Disenrollment Clubs

Cedric Sunray

A few weeks ago, I read the following paragraph in an NPR article about the Cherokee Freedmen:

"This is not a club; you can't just claim to be Cherokee and show up and be included," says Cara Cowan Watts, a vocal member of the Cherokees' tribal council.

The Cherokee Nation is the largest of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. It boasts more than 300,000 members, and like many Indian nations, it fiercely defends its right to self-governance.

"This is absolutely something that we have to defend. And the Cherokee people overwhelmingly voted in the Constitution that we want to remain an Indian tribe made up of Indians," Watts says.

An Indian tribe made up of Indians? Given Cowan-Watts’ heritage, I found her recent remarks to be alternately funny, absurd and revisionist. Less amusing is the following statement:

“It appears that Marilyn Vann [one of the leaders of the Cherokee Freedmen] is a non-Indian insurgent terrorizing Cherokee nation families, children, elders and leadership. She and her allied terrorists attack the Cherokee people with weapons of mass disinformation and falsehoods. Marilyn is aligned with anti-Indian sovereignty groups and inside self-serving malcontents who seek to destroy the Cherokee Nation if the Cherokee Nation doesn’t give them what they want…her fellow Indian Freedmen allies want $50,000,000.00, allotment land, and apparently the right to operate gaming facilities…”

It would be easy to dismiss such an email as racist propaganda and nonsense, but the reality is it was forwarded widely on March 27, 2007 by Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) Council member Cowan-Watts as she was spearheading the Cherokee Freedmen removal petition. Five years later, her close friend and ally, CNO Supreme Court Judge Troy Wayne Poteete would have a hand in the removal of 2,800 CNO citizens from the tribal rolls. Cowan-Watts at a whopping 1/256 and Poteet at 1/32 Cherokee by blood via their CDIBs, had insured the largest disenrollment of any tribe in history.

But they were only following in the footsteps of a “few” others who have joined this elite sovereignty club. The Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, Boise Fort Band of Ojibwe, California Valley Miwok Tribe, Chippewa Cree (Rocky Boy Reservation), Cold Springs Rancheria, Comanche Nation, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Creek Nation of Oklahoma, Dry Creek Rancheria, Elem Indian Colony, Enterprise Rancheria, Grand Portage Band, Guidiville Rancheria, Isleta Pueblo, Jamul Indian Village, Las Vegas Paiutes, Laytonville Rancheria, Lummi, Maidu Berry Creek Rancheria, Mashpee Wampanoag, Mille Lacs Band, Mooretown Rancheria, Narragansett Tribe, Pala Band of Mission Indians, Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, Pinoleville Rancheria, Prairie Band Potawatomi, Puyallup Tribe, Redding Rancheria, Robinson Rancheria, Sac & Fox of Iowa, Saginaw Chippewa, San Pasqual Indian Band, Santa Rosa Rancheria, Sauk-Suiattle, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Shinnecock, Snoqualmie Tribe, Table Mountain Rancheria, Te-Moak Western Shoshone, Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, Viejas Band of Mission Indians, and a few others have all joined in the merriment under the guise of “sovereignty”; a word that many of these tribe’s officials couldn’t spell ten years ago, much less manipulate into its current genocidal form. Sovereignty demands ethical practice for it to hold any merit. We continue to stand on the sidelines when we define disenrollment as an internal issue. “Internal Issue” has become the coined phrase for the removal of many people who have been generationally involved in their tribal communities. These removals are not paper resolutions batted around in the council chambers of various tribes regarding which new firm to hire for the new “addition to the casino”. These decisions directly impact the social, cultural, and at times economic well-being of actual people. If the decision of Indian country is to place sovereignty over humanity, then we all stand condemned.

The case of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California is a prime example of the level of absurdity that this nouveau disenrollment scheme pushes as self-determination. When elder Lawrence Madriaga’s entire family was dropped, it sent out a reality check. How could a man who had lived on the reservation his entire life be removed? When the tribe hired professional genealogist/anthropologist Jim Johnson to assist them in refuting the family’s ties to the tribe, he determined the opposite. The Madriaga family was Luiseno. Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro fired back that they did not have to listen to the findings of a professional as they were a sovereign nation. He and his council also proceeded to remove all of the family’s children from the reservation school. Another tribe targeted a twelve year old and told his family that they had previously made a “miscalculation” in enrolling him shortly after his birth.

Sovereignty has become a smokescreen for illegitimate behavior, racism, nepotism, and narcissism. Even tribes who can look back to histories which included banishment know that nations in today’s world cannot simply send away their own or act as though they were never there.

