Disenrollment and community building
Disenrollment proceedings by tribal governments have gotten plenty of attention in recent years. The general public has gained the view that disenrollment is largely about competition over money in large gaming tribes. There are certainly instances among tribal communities where family conflicts, material gain, or other issues have led to expatriation of former tribal members. Indian communities and leaders should reconsider decisions to remove members from the tribal rolls. The ability to game is based on negotiations with state governments, and has become increasingly political. Gaming communities need to maintain good relations with the state governments and voters. Nevertheless, Indian communities should not bow to outside pressures when exercising a government power such as expatriation, but tribal governments need to have clear procedures, and hold the best interests of the tribal community in mind when removing people from tribal rolls. Disenrollments should only happen when they serve the interests of long term tribal community building, cultural continuity, and political autonomy.
The power to banish tribal members is an age old tradition. Most individuals are banished from a tribe for breaking significant social or religious rules. Like any government, many tribal communities had the power to execute tribal members if they engaged in egregious criminal acts or acted in ways that jeopardized the well being of the entire community. In some nations, the community did not execute anyone, and simply banished extreme law breakers. Among the Cheyenne and Lakota, murderers were not executed, but banished from the community, if the involved families could not agree to payment. People simply did not speak or give aid to the banished person, and they had to go to live in another tribal community. Among the Cheyenne, after some years, a banished person could return to the nation. The banished person gave a gift of tobacco to the aggrieved family, and if accepted, the murderer was allowed to return. The gift of tobacco was not a payment, necessarily, but a token of expression that the murderer wanted to return to the community and was willing to obey the rules and laws of the nation.
Contemporary tribal governments have the right to determine their own member rules, and have powers to banish tribal members. In a rapidly changing world, definitions and understandings of tribal membership have changed and are continually reconsidered. Tribal governments currently have limited judicial or police powers over major crimes on Indian reservations. Banishment, or disenrollment, is often the only significant power that tribal governments can exercise over chronically egregious behavior by some tribal members. In the village of Venetie Alaska, the Athabaskan people there are under state law and police, but the village is so isolated that police rarely come to the village. Consequently, the village council created a set of rules, rewards and punishments. If people steal fuel or electricity, or are chronically drunk, violent or engaged in drug selling or manufacture, the person may be asked to leave the village. The perpetrator will get a hearing before the village council, but if banished, the perpetrator is asked to leave the village for a length of time, 3 months or six months. The village member is not disenrolled, but at village expense is sent to another Alaskan village or town, and is allowed to return only if they agree to abide by village law and rules. The Venetie community believes this system works well in keeping peace and good behavior in the village, and banished individuals return to become good citizens. Similarly, two ladies at Santa Rosa Rancheria, members of the Tachi Yokut tribe, over many years gave the tribal leaders a hard time, often engaging in law suits against tribal government actions. The general council disenrolled the two ladies, and after legal actions in state courts, which did not have jurisdiction, the two ladies negotiated to return to plead their case before the general council. After much emotion, the two ladies were reenrolled in the tribe.
Banishment or disenrollment is a tool of government. Tribal communities are about cultural and political continuity. Gaming is a means to gain access to resources that will help renew and build tribal communities. If the pursuit of wealth becomes a greater concern than community continuity and renewal, then we have moved onto the path of assimilation. Even in cases where there are legal grounds for excluding tribal members, recovery of lost members may be a better long-term strategy. For example, in the well-publicized Pechanga disenrollments, some families signed documents denying tribal membership in favor of individual land allotments. In the 1890s, times were bad and the federal government was encouraging detribalization. If the goal of gaming and tribal government is renewing tribal communities, then tribal communities should put aside the actions of members who acted under economic or bureaucratic duress in the past. Efforts should be made to recover and reenroll former tribal members who are willing to support tribal renewal. In the process of U.S. citizenship for immigrants, the prospective citizen gives and oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. Returning tribal members should be people who are willing to pursue tribal goals and culture, and swear to uphold tribal law and order. Banishment may still have a role to play in tribal communities, but community continuity should be given primary attention, including the recovery of lost and committed tribal members.