An Essay on the Modern Dynamics of Tribal Disenrollment

Disenrollment is predominately about race, and money, and an “individualistic, materialistic attitude” that is not indigenous to tribal communities.

Because many tribes have maintained the IRA’s paternalistic and antiquated definition of “Indian” vis-a-vis blood quantum (as discussed in “An Essay on the Federal Origins of Disenrollment“), tribal membership has largely become “an explicitly racial conception of Indian identity.” Suzianne D. Painter-Thorne, If You Build It, They Will Come: Preserving Tribal Sovereignty in the Face of Indian Casinos and the New Premium on Tribal Membership, 14 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 311 (2010).

The racial construct has worked well for disenrollment as “American Indians have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage in the U.S.” Gosia Wozniacka, Disenrollment leaves Native feeling ‘culturally homeless’, Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2014. Indeed, Indians of any quantum (defined as “portion”) of Indian blood are by federal design, multi-racial. In addition, “many Native Americans don’t live on reservations, speak Native languages or ‘look’ Indian, making others question their bloodline claims.” Id. In those illustrative ways, Indian conceptions of both race and class converge, with tribal classism also catalyzing disenrollment.

In turn, tribal officials who wish to target political foes or large swaths of politically weak or unpopular members, can “voluntarily invoke race-based definitions of ‘Indian’ [to] narrow the pool of tribal members, perhaps in an effort to limit gaming revenue and federal dollars to [those targeted] tribal members.”Painter-Thorne, supra. These disenrollment stories bear this out. See e.g. Liz Jones, ‘We’ll Always Be Nooksack':Tribe Questions Ancestry of Part-Filipino Members, NPR/KUOW, Dec. 16, 2013; Joanne Barker, The True Meaning of Sovereignty, New York Times, Sept. 16, 2011.

The “forced transition to a cash economy” has likely played a large part in the dramatic spike in disenrollment as well. Jana Berger & Paula Fisher, Navigating Tribal Membership Issues, Emerging Issues in Tribal-State Relations 61, 66 (2013). Prior to the recent disenrollment epidemic, which is estimated to have already vanquished over 11,000 Indians, tribal governments were very inclusive, frequently wanting to have large “membership” numbers. Aside from a greater amount of funding from federal agencies relative to increased tribal membership, from a practical standpoint tribal governments recognized that “there is strength in numbers.” Id.

 But over the last couple decades, as tribes became more dependent on the U.S. economic free-market system, primarily through gaming entrepreneurship, disenrollment began to rear its ugly head. According to Charles Wilkinson.
Just as federal education practices reverberated throughout tribes, so too did the forced transition to a cash economy. The concept of sharing, integral to Indian societies, did not jibe well with the individualistic, materialistic attitude that drove the nation’s economic system. As one Navajo stated, “When a relative needed help, you helped them out. When you needed something else, you could rely on a relative to help out, it all worked out in the long run. With money it doesn’t work anymore, now the relative with the money is expected to help out, what is needed for most everything is money and the poor relatives never have any.” 
Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations 54 (2006).

As Professor David Wilkins observes, tribal communities historically used ceremony and prayer to resolve intra-tribal tension or conflict; because traditionally speaking, “you don’t cast out your relatives.” Wozniacka, supra. But today, when the political going gets rough in tribal communities, the individualistic, materialistic Indian attitude that Professor Wilkinson describes, increasingly leads to disenrollment of one’s own relatives–instead of towards any holistic or indigenous values-based solution.

Galanda Broadman is an American Indian owned firm dedicated to advancing tribal legal rights and Indian business interests. The firm represents tribal governments, businesses and members in critical litigation, business and regulatory matters, especially in the areas of Indian Treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, taxation, commerce, personal injury, and human/civil rights.

An Essay on the Modern Dynamics of Tribal Disenrollment

Poem: Grandmother, Forest

Heart beat,
Working class,
Excavated painters,
Telephone workers,
Meet on the front steps,
Smoke Winston's,

Old glasses worn on her face,
Union blue collar uniform,
Worn down by the worker tread,
Old glasses brown tint,

Dark green paint on hands,
Sorrow streaked across the walls,
By a young adolescent girl blasting Alice in Chains,
In anger of what she could not describe of what she saw,

Sorrow painted on the walls,
Dark green forest coming through in a transmission,
The tears hit the floor boards,
Spiraling metamorphosis,
A prayer in a ceremony,
Reaches the shores of Michigami 21 years later,
In healing,
In reclaiming culture,
Gender rolled and silenced,
Catholic Church,
Praying in the closet,
We tried,

Sinking down in the soil,
Your Grandmother was crying,
Can you hear her in your heart?

Porcupine Story

She is a tired soul.  Beautiful.  Too beautiful to hold and keep in one place.  Why she loved the darkness and speaking about oppression.  The ancestors surround and support her.  She can hear the pulse of the heart beat of Mother Earth.

She is a bourgeoisie woman.  She is a proletariat woman. She is a rich bitch woman.  She is a poor trailer trash woman.  She is a country woman.  She is a rural woman.  She is a ghetto woman. She is a rez woman.  All stigmatized in a white male patriarchal culture.  Never allowed to fully be herself.  

Porcupine sits outside her window and listens.

Lighting a candle.  The candle sits on her window sill.  No one listens to her story.  Instead they listen to the buzz of the street lights, car going by and the chatter in their own head.

The candle is lit and the story is about the ancestors who appear as others.  Who appear as a friend, a winged one or a four footeded friend.  They sit and listen.  The fly and listen, deliver messages to others.  Non-linear time.

Her story.  Her experience.  Her voice.

Slowly she can feel that she can rise above.  Society's structures bury her.  That is the goal.  Fire in her hands.  Fire to build.  Fire to tend to.

Porcupine sits outside her window and listens.

The medicine sometimes is no medicine.  Sometimes to sit and listen.  To feel the quiet and be uncomfortable with loneliness.  Medicine can make us sick to purge the old.

She was certain that the land was speaking through her.  The old systems were not of importance.  The land had a voice that not many people could listen to.  Only those who honored the land.

Write.  Write fiercely, furiously and feverishly.  Write as a revolution.  Write for survival.

Dimming streetlight.  Sounds outside are loud.

Her story is the story of the porcupine outside the window listening.

Poem: We Grew Up in Coffee Shops

We grew up in coffee shops,
Cheap coffee,

Breathing smoky air,
Grunge era,
The broken tile on the floor,
Follow it,
Trace it,
Leather jacket,

We can trace the coffee cup with our fingers,

Noir Leather,
Sure we went in the store,
At age 12,
The leather was cool,
So were the whips,
The workers at the store,
Laughed at us youth,
Rebellious in our jean jackets,
Pennies in the pockets,

Wanted to paint our nails a sparkly pink,
Dye our hair purple,
Rebellious youth!

From our homes,
Rotary phone,
Tired workers,
Crack open that 40,
Toss the cap in the trash,

Rebellious youth,
Maybe our feet can hit the bricks,
Uneven bricks,
Meet and congeal with,
And coalesce with,
Railroad tracks,
One direction,
Wheels turning,
Furious motion,
We put down pennies,
Race to catch the trains,
Our hands grip the fence,
To watch the train,
Train engineers,

And we start walking back,
To get a cuppa,
Warm our hands,

We grew up in coffee shops,
Drag queens,
Pride flags,
Smoky air,
We loved Divine,
And cross dressing,

There was a great love,
In growing up in coffee shops.