Dividing Spoils, Dividing Tribes

As casino cash flows in, disenrollment is fracturing some Native American communities

| February 2, 2006

Native Americans struggled long for sovereignty, and the victory now seems to be breeding discord, not unity, in the tribes. Casinos have been a financial windfall, and now former tribe members are claiming that tribe leaders are kicking members out on false pretenses in order to claim a larger portion of the casino earnings for themselves.

The disenrolled have looked to the US courts for help, but that help has not been forthcoming. Eliza Strickland, writing for the East Bay Express, says that Thurgood Marshall's words from a 1978 Supreme Court ruling still hold truck: 'A tribe's right to define its own membership for tribal purposes has long been recognized as central to its existence as an independent political community.' The courts have claimed that they have no jurisdiction over how a tribe administrates its membership roles. Thus, the disenrolled have no recourse but to appeal to the very tribal entity that kicked them out in the first place.

According to Strickland, the tribes' official position seems to be that casinos have no bearing on membership claims; yet the spate of membership disputes suggests otherwise. Strickland cites an Associated Press estimate that more than 1,100 people are engaged in membership disputes in California alone. Former members allege that tribes are not only disenrolling people out of greed but also silencing current members with the threat of disenrollment.

Though some tribal leaders appear to be motivated by greed, those fighting to become (or be reinstated as) members say they are driven by something deeper. For Marilyn Vann, who determined through a DNA test that she was part Cherokee, the tribe's denial is frustrating. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Vann said that rather than attempting to take advantage of the tribe, she was looking for a way to give back. Others echo this sentiment, saying that the real-world disadvantages of disenrollment pale in comparison to the feeling of loss encountered when excluded from their community.

DNA testing now seems to be the only way some tribes will grant membership. But for Vann, whose test did little to help her application, and others, this raises the question of what it means to be Native American. Formally excluded from a community they once called their own and faced with a Kafkaesque legal scenario, former members are at a loss. All they know is that they surely have lost something.

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