I recognize that disenrollments are not the work of the community at large, but rather those who control the power structures within them. It seems our complacency as tribal members or citizens has allowed some of our tribes to sink to the level of the Lions, Kiwanis, or—more appropriately—Knights of Columbus, in terms of function and stature in the international community.

ICT contributor Steve Russell writes in his new book Sequoyah Rising:

"The elders who practice the old ceremonies and ignore the tribal government are not just a band of eccentric primitives. They are on the right track, the only track, to continued life as sovereign peoples rather than social clubs. The only way to win and keep the hearts and minds of our people is to create tribal structures that rein in the high-handedness and self-seeking behaviors that infest tribal governments today.”

(p. 84/85 Sequoyah Rising: Problems in Post-Colonial Tribal Governance Steve Russell Carolina Academic Press Durham, N.C. 2010)

James Murray wrote in the Tahlequah Daily Press back in 2008, “White Indians, like Cowan and Poteete, mistake race for culture, blood for community, and exclusion for strength.”

Tell the CNO I hear they have 2,800 new slots open and I am coming down this week to join the club. Now where is my $50,000,000.00?

Cedric Sunray is an enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians (at least for now) and of Scottish, Choctaw, and Cherokee ancestry. He can be reached at helphaskell@hotmail.com

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ayajinta's picture
How do you know whether someone is "Cherokee by Blood"? You don't. You know what their genealogy says, who they are acknowledged to be descended from and assumptions about that relative/ancestor's blood quorum. You can't know what someone's blood is - I know very little about Cherokee slavery, but if it was anything like American slavery, then likely there were a lot of illegitimate children born to black mothers who had Cherokee fathers. I frankly think this whole thing is a mix of racism (well illustrated by your assumption that people who have been part of the tribe for years are somehow only motivated by greed) and the desire to cover up the Cherokee Nation's history of owning black slaves and, in the eyes of some, mimicking white colonial culture. This exclusion and the displacement and poverty that follow it are so reminiscent of things done to indians by whites that I am shocked no one else is acknowledging this parallel. It seems like the moment we start to make some money, then some of us start thinking that then we need to go treat others as badly as we were treated. WTH. As a morally righteous and politically effective tribal chairman once said to me - "What do you achieve by imitating a bad paradigm?"
ayajinta's picture
Amen to that. And in other tribes, people of color often married into the tribe or were adopted. This whole "racial purity" thing some in the Cherokee leadership are engaging in really carries such disturbing irony, because it seems like such a white american idea. I must say though that putting blood quorums in an article without an acknowledgment of the problematic aspect of that was a little bothersome to me. This disenfranchisement would not have been any less wrong coming from people with different numbers. To put that out there without comment, like the author of the article did, is to play the same game these people are playing - the whole divisive trying to "out-indian" other indians thing. I'm sure that wasn't the intent, but it does have a bit of that impact. I am glad for the information though, I just think it could have used some framing.
ayajinta's picture
I too want to thank you for this article. There are not enough people out there taking a stand against this atrocity. Thank you for your courage in writing this. You are setting a great example for some of us who struggle to speak out about issues like this for fear of retaliation.
beaver's picture
Everyone wants to throw the Black Freedmen out they claim because of sovereignty. The truth is they're White Indians and naturally racist towards Blacks, that's why they want to throw them out.
anotherview's picture
The legal doctrine that a tribe determines its own membership in its own forum governs membership disputes. The U.S Supreme Court, the U.S. Congress, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs follow this doctrine. The non-members who become identified as such during a membership dispute will of course either ignore or attack this doctrine or otherwise disparage its application to their case. Typically, these non-members will also attack and smear the tribal leadership of a tribe for its removal of non-members. In addition, removed non-members will present a list of strawmen as the true motive for their removal: greed, power, money, control, politics, revenge, censorship, and so on. Further, the removed non-members generally use a tactic of accusing others in a tribe of ignoring the facts and information that would prove tribal membership; however, in the process, these same non-members always and invariably question, denigrate, or disregard the set of facts and the pile of information adverse to their claim of tribal membership. As a result, uninformed outsiders, and especially the news media workers, see a Ping-Pong effect in play, where one side says this and the other side says that. The disposition of the outsider may influence which side he believes or supports. Finally, please know, Dear Reader, that as a rule, these tribal membership disputes only settle longstanding membership issues.
