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Thoughts on How We Re-Member

On July 2, the tribal council of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde held a special meeting to allow their citizens an opportunity to testify for or against a proposed emergency enrollment ordinance whereby the Council sought to delegate its constitutional authority to involuntarily dismember citizens. At issue was whether or not the Council should give the enrollment committee the power to make the final decision. The committee, made up of tribal members selected by the Council, had already studied the situation and recommended the dismemberment of over 80 citizens. At the conclusion of a nearly three-hour discussion, the Council narrowly adopted the ordinance and set into motion an expedited process. Exactly three weeks later, on July 24, the enrollment committee would follow up on its earlier recommendations and vote to formally dismember 86 tribal citizens--both living and deceased members.

As I sat in my office and watched the July 2 Grand Ronde meeting on my computer screen, I was struck by a number of thoughts. First, the testimony of the family members facing dismemberment and that of their allies was riveting and intellectually compelling as they described their clear genealogical connection to Chief Tumulth, a signer of the 1855 treaty. Second, these individuals were profoundly dismayed at the Council's last minute attempt to abdicate its express constitutional authority to an inferior administrative unit--a tribal committee. Third, they were concerned about the loss of checks and balances reflected by the Council's proposed action. And they astutely suggested that the so-called "emergency" action was a mere smokescreen designed to protect the chances of several Council members up for reelection.

In contrast, those in favor of the ordinance, argued with equal fervor that the decision to introduce the measure was indeed an emergency because the disenrollment issue had become so contentious and divisive that it was eclipsing other tribal business. They also maintained that it was well within their power to delegate this authority because the enrollment committee's members were professional and had acquired expert knowledge of each disenrollee's case. And they further emphasized that checks and balances remained in place because disenrollees could appeal their loss of citizenship to the tribal court where they would have a chance to contest the committee's decision.

Reflecting on this further it is plain that all those involved--those about to be cast out and those gearing up to do the deed--sincerely believed their position was sound and the right path for their nation. I have also been considering how traditional Native nations, while never utopias, all operated with institutions and values that generally enabled them to weather serious internal disputes without deliberately endangering the lives or livelihoods of their members. Since each and every tribal soul had a fundamental right to exist, the entire community shared a fundamental responsibility to see that every member–no matter their racial admixture, bloodlines, gender, age, abilities, adoptive status–distinctive life and personality--be respected and supported. The success of the whole depended on an intense recognition of the personal autonomy of each individual member.

Furthermore, we are all familiar with how Native communities have become more diversified over time for good or ill. All nations were severely impacted by the might and seductive qualities of external forces such as the western educational system, capitalism's raw benefits, the installment of foreign political and legal institutions, and Judeo-Christian religious traditions. The changes wrought are reflected in the emergence of tribal perspectives that fundamentally diverge from older ways, not so much because of racial, ethnic, or biological changes, but because of what Vine Deloria referred to as “differences of metaphysical viewpoint, of ways of looking at, understanding and interpreting the events and experiences of the world.”

This certainly seemed to be a factor with the Grand Ronde people. Whatever their personal motivations, the Council members who supported dismemberment fervently believed that their newly prescribed administrative process for deciding membership was a real improvement over the status quo and thus this action was in the best interests of the overall Grand Ronde community.

Whether or not one believes these folks are truly inspired by a greater good or motivated by personal gain, I think we all recognize their counterparts in our own communities. Leaders like these do the off-reservation work, interacting with local, state and federal governments to protect sovereignty and make sure treaty rights and the trust relationship are honored. Like all elected officials, they walk a fine line between enacting the will of their people and making sure the rules for engagement with other governments are met. Of necessity, these individuals must take many of their cues from the federal government. They have convinced themselves that only by adhering to the rules, procedures, and protocols agreed upon during the Self-Determination era will ensure their tribes continue to receive the benefits and privileges they feel they are owed by the U.S.

Those with the difficult task of working to represent their nations from without and within work constantly to maintain this difficult balance. However, once this group accepts federal measurements—whether opportunistically or with the sincere belief that this is the path for continued survival--of time, success, history, and identity, their metaphysical viewpoint begins to diverge from those, like the disenrollees, who adhere to more traditional ways of perceiving the world and its relationships.

By contrast, those facing dismemberment, by in large, are more representative of traditional perceptions. When the Grand Ronde disenrollees stated emphatically that a new, expedited administrative process should never be used to decide something as important and as substantive as who belongs to their nation, they are hearkening back to older ways of walking through the world. Over and over they cited the value of history, the sacredness, not just the utility, of treaties, the power and bond generated by shared experiences, and moral character. All these things are profound and necessary for survival. These people, too, knew, without doubt, that their position to remain Grand Ronde was in the best interests of the entire community.

Those facing expulsion and their supporters expressed a deep appreciation of the idea of peoplehood that Deloria said, “transcends temporary political organizations and speaks to generations of people, people past and people yet to come.” They are calling out for recognition of a connection that is being destroyed from the inside out.

It could very well be argued that this world view is not sustainable given the outside pressures for change. In these modern times survival is treated more as an individual endeavor, synonymous with the acquisition of money. In contrast, that indigenous peoples have survived is a tribute to interdependence. We worked with the earth, other creatures, the spirits and with all other tribal members in order to acquire food, shelter and, ultimately, meaning. We now work, not with what we can see or feel or eat, but with grants from the federal government, studies by for profit and philanthropic organizations, and university economic development projects. All are entities that require us to measure success based on our generation of western capital and construction of political and legal systems that more often resemble non-Native bodies.

Those now dismembered Grand Ronde citizens were concerned with the substance of Native life and what they were about to lose from the inside; while the enrollment committee and those on the Council that supported dismemberment appeared more focused on minimizing what could be taken away by outsiders. The more professional and efficient the processes relied upon, in the minds of some of those on the Council, the more credible the tribe would appear to other governments and powerful outside entities and the more they, too, would benefit personally.

The tragedy is that both these groups are made up of tribal members who want the best for their nation. The leaders recognize and respond to outside threats and the members recognize and respond to the threats from within.

Is it possible, at this late date, for the members of these very different ideological camps, both at Grand Ronde and the several dozen other Native communities where similar dismemberments are occurring, to find common ground to slow, if not reverse, such dismemberment proceedings? Is there a way to pragmatically engage outside governments and partners that does not require relinquishing the essence of tribalism and kinship?

We have to challenge the unreasonable and unsustainable demands of the larger political and economic regimes that surround us and decide how we will define ourselves in order to continue to remain true to ourselves and our ancestors. If success is to be based largely on measures like accumulation of capital or outside assessments of membership, we are engaging in what I call suicidal sovereignty and we will also hollow ourselves out from the inside until being Native is nothing more than an archaic and impractical ideal.

Only time will tell. Let us hope that something can be done to strengthen and mend what we ourselves are tearing apart. We have to get on with the business of weaving the strong life-fabric of our indigenous peoples.

Professor David E. Wilkins holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His recent book publications include American Indian Politics and the American Political System, 3rd ed (co-authored with Heidi Stark) (2010), Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009), and On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (by Felix Cohen) (2006).