The Fight Over Who’s a “Real Indian”

After decades of tribes aggressively kicking members out, the disenrolled are kicking back.

Eddie Crandell (center) and two other men sit at a conference table with two women standing behind them. Crandell holds open an official document.
Eddie Crandell (center) and the rest of the Robinson Rancheria tribal council show off the resolution reinstating disenrolled members in 2017. Courtesy of Eddie Crandell

It was an early morning in May 2012 when Eddie Crandell got the call that his ex-wife’s parents were getting evicted from their home on the Robinson Rancheria, where they had lived for 25 years as members of the Pomo Indian tribe on the federal reservation in Northern California.

When he reached the scene, family members, who had not been prepared to move, were already scurrying through the house, packing their belongings into boxes and loading them into vehicles under the watchful eye of four tribal police officers.

Crandell’s 5-year-old son didn’t understand. “Why are you kicking out my grandparents,” he asked an officer, who didn’t respond. But Crandell knew his extended family was being targeted for disenrollment, the process by which Native Americans lose citizenship within the tribe. Just over the hill, six other families were being evicted in a large-scale action by the tribal council to remove all members not viewed as “real Indians.”

“It was very contentious,” Crandell said. “People worried that they would be targeted if they talked to [opponents of the tribal council]. Nobody wanted to approach anyone. Everyone was afraid.”

Thousands of Native Americans across the country have had their Indian citizenship terminated in disenrollment proceedings that have stripped them of their identity, acceptance in the tribe, and access to tribal resources like health care and educational grants. The once-rare practice has accelerated rapidly, experts said, but some ex-members and their advocates are pushing back, and there have been signs in recent years that the tide has turned against tribal disenrollment. Crandell, for example, has successfully restored membership to about 60 people, and disenrollees throughout Indian Country have also won a series of significant victories.

Since the earliest recorded instances of tribal disenrollment in the late 19th century, researchers believe nearly 80 tribes across 20 states have engaged in the practice that has affected up to 10,000 people, said David Wilkins, who co-wrote the book Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights. Although disenrollment is a relatively modern phenomenon among the 567 federally recognized tribes, its causes—greed and government corruption—are familiar.

The success of the gambling industry brought newfound prosperity to tribes as they looked for ways to alleviate poverty and improve living conditions on reservations. According to the most recent data from the National Indian Gaming Commission, gaming revenue increased more than 4 percent in 2016 to $31 billion, spurring economic development and supplementing federal funds with “per capita” payments to tribal members. It was the seventh-consecutive year of growth in gross gaming revenues for the tribal market as a whole. Critics say that wealth is exactly what caused disenrollment to reach epidemic levels. The logic is simple: Reducing the number of tribal members means more money for those who remain.

Such was the case for the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, whose membership of 1,800 people was cut in half after the opening of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in 2003, according to a This American Life program from 2013. In the segment, the remaining tribal members told reporter David Ferry that they saw increases in their payout checks after people were kicked out.

Disenrollment proceedings continued through 2016, when council Chairwoman Claudia Gonzales confirmed that she had sent about a dozen disenrollment letters to some of the tribe’s founding families. The dispute was never settled, but in October 2017, the tribe permitted open enrollment for the first time that many could remember. Many viewed the move as a hollow gesture from incumbent council members to drum up support just days before an election, and it was unclear whether previously disenrolled people could reapply.

Disenrollment is occurring even among tribes that do not have significant gaming wealth. Take, for example, California’s Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians, whose tribal council sought to consolidate power by targeting political opponents through disenrollment. “It was simply a political issue,” said Rick Cuevas, who was dismissed from the tribe, along with nearly 100 extended family members, after the council posthumously disenrolled his ancestor in 2006. “There were votes they couldn’t control. It’s not just about the money. It’s about power and control.”

Unlike Crandell, Cuevas’ relatives were allowed to remain on the reservation—in the house that his father built in 1957—albeit without access to tribal resources, such as health care, housing grants, and other benefits provided by the federal government, which were annulled in the disenrollment proceedings. “They’re basically living under an apartheid system,” he said.
“They can’t go to the park without a tribal member. They can’t drink out of the water fountains. They can’t go to the pool. That’s segregation.”

For many Native American communities, the ability to determine who is and who isn’t a member is the single greatest indicator of tribal sovereignty. Once a tribe has disenrolled its members, they are left with few legal options for reinstatement. They can appeal the disenrollment ruling, as Cuevas did, but tribal courts seldom overturn a council’s membership decision. And the U.S. government washed its hands of Indian affairs long ago.

“You are placed in a legal Wonderland,” said Wilkins, a professor of Native American policy and federal Indian law at the University of Minnesota. “You are in between worlds. Federal courts have basically closed the door to you, and tribal councils don’t want their own courts hearing disenrollment cases. You are left without any recourse whatsoever, which is the status of many of the disenrollees today.”

