Washburn on Membership Disputes: Should US Trample on Sovereignty?

Gale Courey Toensing

A recent Associated Press article called “Disenrollment leaves Natives 'culturally homeless'” talks about the "disenrollment epidemic" that has been sweeping through Indian country for the past several years.

The disenrollment issue came under the spotlight in 2006 with the Cherokee Nation’s disenrollment of the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen, freed African slaves who became citizens of the Cherokee Nation in accordance with a treaty with the U.S. government after the Civil War ended. The case is still being played out in the courts. But since then more and more tribes have become embroiled in membership disputes, which often go hand in hand with leadership disputes. Currently, as AP points out, there are disenrollment conflicts at the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and the Nooksack Indian Tribe, to name a few.

RELATED: Nooksack’s Michelle Roberts Submits Open Letter to Jewell & Washburn

Although a 1978 Supreme Court decision says that tribal governments have sole authority to determine membership, both tribal members targeted for disenrollment and the tribal governments that attempt to disenroll them often turn to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for help in resolving the conflict. The Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn talked to Indian Country Today Media Network about how difficult these cases are.

RELATED: Nooksack Indian Tribe in Disenrollment Fight

Emphasizing that he was speaking in general terms and not about any specific tribe, Washburn told ICTMN that issues surrounding tribal leadership and membership disputes “are the hardest questions that I face,” because they raise core questions about the fundamental meaning and practice of sovereignty.

“I think the question is, should tribes always be sovereign and self-governing? Or are there times when the United States should trample over their sovereignty and self-governance for some other purpose – the principle of justice or equity or something like that?” Washburn said.


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andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
The paternal relationship between tribes and the Federal government is permanent and on-going. Anytime your basic subsistence is tied to a funding source not your own. Your subservient. The Treaty's are very clear as to what the rights and responsibilities are of each party. Almost like being held economic hostage. I liken it to a woman who marries a rich man. Each knows what is required of the other and operates within the confines and perimeters of the agreement. Lest it be broken. Andre Leonard,

John Iyawbay's picture
John Iyawbay
Submitted by John Iyawbay on
The problem is everyone just assumes that all of the Indian tribes in America are historic treaty groups and this is not true. Many tribes, like the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, are not historic treaty tribes; they are IRA created organizations that never existed before 1934. These groups were organized solely on the bases of residency within the boundaries of a reservation and being Indian, regardless of their tribe of origin or legal connection to the group prior to reorganization. Because of this error, 85% of the historic Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River Bands of Chippewa living outside of the reservation boundaries were always excluded from membership in the IRA created group. In an instance like this, were the Federal Government has a fiduciary trust obligation to the historic tribe and a contemporary group excludes those persons entitled to benefit equally, I would argue with the courts that "the DOI has the authority and responsibility to ensure that the Nation’s representatives, with whom it must conduct government-to-government relations, are the valid representatives of the Nation as a whole."

editors's picture
Submitted by editors on
Comment by Laura L Wass: Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn’s comments are entirely representing how, once again, the federal government continues to exercise its policy of Indian Extermination! To dare state “trample over their sovereignty and self-governance” in regards to the disenrollment issue shows either ignorance of Indian history, or a blatant attempt at shirking responsibility and accountability from his office. Let’s talk about trampling on Tribal sovereignty! Let’s talk about how the federal War Department shattered the tribes, attempted to use every means possible to destroy culture and traditions, removed Indians from their lands and all held sacred. Let’s talk about how the Secretary of Interior’s office built prison camp reservations and Rancherias as they stole Indian children to fill their boarding schools, sent in lawyers and BIA to write federal style Indian constitutions to fit their purpose. Yes, let’s talk about the congressional acts of relocation, termination, reorganization, the secret sterilization of our Indian men and women at the hands of IHS, yes let’s talk! Trample over tribal sovereignty? This is exactly what is happening again through the dismemberment of Indian Peoples from their tribal bodies!!! Tribal sovereignty belongs not just to a tribal government but to the whole of its tribal citizens. All Indian citizens have the inherent right to be protected, to not live in fear, to enjoy the same rights as each of their citizens. What we see going on today with those who are practicing this new paper genocide are tribal government dictatorships conducting business without full knowledge of Indian history and their sacred duty to build their Nations strong and thriving once again. Congress set up the horror we’re seeing today amongst the tribal citizens. They must take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their shameful acts, now! The Secretary’s office must lead the charge to stop the tragedies from continuing, clean up the mess and restore all Indian citizens to their inherent rightful place………..their tribes! We invite Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn and whomever else he may choose to meet with us and find resolution immediately before more Indian lives are destroyed! Laura L Wass American Indian Movement Central California

Flower's picture
Submitted by Flower on
I agree with Washburn. There should be a conflict resolution mechanism which I feel should be borne amongst Tribal Nations in our Nation-to-Nation relationships external to DOI involvement to resolve complex issues such as disenrollment. The strength of tribal sovereignty and Indian self-determination should not be placed at risk for compromise at any level for all Tribal Nations with the US Government. There would be no way to ever draw a line in the sand which all 566 Tribal Nations could agree and tribal sovereignty must be protected.