rsgtj's picture
California's problem isn't Casinos or the Tribes. It is the selfish, greedy, backstabbing attorneys we have here. The pattern is: re-write the Tribe's constitution so it allows for disenrollment. Then find the crookedest most corrupt Indian on the rez and make him/her chairperson. Set up embezzling systems and steal have the casino profits. Use Indian money to attempt to legalize gaming in California. Have the Tribes hire lobbyist who write bogus legislation so you have to pay them to stop its passage in congress. Lots of money. Suspend anyone's per-capita if they dare speak out about corrupt attorneys and Tribal government. If that is not enough then start disenrolling. Oh yes, but before you do all that make sure you have corrupted every BIA official and promise them a good retirement (no work required) at the Thunder Valley Casino. Then and only then is disenrollment possible with or without sovereignty. Hint, if you have to ask your attorneys permission to squat you are not sovereign.
pechangami's picture
Pechanga determines its own membership CRITERIA. Pechanga is under seige by weasels who have been illegally enrolled. Anotherview is a fabulist who engages in b.s. to deceive readers about what is really happening at Pechanga. Anotherview is heavily invested in protecting the illegal enrollment status of anotherview's clan and will repeat the shuck and jive written on various sites. The 'enrollment committee' consists of illegally enrolled related humans. It is common knowledge that this committee's role is to enroll only those who agree to cooperate with this 'committee's criminal agendas.' How did this faction manage to engineer its iron grip on Pechanga? $$$$$$$$! Politicians, Congress, and most especially The Bureau of Indian Affairs follow only the 'doctrine of corruption.' They 'play for pay.' There are politicians who are 'to channel' agendas by criminals to parties along the 'chain.' People would be stunned by how high up the chain of command corruption is. Corruption is now institutionalized. Anotherview..should we present our individual documents proving our lineal lines? Start with DNA which would reveal frauds from the start. Documents would reveal which lines; clans are frauds illegally enrolled and responsible for many injustices;crimes. How about a public forum to provide a real forum for victims of crimes to speak openly about what really is happening in Indian Country? (Benie Campbell's parting gift before he left Congress under a cloud was ensure that 'Internal Matter' became law. Internal Matter is smoke and mirrors to hide criminal acts in Indian Country. (Political cover for 'gifts.' Another 'gift' to aid and abet injustice is promoted by 'Indian Law.' Indian Law is designed to abrogate the rights of Indians; not to protect the rights of Indians. It is interesting that Carole Goldberg promotes Indian Law and speaks against the enforcement of Public Law 280 which would protect the rights of Indians. Why would Goldberg object? 'Not good for business!' (paraphrase) Bureau of Indian Affairs is, for all intents and purposes, really working against the best interests of the victims of crimes perpetrated by lawless thugs like those posing as 'the government.' The history of Pechanga and how it has come to this point is convoluted....and...an on-going tragedy. I do agree that greed, power, money, control, politics, revenge, censorship, etc; have everything to do with the lawlessness that rules Pechanga today. The force and effect of corruption that holds Pechanga in an iron grip has many hidden hands and agendas. Much more......... Like · · 25 minutes ago near Temecula RECENT STORIESTOP STORIES Pechanga 10:08pm on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 It is anotherview who blathers untrue comments. It is anotherview who cannot meet criteria for legal enrollment and continues to attempt deflect attention away from his clan's illegal enrollment. There is no due process; no justice for victims of Pechanga. In fact, anotherview, it is you and the rest of your parasitic clan who are deceiving readers. Like · · Share · October 11 at 7:16pm near Temecula Pechanga Anotherview is a lying boil; parasite on the ass of Pechanga.... Like · · Share · October 11 at 3:31pm near Temecula
amber's picture
Thank you for this article. Placing sovereignty over humanity says it all. I know persons from a few of the tribes listed in this article that had been raised from birth within the community of the tribe, then one day, they, along with their children were suddenly disenrolled, not even able to see their doctors anymore. Tribal sovereignty does not mean much if it's at the expense of our own people.
davet's picture
Freedmen are not Cherokee by blood. They are only interested in being labeled as such in the hopes that they can be entitled to monetary rewards. Pure and simple. That being said, if there were benefits being doled out to black people pursuant to a treaty, then there would be a rush to become black. Same for whites.
whiteduck's picture
My tribe has joined those ranks! Along with the help of Indian Country Today, and NIGA, without whose silence the corruption would be exposed! We all know that the feds won't come in and arrest tribal leaders for anything, while us regular little indians have to follow (STATE) law! Is that true Spokane indians? The Office of Tribal Justice is a joke, we all know how the BIA is a joke, so now we know the feds are funny, too!