Traditionally, pre-Columbian tribes viewed belonging in terms of extended kinship groups, defined broadly to emphasize the need for interdependence among everyone in the tribe, Cherokee scholar Eva Marie Garroutte said. Kin groups administered justice, assembled leadership groups, organized local farming and other aspects of daily life. But as the United States expanded into Indian territory, it sought to impose more legalistic blood quantum requirements that measured the amount of “Indian blood” a person had to determine membership. For example, the Navajo require its members to possess a minimum of 25 percent Navajo blood. American politicians of the 19th century hoped that, over time, Native Americans would breed themselves out by intermarrying with non-natives, reducing their percentage of Indian blood and thereby releasing the government from its obligations to the tribes.

For nearly two centuries, tribal governments and federal legislation imposed those conflicting requirements and applied them haphazardly, making the Indian enrollment process extremely complicated. Some tribes were so distrustful of the government that they refused to be registered. Native Americans with mixed tribal heritage simply guessed at their percentage of Indian blood. Others were denied enrollment, or they died before it was complete. Without that documentation and definitive proof of Indian heritage, Native Americans became increasingly susceptible to disenrollment charges.

The United States essentially removed itself from the contentious issue in 1934 by passing the Indian Reorganization Act, which imposed constitutional governance on tribes with membership criteria that caused blood quantum laws to be widely accepted throughout Indian Country. Since then, the United States has largely deferred to tribal sovereignty in internal Indian disputes. In 1978, the Supreme Court’s Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez decision, written by Thurgood Marshall, said Native Americans do not have the right to use federal courts as a way to correct civil rights violations committed by individual tribes. Wilkins said the ruling disappointed many Native Americans, who wanted more protection against tribal governments, and sparked debate about the role of the federal government in Indian affairs.

“The U.S. has a moral trust obligation to ensure tribes persist and sustain,” said Gabe Galanda, a Native American attorney whose firm represents many disenrolled members. “That responsibility gets looked at in a narrow, legal way that sounds only monetary. For example, if the government allowed a tribal facility to fall into disrepair, now it’s liable for the financial repercussions. What’s been lost is the moral trust responsibility. The U.S. has a legal duty to prevent a tribe from annihilating itself.”

Without help from the judiciary, disenrolled members are turning to firms like Galanda’s for assistance. Still, there is little lawyers can do to change their clients’ fates.

“For those who have been disenrolled, I continue to advise them to act, however and whenever they can, as if they still belong,” Galanda said. “The rule of law is not what it once was in this country, but that cuts both ways. Why should any legal Indian who belongs cower to a corrupt tribal politician and adhere to the so-called legal result of a corrupt leader?”

Disenrollees may have lost in the courts, but they are winning the battle in the court of public opinion. In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, tribal leaders did not take stances on disenrollment because they did not want to speak ill of other tribes. There was also a misconception among members that their silence would prevent disenrollment from happening within their own tribe. But all that is changing thanks to an active network of social media groups, from Galanda’s Stop Disenrollment to Emilio Reyes’ Stop Tribal Genocide, that has helped kindle discussion among tribes about this formerly taboo topic.

“It was kept in the dark for so long, it spread like a cancer,” Galanda said. “It’s been brought into the light through mainstream media attention, legal advocacy, social media, and interpersonal communication, all of which has caused the ebb of the practice we’re witnessing now. In the process, the taboo associated with disenrollment has waned in favor of shame upon tribes that engage in the practice.”

Throughout Indian Country, there are encouraging signs that disenrollment is waning. There have been no new mass disenrollments since 2016, two years after the numbers peaked, and some tribes have reversed course and reinstated disenrolled members, Galanda said. In August 2016, a tribal appeals court in Oregon overturned a decision by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde to disenroll 66 members after a three-year battle. In March 2017, Robinson Rancheria became the first tribe to voluntarily reinstate 60 members after Crandell helped lead a successful recall election of corrupt officials. Now, as council chairman, he is working to pass legislation that will prevent unjustified disenrollment in the future.

“We were able to do it with the support of the membership,” Crandell said. “It was a well-orchestrated plan that we did together. We were all on the same page, and it was a really impactful time.”

Also in March 2017, the Elem Indian Colony in California reversed a motion filed by members living off the colony to disenroll all 132 people who lived on the reservation. In August, a federal judge ruled that the Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma, must reinstate 2,800 descendants of enslaved people owned by the tribe after the tribe stripped the descendants of their rights in a 2007 vote. (The descendants, who are well-connected with the Congressional Black Caucus, cited a specific treaty obligation, spurring the federal government—which has the power to intervene depending upon the tribe and situation—to step in.)

But the battle isn’t over for reinstated members. Although some tribes have had success with integrating the disenrolled in leadership positions, they still face discrimination within the tribe. At a Grand Ronde council meeting in February, a tribal elder said members who had been targeted for disenrollment should not be serving on the enrollment board, the tribal newspaper Smoke Signals reported. “We know they’re zero Grand Ronde, and now they’re on our enrollment committee,” elder Brenda Gray said. “To me, they’re still not tribal members. Courts made them, but they’re not.”

The lingering animosity is concerning for activists, but they remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I feel like we’ve turned a corner,” Wilkins said. “I’m very cautiously optimistic, but I’m not sure we’re out of the woods yet because the forces that led to disenrollment—increasing revenues, the blood quantum problems—they are still at play. We have to keep an eye on this. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”