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Tribes Have Absolute Right to Determine Their Membership

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Tribes conduct enrollment audits for a variety of reasons. Some conduct them for the right reasons: To clean up their records and to make sure that the errors of the past are not repeated. And to make sure that every tribal member has an updated membership file that is consistent with their governing documents and the wishes of their tribal membership. They do not do it for the sole purpose of disenrolling tribal members. Many tribes that I have worked with recognize that and do everything they can to avoid disenrolling any of their citizens after an audit.

Anyone who knows anything about tribal enrollment recognizes that the sins of the past in enrollment are many. Often, tribes did not have the resources to properly train their staffs and committees in the everyday functions of their jobs. In addition, the governing documents supplied to them were sloppily written by the BIA or by those who did not have their best interests at heart.

Almost every tribe I have worked with, and I have worked with hundreds, have problems in enrollment. The mere fact that they can still enroll people using the records that they currently have is remarkable. If the foundation of everything you work from is a problem, then you are bound to create more problems going forward. So doing an audit to make sure the sins of the past are not continued, makes sense. Doing it to disenroll people, does not make sense. It is a sure fire recipe for disaster. There are plenty of examples out there for us to look at.

That said, tribes have an absolute right to determine their own membership. They have fought long and hard for that right and no one should take it away from them. So if a tribe decides to disenroll someone, then that is their right. And no matter how I disagree, and no matter how I object, it is still their right. Any notion that the federal government should get involved in that decision is quite frankly, dangerous and irresponsible on the part of the person or persons recommending such involvement.

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The United States has sovereignty over itself. Can France tell us what to do when we make mistakes or even when we make colossal blunders? No they cannot, even if we repeat the same mistakes over and over again. France can make recommendations and we can choose to follow them or not, but we don’t have to listen. That is good and bad as is any kind of sovereignty. So will tribes make mistakes? Of course they will. Nothing is perfect.

I hope no one is disenrolled because of greed or for any other misguided reason when updating their membership records. It is not a good course of action to take when you are making the effort to move smartly into the future. But I would fight for a tribe’s right to determine its own rules of membership as I would fight any just cause. Sovereignty trumps paternalism.

From 1990-2007, James Mills was the founder and President of DCIAmerica, one ofAmerica’s leading training organizations serving the needs of clients throughout Indian Country in the United States and Canada. Mr. Mills is the current president of Creating Stronger Nations and is focusing on the drafting of governing documents, leadership and governance issues for tribal organizations.