Wednesday, December 21, 2011

For Indian Tribes, Blood Shouldn’t Be Everything -

AMERICA’S first blood quantum law was passed in Virginia in 1705 in order to determine who had a high enough degree of Indian blood to be classified an Indian — and whose rights could be restricted as a result. You’d think, after all these years, we’d finally manage to kick the concept. But recently, casino-rich Indian tribes in California have been using it themselves to cast out members whose tribal bloodlines, they say, are not pure enough to share in the profits.

What is surprising is not that more than 2,500 tribal members have been disenfranchised for apparently base reasons. (It’s human — and American — nature to want to concentrate wealth in as few hands as possible.) What is surprising is the extent to which Indian communities have continued using a system of blood membership that was imposed upon us in a violation of our sovereignty.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government entered into treaties with Indian nations that reserved tracts of land for tribal ownership and use and guaranteed annuities in the form of money, goods or medical care. Understandably, tribes and the government needed a way to make sure this material ended up in the right hands. Blood quantum, and sometimes lineal descent, was a handy way of solving that problem. For instance, if one of your grandparents was included on the tribal rolls and you possessed a certain blood quantum — say, you were one-fourth Navajo — the government counted you as Navajo as well.

But it had another benefit, for the government at least, which believed that within a few generations intermarriage and intermixing would eliminate Indian communities, and the government would be off the hook. “As long as grass grows or water runs” — a phrase that was often used in treaties with American Indians — is a relatively permanent term for a contract. “As long as the blood flows” seemed measurably shorter.

Indians themselves knew how artificial this category of tribal membership was, and could use it to their own advantage. Before my tribe, the Ojibwe, established the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota in 1867, Chief Bagone-giizhig lobbied to exclude mixed-bloods from the rolls — not because they weren’t Indians but because, most likely, they formed a competing trader class. Bagone-giizhig swore they would rob White Earth blind. That he was right is a bit beside the point — he probably wanted to rob it blind himself.

Something similar happened after the passage and subsequent amendment of the Dawes Act of 1887, which established a process of allotment under which vast lands held in common were divided into smaller plots for individual Indians. Although excess land could be sold off, full-blood Indians were forbidden to sell. But whites wanted the land, and sent in a genetic investigator. In short order, the number of registered full-bloods at White Earth Reservation went from more than 5,000 to 126.

After Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, effectively ending the allotment of land, the provisions of blood quantum remained ingrained in Indian communities. They determined if you could vote or run for office, where you could live, if you’d receive annuities or assistance, and, today, if you get a cut of the casino profits.

Blood quantum has always been about “the stuff,” and it has always been about exclusion. I know full-blooded Indians who have lived their entire lives on reservations but can’t be enrolled because they have blood from many different tribes, and I know of non-Indians who have been enrolled by accident or stealth just because they’ll get something out of it.

Things were different once. All tribes had their own ways of figuring out who was a member — usually based on language, residence and culture. In the case of the Ojibwe, it was a matter of choosing a side. Especially when we were at war in the early 19th century, with the Dakota — our neighbors (many of whom were our blood relatives) — who you were was largely a matter of whom you killed. Personally, I think this is a more elegant way than many to figure out where you belong.

Who is and who isn’t an Indian is a complicated question, but there are many ways to answer it beyond genetics alone. Tribal enrollees could be required to possess some level of fluency in their native language or pass a basic civics test. On my reservation, no schoolchild is asked to read the treaties that shaped our community or required to know about the branches of tribal government or the role of courts and councils. Or tribal membership could be based, in part, on residency, on some period of naturalization inside the original treaty area (some tribes do consider this). Many nations require military service — tribes don’t have armies, but they could require a year of community service.

Other nations take these things into account, and in doing so they reinforce something we, with our fixation on blood, have forgotten: bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place.

Of course, just remaining alive and Indian for the last 150 years has been one of the hardest things imaginable. A respect for blood is a respect for the integrity of that survival, and lineage should remain a metric for tribal enrollment. But not the only one. Having survived this long and come this far, we must think harder about who we want to be in the future, and do something more than just measure out our teaspoons of blood.

