Disenrollment Is a Tool of the Colonizers
Our elders and spiritual leaders do not teach the practice of disenrollment. In fact, disenrollment is a wholly non-Indian construct. Indeed, when I recently asked Eric Bernando, a Grand Ronde descendant of his tribe’s Treaty Chief and fluent Chinook Wawa speaker, if there was a Chinook Wawa word or notion that means “disenrollment,” he unequivocally answered, “no.”
The United States originally taught disenrollment to American indigenous peoples as a mode of Indian assimilation. Indian “rolls” and removal from those rolls were introduced to indigenous peoples in the 1800s, chiefly to dispossess tribal communities of land through allotment. By the 1930s “disenrollment” was imparted to tribal governments under guise of Indian reorganization, via boilerplate tribal constitutions. And, like whiskey and smallpox blankets in times before, the federal government also introduced “membership” and “blood quantum” to American indigenous peoples.
Not even a century later, the colonizers’ plan to “kill the Indian and save the man” is working, with the Indian killing the Indian, at an epidemic rate. Mass disenrollment has taken hold, with over 60 tribes, in at least seventeen states, having collectively terminated over 8,000 Indians—and counting. Self-termination is now upon us.
In a forthcoming Arizona Law Review article, tentatively titled, “Curing the Tribal Disenrollment Epidemic: In Search of a Remedy,” Ryan Dreveskracht and I explain that over the last two centuries of American Indian policy:
· Federal ideas of membership and exclusion have supplanted inherent indigenous values of kinship and inclusion, by design for colonialist purposes.
· Tribal enrollment, and in turn disenrollment, have been designed and perpetuated by the United States to further the dispossession of Indian lands and resources—to advance Manifest Destiny.
· Removing Indians from federal or tribal rolls has closely correlated to the pro rata or per capita distribution of tribal communally held lands, monies and other assets, as a mode of Indian assimilation and tribal termination.
· Indian disenrollment—which must be distinguished from the sovereign power to set limits on citizenship—is not a matter of inherent tribal sovereignty; disenrollment is instead a federal plenary power that has been delegated to tribes.
Notwithstanding these truths, today disenrollment is being taught to Indian Country as if the practice belongs, and has always belonged, to American indigenous peoples. It is imperative that we put a stop to the miseducation, and set the record straight.
In a recent column, my esteemed colleague Professor Duane Champagne observed: “Often Indian disenrollment debates focus on specific membership rules particular to a given tribe, such as their traditional kinship system . . . .” However, colonial membership regimes, and traditional tribal kinship systems, should not be conflated, even innocently.
“Membership” and corresponding “rules” are colonial constructs—of exclusion. Traditional kinship systems are, instead, indigenous norms—of inclusion. Disenrollment, again, is a federal power that has been delegated to tribal governments. Kinship qua citizenship, on the other hand, is an inherent power of tribal societies. These distinctions must be taught, and not lost, amidst the current disenrollment crisis.
Of more concern is the dearth of teachings about disenrollment from today’s Indian academic establishment. Laudably, Professors Champagne and David Wilkins have written for this network on the controversial topic, and thereby assumed the risk of criticism in this forum and through social media. But where is everybody else in tribal academia? A reader’s comment on a recent commentary by Professor Wilkins is apt:
“There are no easy answers but I believe academia deserves as much of the blame as anyone for not facing this reality and attacking it head on.”
I invite American Indian studies and tribal political science and legal scholars to refute this criticism. In the meantime, we are left to speculate that the academic elite are simply afraid to analyze disenrollment or better yet, to help find a cure to the epidemic. Maybe that is because conventional Indian intellectualism says that disenrollment is simply a matter of tribal self-rule, and thus above reproach. Or maybe that is because of the still taboo nature of the topic in national inter-tribal leadership discourse. Or maybe that is because in this poli-economic climate, research funding and other financial support are dependent upon the very Indian gaming revenues that catalyze disenrollment.
Yet until academics and other leading tribal minds begin to teach of disenrollment—whether in defense or attack of the modern practice—can we rightfully complain that the very difficult subject is “not well researched or understood by the press” and thus “not accurately or fully reported”?
Less benign is the growing cottage industry for teaching tribes and tribal enrollment bodies how to disenroll their kin. A “premier provider of culturally relevant education and information services for North American Indian tribes and organization,” teaches a curriculum on disenrollment. For a handsome fee, tribal leaders and staff learn about:
· “Disenrollment procedures”
· “Current Case Law” regarding “disenrollment”
· “Temporary disenrollment” (or so-called “provisional disenrollment”)
· “Benefits that can be offered to those who are disenrolled”
· “Removal from reservation”
· “What you’ll face after disenrolling a member”
· “How disenrollment affects the future of enrollment”
· “Dealing with bad publicity”
· “Dealing with per capita payments”
Equally troubling are, as Professor Wilkins observes, the growing number of “consultants, lawyers, and accountants who provide advice and counsel to tribal governing officials” to accomplish the genocide. One such consultant—a self-styled “enrollment auditor”—rebuts Professor Wilkins by defending “the business decisions” of tribal leaders to disenroll their own people and to engage outside professionals in that process, as doing “what is best for the future of their Indian Nations.” The auditor says: “bravo to them and bravo to the notion of tribal sovereignty.”
But are these “educators,” auditors, and other consultants—who are overwhelmingly non-Indian—also teaching tribal leaders about the staggering costs of disenrollment?
Are they, as Rob Roy Smith warns, cautioning tribes of the “risks of costly and embarrassing litigation, in addition to possible Congressional intervention?” Are they teaching tribes to understand, like Jared Miller has, how important it is to “consider that disenrollment can spook investors, and the negative financial impacts can be long term, widespread and devastating?” Are they teaching Indian disenrollment case studies, such as at Nooksack, where for the last two years, “the tribal council was too preoccupied with a controversial effort to disenroll hundreds of tribal members to properly consider funding [a] levee” that would protect the Nooksack Reservation from flooding—“where the internal strife of expelling tribal members brought all other government affairs to an extreme slowdown?” It appears not.
Above all else, are tribal elders and spiritual leaders teaching—or counter-teaching—that kinship, not disenrollment, is the traditional Indian way? Not coincidentally, a common denominator in mass tribal disenrollment controversies is the absence or marginalization of such traditional Indian leaders—and thus a void of The Teachings. Instead, colonialist teachings of Indian exclusion and assimilation are espoused, and believed, accomplishing disenrollment—and completing the modern circle of Indian self-termination.
Gabriel S. Galanda is the managing lawyer of Galanda Broadman, PLLC, an American Indian-owned law firm dedicated to advancing and defending Indian rights. Gabe descends from Nomlaki and Concow Peoples of Northern California and is a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
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