In 1854, Chief Seattle spoke to a group of early settlers. “Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars,” he said. “They are soon forgotten and never return.” He went on to explain how for Native peoples, the dead are “not powerless,” for while their bodies blend with the earth, spirits of the deceased travel on because “there is no death, only a change of worlds.”
Chief Seattle wasn't saying that the settlers failed to mourn or respect their dead—though they most certainly did so in a fashion much different from Native folk—but rather that their dead no longer played a dynamic role in the day-to-day existence of the living. He was trying to explain an interconnectedness that was incomprehensible to the colonizing culture. For Native peoples then, and now, those on the other side continue as vital members of our societies. Centered between us and the Great Mysterious, they are able to bridge the worlds. They are conduits, providing critical guidance necessary for our continuance as peoples.
This is why more than a century and a half after these words were spoken, actions taken by tribal leaders to purge their tribal rolls, not just of their living relatives, but even of the bones of their relatives on the other side inspires such instinctive disgust. The very fabric of the cosmos as we have always understood it is being assaulted in this macabre fashion through recent attempts, some successful, by several Native governments to engage in the loathsome practice of disenrollment of deceased tribal members. By doing so, current officials may then more easily wield the legal authority to disenroll descendants who are currently enrolled tribal citizens.
The actions are inhumane. In one California case, a revered grandmother’s body was exhumed so that a DNA test could be performed. Even when the test confirmed her as a genetically bone fide member, the tribal government still disenrolled this long-deceased woman and all her descendants from the tribe’s rolls. Exhumation and DNA testing are actions that our nations often fight against when outsiders want to invade the gravesites of our ancestors. Think about the incredibly spirited effort put forth to defend the dignity and humanity of the ancestor, Techaminsh Oytpamanatityt, The Ancient One, also known as Kennewick Man.
Some tribal officials, in their zeal to purge their rolls of political enemies or otherwise inconvenient citizens, have now stooped to a level of institutional behavior unparalleled in our narrative of indigenous history—a narrative that considered the ashes of the dead as sacred ingredients for the ongoing life of their nations. In God is Red, Vine Deloria said that indigenous peoples historically understood that death in a very real sense fulfilled their destiny—for as their bodies became dust they once again contributed to the ongoing life cycle of creation.
I've heard some folks criticize the Mormon Church for their practice of baptizing the dead by proxy in order that everyone has the choice to join the church in the afterlife. There are some who believe this extends colonization into the next world. While we all have our own opinions about this undertaking, it is admittedly ironic that the Mormons diligently strive to add to their rolls, while some tribal politicians vigorously squander a lot of time and money to shrink theirs.
It is difficult to fathom why any tribe would want to take up the colonizers' work of casting out living tribal members in either this world or the next. But tribal officials who violate the sacred dead so that they can more easily destroy the political and legal rights of living tribal citizens have undertaken a repulsive, spiritually perverted practice that should outrage all Native peoples.
They are irrevocably damaging their nations’ foundational sovereignty by disrespecting, violating and denying their ancestors' sacred identities. As with any structure, a foundation must be tended. If allowed to weaken, the overall structure starts to shift and sag. If pieces are removed, the entire living unit collapses. Our ancestors are our foundational blocks and when one of them is disrespected or disenrolled, our people-based and historically grounded sovereignty is forever damaged. The practice of posthumous disenrollment must end if we are to continue. It brings disgrace not just to those actively violating those on the other side, but to all of us who fail to defend them.
If not, as Chief Seattle said, our dead will cease to love us and there will be nothing here in this realm that will keep them from wandering away beyond the stars, never to return.
David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His most recent books include The Hank Adams Reader (2011), The Legal Universe (with Vine Deloria, Jr.) (2011), and Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009).