A new Fresno Bee article concerning Chukchansi Gold’s disenrollment of hundreds of members has stated:
Tribal Chairman [of Chukchansi] says the disenrollments were necessary to correct past membership mistakes and had nothing to do with increasing the wealth of remaining tribal members.
“We had to find out if they were qualified Chukchansi,” he said. “It was a process and procedure that had to be followed.”
In my research on tribal disenrollments I’ve only dealt with court cases and news articles. This is not the first time that I recall hearing something from the other side – the disenrolling side – on any due process procedure given to those who are about to be disenrolled. However, some clarity was added when looking at a February 2005 newsletter published by Chukchansi (provided by the Fresno Bee):
The newsletter then went to discuss a larger issue concerning a recall election and various political rivalries within the tribe. An interesting sentence:
[The issue of disenrollments] is already tearing our tribe apart. Should we take the path of summarily disenrolling members from our Tribe, our Tribe could become the example of greed that gaming has engendered from coast to coast. This kind of press directly affects our Casino business, and contributes to the already significant backlash against Indian gaming in California and across the U.S…
Instead let’s practice the traditions of our people: respect, restraint and generosity in unraveling years of poor enrollment practices so that all people of Chukchansi blood are dealt with fairly.
Poor enrollment practices? Membership files being lost, stolen or destroyed? Is there more to the disenrollment issue than just the “evil council” perpetuating disenrollment after disenrollment for the sake of cronyism and greed?
In my own life I have seen just how easily it is for a tribal government (or one’s pretending to be) to misplace files. I was never aware of all the facts at the time so I can’t accuse anyone of deliberately destroying or losing files that could prove detrimental to their own positions or authority however the prevailing, unofficial opinion was that the documents were lost to either intentionally or negligently. So it doesn’t surprise me that such a large tribe (or at least not as large as it used to be) would have trouble holding onto their documents.
Somewhat related to this subject is the issue of finding geneaological records. The basis of many enrollment and distribution lists were census records taken in the 19th century – a time period where America could have cared less about Indian people and would much rather have them put to the sword or sent to boarding schools. As such, documenting one’s roots are next to impossible. In my family tree there are numerous references made to misspelled names, vague entries, or simply put, no records exist at all. Also, numerous members of my family were misidentified as Miwuks when they were really Paiutes.
Two questions emerge from this turmoil: 1) Did the census takers interview the Indians directly to get their information? or; 2) Did they ask other Indians. If the answer to the second question is yes then that raises all sorts of issues. How can you rely off second hand information for anything important like a census?
Compounding the problem further is that Indians in those days didn’t keep such records or have birth certificates. My great-grandmother was born in 1915; my mother and grandmother said she has one but the State of California can’t find it.
The sad truth is that researching one’s Indian ancestry is heavily dependent upon the shoddy research of 19th century census takers. One wonders if they were biased against Indians given the attitudes of Manifest Destiny prevalent in the American West which would aid their motivations to conduct as shallow research as possible, just enough to get by and move on to the next assignment. Or maybe they did try but no Indian would talk to the white man – they certainly had their reasons. Whatever the reason – tracing Indian lineage in the American West, particularly around Nevada and California is very difficult.
The trouble with documents when it comes to Indians is that despite all the research holes the government bases its conclusions on who is a legally recognized Indian and who isn’t on them. The Indians took care of each other; they took in people from other bands for the sake of survival and community. Despite the weakness of documentation the Indian communities made up for that weakness by enrolling together as one tribal government. It seems that the lack of paper evidence was disregarded in favor of communal ties and family relationships – the type of bond that only blood and friendship can bring. And like the newsletter points out, the more people on the roll list then the more money they got from the BIA.
So if the tribes needed their enrollment numbers up at one time then why do they need them reduced now? What factors would justify the tribes to get serious about determining who is a member of their tribe and who isn’t? What role does having a casino play in determining whether the membership lists needed to be reduced or expanded?
Whether the “evil council” stereotype holds up to scrutiny, I must conclude that given the wrongs committed against the Indians and the reaction to those wrongs – i.e. community building as a means of survival and friendship – the use of disenrollment as a function of protecting the tribal community is a gross farce. I find such excuses by this tribal council or any tribal council to that effect to be putting up the window dressing of due process when it smells of something different.
For more information on the tribal disenrollments in California, please see my article series on the subject:
The Legality of Tribal Disenrollments: Greed or Growing Pains? (Part 1)
The Legality of Tribal Disenrollments: Greed or Growing Pains? (Part 2)
The Legality of Tribal Disenrollments: Greed or Growing Pains? (Part 3)
The Legality of Tribal Disenrollments: Greed or Growing Pains? (Part 4)
Tribal Disenrollments: Greed or Growing Pains? (Conclusion)