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The Human Face of Enrollment Wars

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Part 1 of 5

WATERTOWN, S.D. – As Indian country evolves, one agent of change – tribal enrollment – seems to stand out, accompanied by blood quantum, lineal descent, disenrollment, and its other sometimes controversial relatives.

Tribal enrollment can matter in terms of benefits in housing, land ownership, employment, education, and per capita payments, among others. There are obvious intangibles, as well – a sense of kinship and of continuity over time as tribal nations exercise their sovereign right to determine membership.

But in the complex world of tribal enrollment ordinances, people of substantial Native ancestry may not be able to enroll for a variety of reasons. At the same time, people with very few Native ancestors may find enrollment a snap.

The two stories that follow are far from definitive, but they illustrate at least one piece of a wide-ranging discussion – the private and human sense of feeling excluded or included.

“I tried to get enrolled basically all my life,” said Robert Upham, 47. “It made me angry, frustrated. When I was a little kid, I was just Indian – I was brown, I had relatives who were Indian. I never felt I was not Indian.” It began to change in fifth grade because he couldn’t attend a basketball camp open to enrolled children.

It began to matter even more when his grandmother tried to give him land and he couldn’t have it because he was not enrolled. He lived in Harlem, Mont. on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre, where he lacked the blood quantum for membership at that time.

Upham, a long-time resident of tribal neverland, was only recently enrolled in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, although his Dakota, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Salish and Pend d’Oreilles ancestry brings his Native descent to well over half at this point and his genealogy is still not complete.

Things changed at Fort Belknap, he said, because the quantum was dropped from one-fourth to one-eighth, “but I didn’t want to enroll, now. I didn’t want to be a one-eighth Indian.” Instead, he joined other family members in enrolling in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, although he had never lived there.

The frustration he long felt is part of what thrust him onto the Internet, at times angrily, about rules that “diminish us and disintegrate our unity as a people.” He interviews people and posts on his blog. He maintains an active role in questioning blood quantum and other enrollment issues he regards as divisive and says he would like to help develop a solution.

“I’m against enrollment, but now I’m enrolled.” Blood quantum rules that halted his enrollment elsewhere did not apply at Sisseton, where “borrowing blood” from other tribal nations is permitted and where he works for a tribal casino.

“People may say it doesn’t matter – you don’t have to be enrolled to be Indian, but they don’t realize what being enrolled involves,” he said. For example, it can be a factor in hiring and in having a voice in tribal government.

Then there are the thousands upon thousands of tribal enrollees who don’t “look Indian” and haven’t grown up in tribal communities. They are often from tribal nations that determine membership or citizenship only by descent from documented tribal ancestors.

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If relatively “high-quantum” Upham has felt anger about his problems getting enrolled despite his disdain at the prospect of being “a one-eighth Indian,” those at that quantum level (or even lower) may have some ambivalent feelings as well.

“I used to say my family was Potawatomi, but it took a long time for me to say that I’m Potawatomi,” said Miccki Langston, Denver suburbanite and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who founded and heads a nonprofit alliance for locally-owned businesses.

“But since I’ve started saying that, the more time I spend talking to others, it’s turned into opportunities to have conversations about issues, history, with lots of different people.

“People ask, ‘How much are you?’ (she declines to respond) but we are Citizen Band Potawatomi because of history, legacy, culture and common values – these are the things that make us Potawatomi. We reject blood quantum as being the deter- mining factor of whether we’re Native American.”

Although Langston does not live in Oklahoma, she knows her tribe’s history in detail, she visits relatives, attends a powwow more attuned to tribal members than to big-money contests, and summarizes, “We are definitely trying to understand and establish more of what it is to be Potawatomi today. It’s not the same thing it was 50 years ago, let alone 500 years ago.” When she is asked about people who have greater Native ancestry but are unable to become enrolled, she said, “I think it’s awful if you have people who want to participate but can’t. It’s no longer fulfilling the purpose of community and identity – it can get to be, ‘I’m entitled to something you’re not entitled to.’”

Langston believes blood quantum requirements, for one, were created “to limit access to resources” and she raises questions about whether enrollment and tribal commitment “make us better people taking better care of one another, or it just means a card in my wallet.

“We always knew we were Potawatomi: If anyone asks you, you know – and this is important. Family is a core Potawatomi value,” she said, adding that her mother always told her children, “You don’t always have to like each other or get along, but always help each other.”

An oft-repeated tale is that somewhere in the Southwest is a man of full Native ancestry who can’t readily become enrolled because his mother’s tribe bases eligibility on patrilineal descent and his father’s tribe requires matrilineal descent. Apocryphal or not, it depicts the frustration of what may be a growing number of aspiring enrollees.


Part 2 - Who is 'Indian' Varies by Definition

Part 3 - Tribes Target Grandchildren in Planning

Part 4 - Native Status May be Affected by Diversity Issues

Part 5 - ICWA: Individual and Tribal Survival at Stake