David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian, is the author of the forthcoming “Rez Life.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

California Indian Tribes Eject Thousands of Members -

Published: December 12, 2011

COARSEGOLD, Calif. — The six-page, single-spaced letter that Nancy Dondero and about 50 of her relatives received last month was generously salted with legal citations and footnotes. But its meaning was brutally simple. “It is the decision by a majority of the Tribal Council,” the letter said, “that you are hereby disenrolled.”

And with that, Ms. Dondero’s official membership in the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, the cultural identity card she had carried all her life, summarily ended.

“That’s it,” Ms. Dondero, 58, said. “We’re tribeless.”

Ms. Dondero and her clan have joined thousands of Indians in California who have been kicked out of their tribes in recent years for the crime of not being of the proper bloodline.

For centuries, American Indian tribes have banished people as punishment for serious offenses. But only in recent years, experts say, have they begun routinely disenrolling Indians deemed inauthentic members of a group. And California, with dozens of tiny tribes that were decimated, scattered and then reconstituted, often out of ethnically mixed Indians, is the national hotbed of the trend.

Clan rivalries and political squabbles are often triggers for disenrollment, but critics say one factor above all has driven the trend: casino gambling. The state has more than 60 Indian casinos that took in nearly $7 billion last year, the most of any state, according to the Indian Gaming Commission.

For Indians who lose membership in a tribe, the financial impact can be huge. Some small tribes with casinos pay members monthly checks of $15,000 or more out of gambling profits. Many provide housing allowances and college scholarships. Children who are disenrolled can lose access to tribal schools.

The money and the immense power it has conferred on tribes that had endured grinding poverty for decades have enticed many tribal governments to consolidate control over their gambling enterprises by trimming membership rolls, critics and independent analysts say.

“Sometimes it is political vendettas or family feuds that have gotten out of hand,” said David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota who has studied disenrollment across the country. “But in California, it seems more often than not that gaming revenue is the precipitating factor.”

At least 2,500 Indians have been disenrolled by at least two dozen California tribes in the past decade, according to estimates by Indian advocates and academics. In almost all of those cases, tribal governments — exercising authority granted by the federal government — have determined that the ousted Indians did not have the proper ancestry. According to 2010 census figures, more than 362,000 Indians live in California.

Tribal governments universally deny that greed or power is motivating disenrollment, saying they are simply upholding membership rules established in their constitutions. To that end, they often say they are removing people with little connection to their tribe, who joined mainly for services, scholarships and monthly checks financed by casino profits.

“You have people who want to be tribal members, where no one knows who they are or where they came from,” said Reggie Lewis, chairman of the Chukchansi Tribal Council. “We are sworn to uphold the Constitution. And basically that’s what we try to do.”

The tribe has disenrolled more than 400 members in the past five years, and scores more are facing disenrollment hearings. Some members estimate that the tribe’s membership is now below 1,000.

Sometimes, disenrolled Indians are forced to leave tribal land — though in California, many Indians do not live on the small reservations, which are also known as rancherias.

The Chukchansi tribe, whose 2,000-slot-machine casino is nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite National Park, gives members a monthly stipend of under $300 per person. But it also pays for utilities, food bills and tuition — and Nikah Dondero, Nancy Dondero’s 32-year-old daughter, had to turn down a master’s degree program after she was disenrolled last month, because she lost her scholarship.

“It’s like I’m now a white girl with Okie kids,” said Ms. Dondero, a mother of two.

Beyond benefits, critics of disenrollment say it can be psychologically devastating. “It destroys their connection to their ancestors, their cultural heritage, their tradition,” said Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement, an opponent of disenrollment. “You have to go to iron gates and beg for entrance to your own land.”

The fights over enrollment have bred a cottage industry for ancestry research. Many tribal governments now retain lawyers or researchers who comb through government archives for evidence of an individual’s tribal authenticity. Companies that test Indian DNA have sprouted up around the country. The Chukchansi hired a former Bureau of Indian Affairs official with expertise in federal records to review the bloodline of every member.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Obama: Relations with tribes at turning point

SUZANNE GAMBOA | December 2, 2011 06:25 PM EST |

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama met for the third time with Native American tribal leaders on Friday, signing an executive order on tribal colleges and assuring them "you have a president that's got your back."

