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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tribal Membership Revocations: Dialing for Dollars?


Over the past several years, there have been a series of publicized tribal enrollment revocations of enrolled members – including former tribal leaders – and their entire families. While this phenomenon was extremely rare in the past, it is becoming increasingly and disturbingly common.

Many in Indian Country openly trace this activity from the date on which the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became law in 1988 and tribes too often spending large amounts of their casino revenues in per capita payments to tribal members. In some cases, as tribal populations grew, revenue distributions were accordingly reduced to continue payments to all members. In other cases, the economic downturn that dates back to 2007-08 led to reduced casino revenues and, in turn, reduced individual payments. Still, many have linked dollar reductions in per capita payments to the increase in expelling members.

While there are a number of tribes that have disenrolled members, these writers are not aware of any non-gaming tribes that have done so. Disenrollments are reality, but an established connection between reduced casino revenue distributions and disenrollments is somewhat hypothetical. Nonetheless, examining the facts is enlightening.

For the purposes of this article, it is useful to examine the three tribes currently embroiled in “enrollment reductions” that have received the greatest attention. They are (1) the Pala Band of Mission Indians of California, (2) the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians of California, and (3) the Nooksack Tribe of Washington. They all have operated tribal casinos for a number of years. They all have been making per capita payments to tribal members. They all have disenrolled hundreds of members over the past several years. And they all apparently began disenrolling members shortly after experiencing downturns in casino cash flow that finance the members’ distributions.

Nooksack Indian Tribe

In Washington State, the 2,000-member Nooksack Indian Tribe is near the Canadian border, almost 100 miles north of Seattle. In February, six of the eight members of the Tribal Council, including the Chairman, voted to commence disenrollment proceedings against 306 Nooksack members, including the two tribal council members who did not vote in favor of the action.

The Nooksack disenrollees are descendants of a woman named Annie George. Tribal membership rules require that members either (1) trace ancestry to those appearing on a 1942 tribal census, or those who received allotments of tribal land, or (2) prove that they possess 1/4 Indian blood and any degree of Nooksack ancestry. George’s name did not appear on either list, and her descendants must go before the Tribal Council and present evidence of their claim. The disenrollees appealed the Tribal Council’s decision to the Nooksack Tribal Court, asking for an injunction to the disenrollment, but the Chief Judge denied the injunction citing the Tribe’s sovereign immunity from suit and deferring to the Tribal Council’s broad authority over membership matters.

Shortly after voting to disenroll the 306 members, the Council voted to initiate an election to amend the Nooksack Constitution to “close a loophole” and remove the second path to Nooksack membership. This change clearly would further obstruct the disenrollees’ claims. After the BIA approved the election, the two disenrolled Tribal Council members sought to enjoin the election in federal court, but the Judge declined to stop the election citing the lack of “applicable law” making it unlawful for the Nooksack Tribe to define its membership by race or ancestry. The Constitutional amendment went to a vote of the entire Nooksack membership, the outcome of which has not been announced as of this date.

The question is whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between revenue declines and revocations of membership. The known facts speak for themselves, as does the high level of acrimony now infecting each tribe. However, in each case, the tribes are relying on conclusions as to enrollment entitlement that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has the expertise and experience to determine, but declines to do so. The professional historians and genealogists at the Department of the Interior could resolve the disputes with finality. Thus far, they have elected to do nothing, leaving tribes in chaos and disenrolled members in distress.

To learn about the Pala Band of Mission Indians and the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians “enrollment reductions”, click here to read the complete article featured in DW Gaming Legal News.