance has been well received by the majority of the members, including those who have nonmember spouses or who have significant others.”

The statement continues that the Pueblo “is exercising its right to protect the peace, safety, property, health, general welfare, customs and traditions of our people.… We will assure a safe environment for all people who reside within the reservation, member and nonmember alike. What the Pueblo has done is the right thing to do.”

That’s not what Terry Lente thinks. “I feel very strongly that if nonmembers have to do background checks, it should be fair to do them on everyone in the community,” she says. “If the tribal council is serious about protecting and keeping us safe, then everyone should have a background check. Or no one.”

Lente, a member of the Pueblo, is married to a man who is one-quarter Isleta. He must now submit a residency application and give permission for a criminal background check, despite having lived on the Pueblo for 31 years. And if Lente dies before her husband, he faces the possibility of being kicked out of their house and off the reservation. “My grandchildren, when they turn 18, have to do this process, too. It’s sad to see what’s happening today. It’s splitting families and community apart by imposing this on people who have been here since they were born, and asking them now to justify themselves living here. That’s not the Indian way. It’s degrading.”

She contends that this issue has created a division in the community, the crux of which is power. “This is so scary because of the ramifications if we don’t do what those in power ask us to do. Some of us have a fear that applications will be denied, because we’re not in the ‘in group.’ People are afraid to speak up.”

The Pueblo states that it has received approximately 80 residency applications, and that more than half of those have been approved. The others are awaiting background checks. None have been denied to date. Denial could result from the background check showing convictions for crimes like murder, sexual crimes and drug offenses.

Emily Schuler, a former tribal council member who is married to a nonmember, is leaving because of this new ordinance. She and her husband have transferred title to their home and 16 acres on the Pueblo to other tribal members and are packing their possessions. Schuler says she knows of seven other transfers that happened the same day hers did.

Schuler wonders why the tribal council has chosen now to start requiring background checks and applications, and why it put in the five-year agreement period. She thinks this will eventually hurt the community. “If families like mine start moving out, the tribe is going to lose members and descendents, which it uses to get federal funding for services.

“There are tribal members who have committed serious crimes. We even have people in office who have committed crimes. That’s the way it is sometimes in a small community. Of course it’s up to the council’s discretion, but at the same time, since they have allowed nontribal members to live here so long, they should be fair about it.”

Iris Drew, who served as a tribal government officer for the BIA, confirmed that the new residency ordinance was approved by the BIA. She did not know of any other tribe with a similar requirement for background checks. “Lots of tribes are asking people to leave, especially when people bring in boys and girls dealing with drugs,” she says. “Most tribes don’t have these kind of ordinances written into laws, though—they are more traditional tribes without constitutions. Tribes have the right to determine who can live on trust lands, whether non-Indian or nontribal members. Background check or not, the Isleta Council can kick anyone, non-Indian or not, off tribal lands.”

Chris Abeita is a tribal member not affected by the residency ordinance, but he disagrees with it. “I have lived here my entire life, 42 years, and I’ve never heard of any non-Indian or nonmember committing a violent crime on the rez. I’ve not heard of any non-Indian or nonmember disrespecting our customs or traditions, either,” he says. “In contrast, we had a tribal member murder his own cousin and he still lives on the Pueblo. We’ve also had a tribal member break into the home of an elderly woman here, and rape and beat her. What happens when he gets out of prison? He’ll be able to come right back here.”

Abeita doesn’t buy the council’s argument that the ordinance is to protect health and safety of the community. He thinks that if the purpose is truly to protect the community from bad people, the council should include tribal members.

He believes the true motivation behind the ordinance stems from 2009, when there was an effort to lower the blood quantum to be a member of the Pueblo to one-quarter from one-half. This measure failed by 10 votes. “Many people believe that this residency ordinance is to retaliate against the people who wanted to lower quantum. Many tribal members are married to non-Indians or non-Isleta members. Their children don’t have the necessary blood quantum to be members, own property, etc. The community was divided on the issue, which has impact on federal benefits, the per capita we get from the casino, etc. The people opposed to lowering the quantum are now in control of the council.”

Lujan’s statement specifically denies this: “This ordinance is not to cause division and is not related to blood quantum either. Tribal members of the Pueblo of Isleta have certain rights that come from their membership status. One of those rights is to live on their lands. The residence ordinance applies to non-tribal members, who do not have such a right.”