Dividing Spoils, Dividing Tribes

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.

Go there >>

Identity Theft

Go there too >>

Ancestry in a Drop of Blood

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