Creating weaker nations: Who decides who belongs?

Since the 1990s some 80 tribal nations have stripped the national identity of their citizens

The Oxford Dictionary defines a "nation" as a "community of people of mainly common descent, history, language, etc., forming a unified government or inhabiting a territory. A second definition simply says that a nation is "a tribe or confederation of tribes of Native Americans."

The term derives from the Latin, and when it first appeared it explicitly entailed the idea of common blood ties or descent. As Walker Connor noted in his analysis of the term, it derives from the past participle of the word "nasci," which means to be born.

An essential characteristic of any self-determined nation is the power to decide who belongs as a citizen or member of the community. Historically, kinship connections, whether established by birth, adoption, or marriage were the major routes by which Native communities grew their populations. And once you were embedded in a Native community the commission of a most egregious and rare act, say, premeditated murder or incest with the child, were the only means by which you might be exiled or banished.

But since the early 1990s at least eighty Native governments in some twenty states have acted not only to banish (physically exclude) individuals, but have gone even further and made the more emphatic decision to formally disenroll tribal members from rolls – an act that is equivalent to the political, legal, and cultural termination of the disenrollees national identity.

In a book I co-wrote last year, Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights, we described and analyzed how and why banishments and disenrollments have arisen in Indian Country and identify some of the major culprits in this period of Native self-depopulation: economic greed, criminal activity, political power plays, personal vendettas, racism, among others. In addition to these issues, four additional factors significantly impact the dismemberment activities that are being carried out today by tribal officials: per capita payments of gaming revenue, the contradictory role of attorneys, DNA testing, and enrollment audits.

Each of these warrant discussion, but I want to focus on enrollment audits as I was recently made aware of one such audit conducted by the James Mills led firm, Creating Stronger Nations/DCIAmerica, for the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma that concluded earlier this year. The firm is one of several for-profit organizations, like Automated Election Services, the Falmouth Institute, and the J. Dalton Institute, that conducts so-called enrollment audits for some Native governments.

This most recent audit episode reminded me of a lengthy – eight year – enrollment audit conducted by the Falmouth Institute for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that cost some $900,000 to complete in 2009. Falmouth’s review of 1,800 files and some 115,000 documents of enrolled Cherokee material determined that more than 10 percent of the members needed to adjust their status and that at least 300 members apparently had no direct connection to anyone on the 1924 Baker Roll which is the Tribe’s primary enrollment document. Another 1,405 members learned that their files had been declared “actionable,” which meant that their files “contain information that does not support the current status of the individual.”

While every nation needs to maintain an accurate way to identify its citizens, such procedures and policies should not be out-sourced but should be developed and implemented by fully trained tribal members, sometimes working closely with appropriate federal officials or scholars, since Native individuals are presumably more connected to the core values, history, and are committed to the integrity of their nations most private data.

According to the letter James Mills wrote to Chief William L. Fisher of the Seneca-Cayuga on February 2, 2018 (the Nation's resolution on membership criteria and Mills' letter are available on the tribe's website), the enrollment audit his firm had just concluded had been designed in part to help tribal officials "understand the complexities of what is deficient in [their] current enrollment system," and to enable the tribe to make changes that would "improve the efficiency and accuracy of Seneca-Cayuga Nation's enrollment processes."

Mills' team determined that the most troublesome aspect in the enrollment data they uncovered was that the tribe's marriage requirement as laid out in their constitution was apparently not being met by many members who had not provided marriage certificates. Mills then detailed the frightening numerical results of his team’s enrollment audit: 1,187 tribal members were documented and qualified for continuing membership; 451 did not qualify for membership; and over 4400 were "missing documents. In most cases, it is the marriage certificate of the parents that creates the problem," as Mills described the situation.

Mills concluded his letter stating that "if the marriage requirement stands, then many tribal members will not qualify for membership. If the marriage requirement is removed, the overwhelming majority of tribal members will qualify. It is the single greatest obstacle to tribal continuity."

I support the right of every Native nation to be the ultimate decision-maker on who belongs in their nation. And the Seneca-Cayuga exercised this power in opting to retain Creating Stronger Nations/DCIAmerica to conduct what was most likely a costly and most certainly a privacy invading exercise to ascertain whether tribal members met the current constitutional criteria for membership.

Why are so many Native governments turning to outside corporate and other organizations like Creating Stronger Nations/DCIAmerica to investigate intimate matters that should rightly be the province of Native entities? And more importantly, is tribal reliance on so-called outside "experts" a hallmark of a self-determined Native nation or is it an indication of Indian Country's ongoing dependence on such organizations and interest groups?

There is sufficient knowledge in Indian Country and within most tribal nations to see that the critical task of developing an accurate and verifiable membership/census roll be done without having to resort to paying large sums to outside organizations and consultants.

Such audits not only drain vital tribal resources but more importantly there is a debilitating toll exacted on the morale and cohesiveness that once were vital characteristics of Indigenous nations. The years of unclear membership status are corrosive and eat away at the fabric of kinship and trust that define a Native nation. Tribal leaders who abdicate their responsibilities to outside enrollment auditors may even pass this self-inflicted problem on to the next governmental regime.

Equally distressing is the fact that it is highly possible that these outside auditors will come to know more about a tribal nation’s unique membership traits than the government leaders who retained them – a startling and dismaying proposition. No sovereign nation should allow itself to be placed in such a vulnerable position.

Native nations – the people and their elected and appointed governing officials – need to develop and utilize sensible, transparent enrollment policies that provide a realistic pathway to secure and retain citizenship, as well as just process to challenge and appeal decisions regarding their enrollment status. No nation should pit its sovereign authority against the human and civil rights of its citizens.

In short, Native nations should reconsider hiring outside firms for such intimate decisions and should not consign their private citizen/membership data to anyone other than themselves. Determining who belongs in a Native community should never be a profit-driven enterprise relinquished to outside organizations. Our sovereign membership decisions are ours alone to responsibly decide, maintain, and update as needs be.

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

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