Who Belongs? The Epidemic of Tribal Disenrollment

Courtesy Murv Jacob Native Nations Institute hosted a forum focused on tribal disenrollment in March at the University of Arizona.

Tribal disenrollment discussed during two-day forum

The age-old question of “who are you” has developed into a 21st century conundrum of “who belongs,” the basis of a two-day forum discussing tribal kinship, Native Nation citizenship, and tribal disenrollment by exploring questions that relate to citizenship and community-belonging in Indian country. The forum was co-convened by the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the James E. Rogers College of Law and the Department of American Indian Studies.

“This is a first-of-its-kind conference to discuss the sensitive issues surrounding who has a hereditary and/or cultural right to be a part of a Native and aboriginal community,” said conference organizer Robert Hershey at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“In many tribes, there is no word for disenrollment,” added attendee Gabriel Galanda, Round Valley Indian Tribes of California. “This gathering is an historic interaction of tribal leaders that has never happened before, anywhere or at any time, about what is plaguing us and what might mitigate that plague through discussion and debate.

Disenrollment has been referred to as an epidemic that has impacted upwards of 9,000 people in 79 tribes across 20 states. There are 567 federally-recognized tribal nations, so those tribes already dealing with the concept represent a metric of 15 percent of Indian country—and that constitutes an epidemic.”

Native Nations Institute Executive Director Joan Timchee, Hopi, who led the keynote discussion of tribal leaders, said the forum gave the overflow crowd of 300 attendees, “an unparalleled opportunity to explore the ‘Who belongs?’ question, a foundational aspect of self-governance and self-determination for Native nations and their future.”

Describing her fellow panel of leaders as “servants of the people,” Carol Evans, first-ever Chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, invited panelists to not be a part of the problem, but to help find a solution, even as she admitted that her tribe has been struggling with the issue for the past decade and has 21 constitutional amendments dealing with who belongs as well as procedures for tribal disenrollment.

Photo by Lee Allen

“Who Belongs?” conference organizer Robert Hershey introduces panelists at a tribal leaders Forum about tribal disenrollment. Chairwoman Carol Evans, Spokane Tribe of Indians, is on the left, and President Bernadine Burnette, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, is on the right.

Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation President Bernadine Burnette has been in tribal government since 1990 and told the group that “disenrollment is not allowed in my tribe’s constitution.” She remembered that “In the past, no one asked a lot of questions about tribal membership and there was lots of room for all kinds of interpretation.”

Blood quantum requirements aside, Tohono O’odham Chairman Edward Manuel, leader of 34,000 citizens in Arizona and across the border in Mexico, drew a round of applause when he said: “Nobody can tell if you’re Indian or not. That’s up to you because only you know who you are.”

His Southern Arizona counterpart, Pascua Yaqui Chairman Robert Valencia, noted that while federal recognition in 1978 specified membership requirements, “We don’t need the government to tell us who we are.” Recent constitutional changes now allow collateral enrollment among the Yoeme peoples.

Panelist Eddie Crandell Sr., representing the California Bay area Robinson Rancheria, has been an ardent adversary of tribal disenrollment as part of an ongoing tribal power struggle since 2008. Some disenrolled members have since returned to the fold, but he calls the concept of tribal disenrollment “a powerful demon.”

In a lengthy New York Times feature story, reporter Brooke Jarvis referred to disenrollment as a form of genocide, noting that, “Outside the lands legally known as ‘Indian country,’ ‘membership’ and ‘enrollment”’ are such blandly bureaucratic words that it’s easy to lose sight of how much they matter there. To the 566 federally recognized tribal nations, the ability to determine who is and isn’t part of a tribe is an essential element of what makes tribes sovereign entities. To individuals, membership means citizenship and all the emotional ties and treaty rights that come with it. To be disenrolled is to lose that citizenship: to become stateless. It can also mean the loss of a broader identity.”

Photo by Lee Allen

Tobias Vanderhoop (left), Wampanoag Tribe of GayHead (Aquinnah), debates a “who belongs?” tribal disenrollment issue with Kawika Riley, who is Native Hawaiian.

In a 2016 op-ed article for Indian Country Media Network, Washington State Senator John McCoy, Tulalip, categorized the practice as an outgrowth of policies designed to suppress Native American identity—“to control us, to assimilate us, and, ultimately, to extinguish us.”

The gathering, two years in the planning, achieved its goals in the minds of its sponsors. “It created a safe and sensitive place for people to talk about what was in their hearts,” said Hershey. “You can’t continue to have discussions on ‘Who Belongs?’ unless the environment is conducive to respect. I think some tribal leaders opinions were changed and I hope they go back to their own communities and begin their own discussions, taking this groundswell of optimism into a conversation that removes factionalism and resentment.”