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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tribal Enrollment Fights: Could They Be Related to Gaming Revenues?

By Dennis J. Whittlesey

Over the past several years, there has been a continuing string of news stories concerning tribes that have disenrolled members of long-standing tribal families. Moreover, disenrolled members have included the very people who helped their tribes attain federal recognition and even served as tribal officials during tribal political organization and economic development. And, this includes the development and operation of tribal casinos.

While every tribe is different, many of the disenrollments have one thing in common, which is that they own and operate successful tribal casinos and are making periodic per capita payments to their members. To date, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has largely refused to become involved in tribal enrollment disputes, regardless their origins, with the explanation that tribal membership is a matter exclusively within the tribe's control and decision making.

The most recent and genuinely antagonistic intra-tribal fight is at Chukchansi in Madera County, California, where rival factions have taken turns occupying the tribal headquarters, elections have been ignored in whole or in part, and a scheduled swearing in of a new Tribal Council was recently cancelled.

Meanwhile, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino is operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is often cited as a "very profitable" property, and percentages of casino revenues have been distributed to tribal members. However, there have been a number of highly publicized disenrollments of tribal families, meaning that each member of the reduced tribal membership population receives a higher payment.

Tribal disenrollments may have nothing to do with casino revenue, but the anger and disruption at Chukchansi demonstrates that something is driving this recent trend. It is time for a federal assessment of what that may be and how to deal with it in a manner that respects both the tribal governments and their members.