Re-Membering Through Adoption

David Wilkins

Historically, Native nations were bounded but inclusive socio-cultural communities that prided themselves on maintaining distinctive religious-cultural identities while also incorporating--whether through force or invitation--individuals from other indigenous, racial, and ethnic groups. Our peoples have always managed to creatively and successfully augment their numbers and incorporate new blood and ideas. Outsiders, be they Natives, Europeans, Africans, or others, were frequently welcomed into tribal communities through ceremonies or via tribal council action. This openness is evidence of an inherent cultural confidence and generosity that are hallmarks of Native nations—qualities that, for millennia, were bolstered, not threatened, by inclusion.

The strength of inclusion is one we need to recall and to draw upon today, as our Nations are infected by the colonizers’ world-view that rewards individual gain over survival of the people. These unhealthy values are evidenced in our modern sovereign communities that are either directly weakened or indirectly threatened by the scourge of disenrollment. We must take action through a positive, traditional way of building, healing, and protecting our members before this infection becomes so deep that the federal government steps in with its own sovereignty-suppressing cure. While it may sound simplistic, I believe we can and must use the traditional inclusive tool of adoption as an effective means to begin to address some of these citizenship troubles.         

The establishment of kinship bonds, whether genetic or chosen, is as critical today as back then. We know this as we fight to keep our children, our future, from being taken by the foster care system or adopted out of our communities. And yet, we also bear witness as nearly 70 Native nations engage in formal banishment, disenrollment, or both, of bona fide tribal citizens for economic or political reasons. It is hard to understand the rationale of such radical behavior which so strikingly veers away from the traditions of our ancestors who knew the importance of strengthening and growing their communities.           

Nearly 500 Native nations have been wise enough to avoid dismembering their communities. At the same time, their leaders have largely remained silent as some Native governments violate the civil and human rights of their people. Many of those standing by have calculated that if they call attention to this problem the U.S. government will intervene in a way that irrevocably damages sovereignty throughout Indian Country. Their concerns are justified. We all know the folly of publically condemning the sovereign actions of other Nations, as well as the disastrous results of taking our issues into the federal court system. In the end, this type of criticism and infighting only undermines the well-being or all our Nations.

Unfortunately, in the void created by this fearful silence across Indian Country, the problem only worsens and may ultimately make federal intervention inevitable. Native leaders are hoping this infection will heal itself, but without the right medicine, in time, it will spread and cause profound harm to us all by finally crippling sovereignty.

Because, without action to help forestall it, the U.S. Congress or, more realistically, the Supreme Court, will impose their radical treatments. As we all know too well, once those federal remedies are imposed, they will affect us all, not just those who are actively and cavalierly violating the civil liberties and human rights of their own citizens. It is time for those who have averted their eyes from the plight of the dismembered to show courage and act for the good of all Native nations.

I would suggest that the nearly 500 strong, confident Nations recognize their shared responsibility and take a simple, radical step that would prevent federal interference and provide relief to disenrollees, yet cost nothing except time and consideration. If each intact Nation would adopt 10 indigenous refugees of the disenrollment epidemic, those nation-less individuals who now feel their only avenues for help are within the federal or state legal system, would have Native support and recognition of their humanity as Native. Once Indian Country steps up to help our own, without casting blame against the Nations who used their authority to purge their tribal rolls, the calls for federal or state intervention would be greatly diminished. Through unified action we protect both the lives and liberties of those dismembered and the sovereign authority of all Nations.

As leadership and political winds are ever changing it is even possible that, with time, many disenrollees may find long-term remedies to their situations at home. There are examples where as soon as one set of tribal officials was voted out of office, disenrolled citizens were re-membered back into the community. In one case, a former disenrollee now serves as the Chairwoman of her Nation.

If the idea of adopting 10 seems overly ambitious, then at least take the step of adopting, at a minimum, one elder and one child. While this wouldn’t solve the problem of all those who have been outcast, it would at least give those most vulnerable some modicum of safety, stability, and dignity. Most importantly, they would retain their identities as indigenous persons.

I can already hear the hue and cry about how no one wants to take on someone else’s problems when many Nations are still struggling to get by. All the attorneys out there are fretting about liability and definitions of citizenship. Native academics are already racing to claim the term “adoptive sovereignty.” But I’m not calling for mass migrations or shared per caps. I’m simply talking about a powerful and preemptive acknowledgment of the kinship and humanity of all those who now find themselves tribe-less. We have capable elders and other leaders who can figure this out. It’s time to talk seriously about how to make something work, rather than simply dealing with the worsening fall-out caused by a number of tribal political figures.

There are many examples of Natives who were born to one indigenous community but who later joined a different one. In the 1840s, the Eastern Shoshone chief, Washakie, left Umatilla lands while an adolescent and was assimilated into the Eastern Shoshone, eventually becoming one of their most famous leaders.

Or Richard Throssel, an early 20th century photographer of Crow life, who was born in Washington, and of Canadian Cree, Scottish, and English ancestry. He and his family moved into Crow country in 1902 and were adopted by Tribal Council action in 1906. As new Crow adoptees, the Throssel family also received land allotments, a generous gesture on the part of the Crow Council, through a formal process that was approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior in 1908.

At least 160 tribal constitutions contain clauses recognizing adoption as one of the chief processes available to expand tribal rolls and nearly 200 others have the ability to incorporate such a clause into their organic charters. Those with more traditional types of governing structures and their governments may have adoption procedures as well. All sovereign Nations certainly have the authority to authorize such a process. Ironically, one of the Nations seeking to disenroll over three hundred of its citizens is currently led by an adoptee who, along with the Council, recently oversaw an amendment to their Tribe’s constitution that suspends future adoptions. Interestingly, it does not go so far as to nullify existing adoptees’ status.

