Individual Indian tribes are the sole arbiter of who is and is not a member. But members who are disenrolled from tribes can lose their access to federal benefits, as well, including housing, education, health care and welfare.
Nationwide, thousands of Indians have been kicked out of tribes in recent years. Most of these disenrollments have happened in the years since the advent of tribal casino gaming. Many tribes say their numbers swelled as non-members sought entry into the tribe, and they are dealing with backlogs of illegitimate tribal applicants.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of those who are disenrolled are still Indians–and often hold disenrollement letters that admit this–and are therefore theoretically eligible for federal services for Indians. But the federal government has traditionally run services through tribes. When members are kicked out, accessing services is difficult–and state and local governments are often left holding the bag.
Take the May 8 letter Riverside-San Bernardino Indian Health Inc. sent to a disenrolled member of the Pechanga Tribe. “Due to your disenrollment you are no longer eligible for Contract Care,” the letter states. Disenrolled Indians can still get health-care services at the five federally funded clinics the organization operates, but at the “Direct Care” level. This means higher costs, a lower level of services and no doctor choice.
Or take the letter Elinor Treppa got in 2003 from the Northern Circle Indian Housing Authority after she was disenrolled from the Guidiville Rancheria tribe. The house where Treppa lived with her daughter and her now 90-year-old mother was scheduled to get a new roof and other repair work paid for with federal Housing and Urban Development funds. But then she was told she was “no longer eligible for housing rehabilitation services” because she was no longer considered a tribal member.
Northern Circle’s executive director Darlene Tooley, who signed the letter, said her hands are tied when she deals with disenrolled Indians. While her organization is almost entirely funded by the federal government, the money they get is earmarked for particular tribes.
“There is no funding stream for non-federally recognized Indians,” Tooley said.
Indians are eligible for numerous federally funded services, delivered across a patchwork of agencies. For instance, the Bureau of Indian Affairs offers housing help, vocational training and low-cost loans–but these services are often administered through tribes or even limited to enrolled members. Federal Indian Health Services has a $3.1 billion budget to deliver health care via clinics across 35 states. But much of this money runs through tribes. Only 1.9 million of the nations 3.3 million Indians are served by these clinics, according to the agencies Web site.
Tribes aren’t just to main way federal services distributed to Indians. Because they are considered sovereign governments, they have powers they can use to help individual Indians–or not.
In 2002, Kathy Lewis was profiled in Time magazine over her family’s efforts to enroll in the Table Mountain Rancheria. She said she is directly descended from a former chief of the tribe, and her father is an enrolled member.
But she and her siblings are not. This doesn’t just mean they don’t get a share of the tribes’ millions in annual gaming revenues. It also means the tribe to won’t help her get custody of her brother’s two children and three stepchildren, who are stuck in the foster-care system while he’s in prison. They could do so easily and with no further obligation to any of them, she says, because they are direct descendants of a member. All the tribe has to do is ask for jurisdiction, she said. She characterized the tribal council’s indifference as payback for her years of activism trying to get in.
“The county is incurring all the cost [of foster care], and the tribe probably has more money than the county,” Lewis said.
In one way, people disenrolled have it easier than their counterparts in other states. California tribes were split up and moved under the Spanish mission system, later subjected to a state policy of genocide in which whites could be paid by the state for Indian scalps in the late 1800s, and finally many lost their federal status in the 1950s. In recognition of these multiple hardships, California Indians who can prove their lineage back to the original tribal rolls are often given an easier time getting benefits than non-affiliated Indians in other states.
“According to the law, if you are a California Indian and you can trace your ancestry back to one of rolls–and almost everybody can–you’re eligible” for services, said Dale Risling, Pacific regional director for the BIA.
Though “easier” is a relative term, said Lois Lockart, a disenrolled former member of the Pinoleville Rancheria. Lockart’s “Auntie Till” was Tillie Hardwick, the lead plaintiff in the federal court case that forced the federal government to re-recognize the Pinolville and 16 other tribes in 1983. Lockart said she and other disenrolled members of her family have still been getting medical care through IHS, but only because she has extremely extensive documentation of who she is.
“I have to know my lineal heritage clear back to when Columbus discovered us,” Lockart said.
Disenrollment activists say one of the most notable cases is that of Lawrence Madariaga. The 90 year-old former Pechanga tribal councilman helped found the tribes BIA-funded health clinic. But the 90-year-old, who lives across the street from the tribe’s casino, is no longer eligible to use the clinic he founded.
No one really knows the size of the problem or it’s financial impact, said Steve Haze, a Fresno-area Democratic politician who got the party’s Native American Caucus to pass a resolution condemning tribal disenrollments last month. As sovereign entities, he noted, there is no Freedom of Information Act that can be used against tribes.
“It’s very difficult to get statistics if you can’t get your hands on the information,” Haze said.
In the past few years, a few attorneys has been working to find “chinks in the law,” as attorney Jon Velie put it. The Oklahoma-based Velie represents the black “freedmen” who were disenrolled last year by the 270,000-member Cherokee nation. He’s also done work in California; he’s representing disenrolled Pechangas who are suing individual tribal leaders who led efforts to oust them.
While he said he will continue in the courts, Velie said he would like to see Congress take action.
“This isn’t just a civil rights issue. It’s a property rights issue,” Velie said. “This should have traction on both sides of the aisle.”