Obama has won plaudits among Native Americans by breaking through a logjam of inaction on tribal issues and for giving a voice to their issues with the annual gatherings in Washington. At Friday's conference, Obama announced he had signed an executive order establishing a White House initiative on American Indian and Alaska native education. The initiative will be overseen by an executive director appointed by the interior and education secretaries.

"You have an administration that understands the challenges that you face and most importantly you have a president that's got your back," Obama said, drawing cheers.

Obama reminded the leaders from the 565 federally recognized Native American tribes and representing Alaska natives that he had promised "a true government-to-government relationship" that recognizes "our sometimes painful" history and respects Native American heritage.

"I believe that one day we're going to be able to look back on these years and say that was the turning point ... the moment when we stopped repeating the mistakes of the past and started building a better future," Obama said.

Obama shared the stage briefly with Hartford and Mary Black Eagle, his Crow nation "parents" who "adopted" him during the 2008 campaign. He joked that his "parents" were grateful for not having to experience his "terrible 2s" or "terrible teens."

"They got me after I was a little more polished," Obama said.

Several leaders at the Tribal Nations Conference said Obama had kept his promises to them.

Bill John Baker, principal chief of the largest Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, said before the conference that American Indians have been both "well-served" and "hurt" by other administrations, but Obama has "backed up his words with actions that have made a positive impact on the lives of Native people."

"Obama has done better for tribes than the others, except for the Nixon administration," said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Republican senator from Colorado. President Richard Nixon advocated tribal self-determination as official U.S. policy.

With the accomplishments come greater expectations from a people whose rates of unemployment, violent crime, youth suicides, poverty and high school dropouts are significantly higher than in the rest of the country.

"It's two steps forward, one step backward," Campbell said. "No matter what we do, we have to find a way for Indians to be self-sufficient and not dependent on the federal government, except for those services required by treaty in the old days."

The administration still must implement laws Obama signed and fund lawsuit settlements. Also, tribes want to see the administration push legislation through Congress to get around a 2009 Supreme Court decision limiting the interior secretary's authority to accept land into federal trust on behalf of Indian tribes. The decision has held up economic development for tribes.

Salazar told the leaders Friday the court's decision was a "wrong decision" and needs to be fixed.

"We still need improvements in roads, bridges, schools, hospitals as well as addressing the digital, electrical and clean water disparities that hamper development and quality of life issues for our people," Baker said.

Still, Obama has assembled a respectable bragging list. He has:

_ Signed the Tribal Law and Order Act to improve law enforcement and public safety in tribal communities.

_ Renewed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and made it permanent.

_ Settled the class-action Cobell lawsuit over federal government mismanagement of royalties for oil, gas, timber and grazing leases and an American Indian farmers discrimination lawsuit.

_ Nominated Arvo Mikkanen to be a federal judge in Oklahoma. His nomination is awaiting Senate confirmation.

_ Launched a test crime-fighting program on four reservations that early results show has led to drops in violent crime in the first year.

"We should be proud of what we've done together, but of course that should sharpen our resolve to do even more because as long as Native Americans face unemployment and poverty rates that are far higher than the national average we are going to have more work to do," Obama said. He said his jobs bill would help.

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and an Alaska native, said native peoples' enthusiasm for Obama goes deeper.

Obama has embraced Native American tribal sovereignty preserved in the Constitution, court decisions and treaty agreements and made that the foundation for his administration's dealings with tribes, Pata said.

Like former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama appointed a Native American to his Intergovernmental Affairs staff. But he also appointed Kimberly Teehee, a member of the Cherokee Nation, as senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs.

In addition, Obama reminded executive department heads and agencies in a November 2009 memo of their obligation to regularly consult and collaborate with tribal officials on policies that impact Native Americans.

"I think we have made strides under the Obama administration the likes of which tribes have not seen for 30 years," said Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board. Bohlen is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan.

Several agencies have yet to draft policies, according to the National Congress of American Indians.