Without going into a lot of detail on constitutions, while all have unique approaches, adoption provisions generally provide for the physical and economic incorporation of new members. I suggest that these be expanded to include a separate category of adoption of disenrollees from other Nations. Those willing to extend citizenship could do so initially in a limited way so that disenrollees were simply able to retain their basic social and health benefits that come to everyone through the BIA or other federal agencies. There would be no immediate guarantee of land, housing, or other substantial economic benefits provided by the tribal government unless the tribes were so inclined to provide those. No one would be forced to leave their families or relocate from their home country to retain their identities.

Since a majority of tribal constitutions were drafted under the auspices of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, many of them contain language that declares that the Tribal Council has the authority to enact ordinances for the “adoption of new members,” but that such procedures, like the Throssel family’s adoption into the Crow nation, are “subject to approval by the Secretary of the Interior.” While secretarial review is patently paternalistic, in this case it is an important provision as it reminds federal officials that they have a trust and, in many cases, a treaty obligation to provide a measure of protection to indigenous citizens, who also happen to be US citizens.

Respected organizations like the Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians could provide guidance for those Native nations with existing adoption procedures or those who might wish to create adoption ordinances to help facilitate outreach to disenrolled tribal refugees who are suffering profound psychic, economic, and political losses due to their now tribe-less status.

While we are no longer living in a time where we find it easy, or even wise, to fully embrace outsiders into our communities, it is imperative that we protect those who have been or may become dismembered. We can, at the very least, provide them with a sense of refuge and a basic set of rights that political refugees the world over receive when they seek asylum after having been forced out of their own territory. So many of our Nations are generous with those overseas. Surely we can turn our empathy and resources towards helping our own indigenous citizens.

Let us use our own medicine to heal, protect, and make our communities whole again by harkening back to our ancestors’ strategies to strengthen and augment our peoples. By re-membering those who have been disenrolled, Indian Country can finally begin to fight the worsening infection of dismemberment. It is not just the right thing to do for the human rights of these individuals. It is the right thing for all our Nations if we truly want to protect our sovereign abilities to make our own decisions.

Otherwise, as we’ve seen before, the disease will become unmanageable and the federal government may step in and impose its will upon us all.

David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His most recent books include The Hank Adams Reader (2011), The Legal Universe (with Vine Deloria, Jr.) (2011), and Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009).

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Cathy L. Cory's picture
The corrupt tribal council at Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians arbitrarily and capriciously disenrolled over 600 (of 1850) tribal members in 2006-2007 under the legal counsel leadership of law firm Monteau and Peebles. Picayune has now gone on to disenroll over a THOUSAND tribal members, reducing the tribe to fewer than 700. It is good to know that some Indian Country attorneys have recognized the error of their ways, and are now helping to bring light to the very dark practice of self-decimation of our Indian People. It is also good to know that dedicated, amazing people such as David Wilkins (author of this article) and Indian Country attorney Gabe Galanda, and others, truly have a heart for our Indian People and are the forefront of a tremendous movement to put and end to tribal disenrollment! Much love and respect to ALL who are working to restore our beloved Indian Country, and are willing to remain on the front line of the battlefield, no matter what the personal cost, because it is the right thing to do for our Indian People. One can only hope that tribal leadership of nations doing good things for their own nations will take a public stand in this battle before their own tribes suffer the consequences brought upon them by the actions of corrupt tribal governments disenrolling their own people--the loss of sovereignty and Indian identity of ALL Indian nations.
Cathy L. Cory
Nenaabi's picture
David E. Wilkins is an Indian Country treasure. Thank you for all that you have done on behalf of American Indian people everywhere. Disenrollments are a blight on all of our communities, and given their insidious nature, may serve as one of the colonizer's most effective tools against American Indians yet. Thanks to David E. Wilkins and others, critique and activism against this growing practice of disenrolling our indigenous brothers and sisters is beginning to spread throughout Indian Country. When talking to people "on the ground" I rarely hear a direct support or defense of these harmful practices. I think there is a growing voice from which we can extract optimism. One aspect of the disenrollment debate that has always concerned me is the lack of discussion, or even a mere mention, of the same brand of practices being used to deny the enrollment of legitimate families and individuals in the first place. I completely accept that every tribe does and should reserve the right to decide who is and isn't a member of the tribe, and I don't think this is a decision or a process that should be taken lightly. However, when did we become so willing to look the other way when our growth as peoples is being challenged in such a dangerous way? For example, when did it become so controversial to accept individuals who did not grow up in the tribe but have rich documentation/evidence substantiating their Native heritage claim, have made an earnest commitment to learning the ways and language of the tribe, and have made real and consistent efforts to get to know the people and contribute to the tribe? Why aren't we talking about welcoming these families home? Just think about the political force we would be if all Native people were recognized for being who they are.
Two Bears Growling's picture
I hear & read about such actions occurring in various tribal nations. When someone isn't being banished for criminal or immoral behaviors I see no other reason for allowing this action. It was a serious thing when someone was cast out of their tribal community in the times of the ancestors. ................................................................................................................................. What I see going on in many of these instances we are reading about here & there is based on GREED. Tribal politics can be vicious in certain tribal communities. That is wrong & comes about due to evil entering into someone's spirit & heart. Those individuals or families who are guilty of using politics to disenroll other tribal members are the very individuals who should be banished from their tribe forever. When evil enters the heart of someone it is to their own ruination & can spread like cancer. The Creator made us to serve Him, not Him to serve us................Bring pride of a good way to our Creator, people, clans & families instead of bringing shame from being arrogant, filled with ego, immorality & greed.
Two Bears Growling