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Tribal Leaders Must Talk About Disenrollment

I enjoy a piece of warm frybread as much as anyone.

But I know that this supposedly “traditional” food was first made from U.S. Government commodity lard and flour, and that it’s unhealthy.

Lately, I’ve become concerned that another unhealthy legacy of federal Indian policy is becoming “tradition” in Indian Country.

I’m talking about disenrollment.

In Southern California, where my tribe calls home, disenrollment is common, in part because of big gaming revenues and internal power struggles. It is also a symptom of the breakdown of traditional tribal power structures. Simply put, some tribal leaders listen to lawyers instead of elders.

I am worried that in another generation the disconnect will become so great that tribal councils will view disenrollment as just another traditional political tool. I am worried that we are on the verge of enshrining a new Indian “tradition” of irresponsible and malicious disenrollment.

We must not let that happen.

Obviously, disenrollment involves tough issues. I know the deep pain disenrollment causes, as I have met and talked at length with those who have been kicked out of their tribe.

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in tribal sovereignty, which does include a tribe’s right to disenroll members. However, disenrollment is not an innate right of tribal peoples; it was foisted upon tribes by the federal government in order to extinguish us. But disenrollment is a tribal right nonetheless. I suppose a tribe has the right to extinguish itself, like some did in the 1950s, if it so chooses.

The point is not that we can’t hold contradictory views about this issue, but instead that we better start talking about disenrollment and finding solutions before it’s too late. Unfortunately, nobody in tribal leader circles is willing to talk about it. Not at NCAI, not at NIGA, not among Southern California tribal leaders, not anywhere.

I fear that if we don’t talk and, more importantly, take some form of action, we run the real risk that Congress will exercise its “plenary” power over tribes and decide who is Indian—an idea almost too scary to consider.

My position is this: The current flurry of disenrollments must stop so we can all have dialogue and find solutions.

If I am ever given a chance to share my opinions on the subject with my fellow tribal leaders and other relatives, I will say this:

Disenrollment weakens the People, individually and collectively. Former tribal members lose their identities, their culture, and their benefits. Sometimes they lose their jobs and their homes. They struggle to put food on the table.

Tribes also suffer. Those that disenroll members often face great instability, economic problems, and create the potential for political backstabbing that may last for generations.

Again, disenrollment is not tribal. The concept is based on U.S. government policies of assimilating and terminating Indians. Tribes engaged in these practices are simply doing the dirty work of those people who have wanted to kill off Indians for the last several hundred years.

Nor is blood quantum—the measure many tribes use to determine membership—traditional. The federal government created the scheme for its own benefit. I personally think blood quantum should play some role in determining who is an Indian. Others think lineal descent should be enough. Tribes need to re-evaluate what makes sense for them.

Disenrollment should be executed only in the most extreme cases. Tribal leaders considering disenrolling members absolutely must keep in mind what those individuals and the entire tribe stands to lose. They need to recognize that the entire tribe suffers when members are kicked out, especially entire families.

Tribal governments must be thoughtful when carrying out this supreme act. Due process is key. Tribes should develop clear laws, policies, and procedures well in advance of any disenrollment. Then they should honor those rules and procedures, even if they don’t get the outcomes they want. That is sovereignty.

Tribal leaders should pressure the BIA to get involved. After all, the U.S. created disenrollment, and the BIA carried out that act for at least the last century. The agency’s insistence that it can only sit back and say, “there is nothing we can do,” is shameful. At the very least, the BIA should be a curator of records, and make those records available to tribal members fighting to retain their identities and to remain where they belong.

Tribes may want to consider whether the customary practice of banishment better suits their traditions, rather than disenrollment. Banishment can work, and it doesn’t create the loss of identify and benefits that disenrollment causes. 

My own grandfather was banned from his tribe for almost a decade because of a domestic situation. Eventually, our tribe allowed him to return, and by then the community had healed and moved on. He was still Indian, always.

But the practice of banishment, like disenrollment, can be abused. Again, due process is key.

If ever the current frenzy of disenrollments stops, we will need time to heal. Until then, we need to evaluate whether disenrollment has a place in our cultures. If the answer is yes, we must develop more thoughtful policies and procedures. But this analysis can only happen if we start to talk to one another, as relatives.

Failure to take these steps will mean that every Indian faces the threat of not being an Indian. More tribes will become like country clubs, instead of families, where members can be added or excluded at the whim of a governing board.

At that point, we become as traditional as our fry bread.

Joseph Hamilton is the Chairman of the Ramona Band of Cahuilla in Anza, California, and a longtime member of the Ramona Tribal Council.