When Is it Right to Disenroll Indians?

Chase Iron Eyes

Our D/Lakota ancestors Vine Deloria, Jr., and Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman warned us of culture vultures. As Westerman sang:

And the anthros keep on digging our sacred ceremonial sites

As if there was nothing wrong, as if education gives them the right

The more they keep on digging the less they really see

Cause they got no respect for you or for me

They were talking about non-Indian anthropologists and archaeologists. But today the same may be said of auditors, lawyers, educators and other consultants who are preying on Indians by shilling for disenrollment work. And with some “professionals” counseling tribal officials to exhume ancestral Indian remains for things like DNA and other scientific testing in order to disenroll the ancestors’ living descendants, the culture vulture tag seems apropos.

This column reacts to a recent piece by James Mills titled, “Tribes Have Absolute Right to Determine Their Membership.” I had no idea who Mr. Mills was so I looked and asked around and saw Mr. Mills advertises himself as a “master parliamentarian,” former “hospital administrator” and “music producer,” and “one of Indian Country's leading experts in tribal enrollment policy.” What did this mean? More to the point, what are enrollment audits and what is enrollment software?

Even more to the point, when is it ever right to disenroll? What is more presumptuous than forcing your people to undergo an enrollment audit? I know of white people who ended up on Tribal enrollment rolls who I wouldn't disenroll if I could. They are part of community.

I suppose each tribe in a perfect world, should have the “absolute right” to disenroll their relatives as he states, and potentially hire people like him for that purpose. However, the United States can't even disenroll (revoke citizenship) their own naturally born citizens. The 14th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits it. So his analogy that "France can make recommendations" to the United States about citizenship as a matter of sovereignty falls flat. United States sovereignty says that your an American citizen as a matter of birthright, and no politicians in Washington, DC can change that.

But enough about other sovereigns. "Real Indians" certainly wouldn’t hire a non-Indian consultant to tell them who's a relative and who's not. As we at Last Real Indians have made clear: “Real Indians Don’t Disenroll.”

Mr. Mills is probably seeking the same thing I seek in terms of Nation Building and he's probably very good at what he does but someone has to draw the line at supporting unjust and unchecked disenrollment, which is not sovereignty or self-determination—quite the contrary. A few of Mr. Mills’ justifications for disenrollment and his involvement in that increasingly widespread colonial mode of tribal self-termination, require rebuttal.

Mr. Mills says “the sins of the past in enrollment are many,” citing improperly trained staff and “sloppily written” documents from the BIA. Those are not sins, at least of Indians. Those are the byproducts of centuries of United States laws and policies that were designed to extinguish us. Those sins lie with those attempting to conquer us still.

As such, the United States is obliged to atone for those sins by helping prevent further eradication of enrolled Indians. Mr. Mills self-righteously in my opinion says that “any notion that the federal government should get involved” in preventing disenrollment is “quite frankly, dangerous and irresponsible on the part of the person or persons recommending such involvement.” Have you ever been the Indian who was being disenrolled? Have you ever represented those being shut-out of their being, their belonging? He ignores the reality that until very recently, “the United States has, or had, been integrally involved in tribal disenrollment controversies for more than a century.

In fairness, a master parliamentarian may not understand the increasingly complicated federal Indian legal history. But simply, the United States created disenrollment, along with Indian rolls, "membership" criteria, and blood quantum, domestic dependent nationhood, implicit divestiture etc.; they're all conquistador concepts. Enrollment is foreign and not perfect but The United States absolutely must now get involved, as treaty signatories and as the self-imposed "trustee" for all Indians, to help prevent those particularly unforgivable sins from further plaguing Turtle Island.

We need recourse to justice. Original indigenous peoples of this continent who are now called "Indians" are being unjustly disenrolled. When is it ever right to disenroll? Even when one rapes or murders we banish and exclude them from Tribal Nations; we don't disenroll them; we don't take their identity from them. They may be exiled. But they are still tribal.

The United States already has its tentacles all over us dominating and pervading all aspects of Indian life, land title, economies, imposed dependence, etc., and I am not one to say that this is right; what I'm saying is we should not do the work of the colonizer in disenrolling our people. That is not Nation Building, that is Nation Destroying. I'm saying legitimate descendants of Indian ancestors need recourse within our Nations and outside of those doing the work of the colonizer and forcing disenrollment on them.

Returning to Mr. Mills' notion of sin, a sin is telling an Indian youth who has been raised believing he is Indian, that he is no longer tribal; that he no longer belongs. A sin is stealing the identity of any Indian for sake of per cap dollars, oil-gas leases or political longevity. A sin would be to aid or abet that identity theft under seeming claims, lies or half-truths about “clean[ing] up [tribal] records.” A sin is Tribes hiring culture vultures and letting them into a tribal community in the first place.

Mr. Mills states: “I hope no one is disenrolled because of greed or for any other misguided reason when updating their membership records.” Then maybe tell us what are the right reasons you hope people are disenrolled for. Maybe treason? Disenrollment seems like treason; if Indians act treasonously against their own Tribal Nation, destroying themselves from the inside. But the United States can't even revoke a natural born citizen of its country. You see, the auditors keep on digging, as if there’s nothing wrong, as if education gives them the right; the more they keep on disenrolling, the less they really see; cause they got no disrespect for you or me.

Chase Iron Eyes belongs to the Standing Rock Nation and is founder of Last Real Indians

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tmsyr11's picture
I believe most people would be shocked, some surprised, some interested in finding out that THOSE (small) indian groups (tribes) (1,200 or less) with established Casinos or gaming economies have been performing these acts since the early 1990's (following the 1988 Federal Gaming Acts). There is a history that such be explored on these indian groups considering influence to offset legitimate American Indian affairs and concerns for the rest of us.
tmsyr11's picture
Those indian groups (not Tribes or Nations) should explain based on their experiences "when it is right to disenroll". Only a group who fully participated, can really understand and state the pros an cons of carrying out the….official action of disenrollment (against the colllective wishes of majority of "enrolled" "registered" "recognized" tribal members).
hesutu's picture
Good article. Thank you - aho.