For years, tribes in California and across the country have been kicking out members – sometimes over objections that those being “disenrolled” have legitimate claims to being part of the tribe. In most cases, the federal government can do nothing, and hasn’t tried.
That’s what makes the Sept. 22 federal district court ruling against the Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria so unusual. The appeals court ruling essentially told the tribe to let 22 members back in, or risk losing most federal benefits. The tribe has 60 days from the ruling to file an appeal.
But don’t expect the ruling to start a trend. The tribe had an unusual constitution which allows the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to withhold money if they believe the tribe is kicking people out without reason.
Most California tribes do not have this kind of provision in their governing documents. The Cahto Tribe was also able to vote and change their own constitution in 2006 to get rid of the provision — but the disenrolled members filed their appeal in 1999, so they were still subject to the old rules.
The ruling also helps illustrate the strange relationship that California tribes have had with the federal government in general and the BIA in particular. Some critics of tribal disenrollment have praised the BIA’s pursuit of this case — while maintaining that the agency has a checkered history in terms of protecting the rights of tribal people, and still needs major reform today.
“The court decision says they did not move legally,” said Dale Risling, Pacific region director of the BIA, which brought the suit. “So we have to consider the actions the tribe takes from this point on. If the Sloan-Heckler family are not including, it looks like we probably wouldn’t be able to recognize the actions of the Council.”
Risling didn’t lay out a specific dollar figure, but did say there is a lot at stake for the tribe: “They get some of their basic budget funding for the operation of the tribal government, they get housing grants, road services money, various federal program monies.”
This money would remain unspent with the BIA, Risling said. If the federal fiscal year came to an end without the tribe resolving the membership issues, he added, the money would permanently go back to the federal government.
According to the tribe’s website, they have a reservation of about 200 acres near the town of Laytonville, population 1,200, 170 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101. About 250 people live there, but there are only about 50 voting members in that group.
The ruling comes 16 years, almost to the day, when 22 members of the family, many of them direct descendants of a prominent deceased chief, were disenrolled from the tribe. For years, Gene and Alice Sloan have led the group as they sought reinstatement, and become a noted leader in the larger movement of disenrolled former tribal members. The case dragged out for years, partially because it had to go through a long standard internal review at the BIA.
The tribe does have another source of income — but the Red Fox Casino is known as the smallest tribal casino in the state. It’s an alcohol-free facility. It lists just 93 slot machines and a few gaming tables, but according to Gene Sloan, there’s only about 30 to 40 operating at any given time.
Like many tribal disputes, this one starts with the casino. Sloan served on the tribal council for several years in the 1970s, he said, and spent one year as chairman. In 1995, responding to complaints from tribal members that they were getting little or no income from the casino, he said he and others started looking into the operation and found accounting issues suggesting someone may have been skimming money.
The situation quickly escalated, and the FBI and Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department came onto the reservation to keep the peace. The Sloan-Hecklers were able to get their critical appeal in 1999, but then the case disappeared into a long process through the Indian Board of Internal Appeals within the BIA, which had to rule on jurisdictional and process rules before the agency acted. Last December, the Sloan-Hecklers’ longtime attorney, Tim Vollman, died in a bicycle accident before being able to see the case through.
Laura Waas, central California director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), said that the power to do good today came from actions decades ago designed to rid the federal government of giving benefits to American Indians in California. The Cahto Tribe’s unusual constitution comes out of what is known as the termination era.
From the 1940s through early 1960s, the federal government sought to assimilate many American Indians into the larger culture. A big part of this was taking away federal recognition of many tribes. California, with numerous small tribes, was particularly affected. The effort peaked with the Termination Act passed by Congress in 1953.
Waas said that act had a goal, and many American Indians believe that is the same goal the federal government has today: “To get rid of Congressional trust responsibilities to Indians.”
Instead, she said, she’d like Congress to pass legislation pushing tribes to change their relationship with the federal government – specifically, to put in a standardized set of rules to protect people who are legitimate members of tribes.
When the Cahto tribe got their federal recognition back in 1967, they ratified a tribal constitution designed to maintain access to federal benefits, Risling said. Within the document was a very simple formula for determining who is a tribal member: those living on the Laytonville Rancheria as of October 31, 1944, and all of their direct descendants who can show they are at least one-quarter American Indian.
Therefore, the given reason for disenrolling the Sloan-Heckler members — that they have shown up on the membership rolls of other tribes — was irrelevant. The BIA argued, and the court agreed, that the Sloan-Heckler members met the requirements.
Despite the win in court – and those who have hailed the decision – Risling confirmed that the BIA was a reluctant participant in the case.
“As far as we’re concerned, we would rather not be involved in enrollment issues,” Risling said. “But if an issue comes up, we have to comply with their laws.”
In most cases, the BIA does not have this authority. It does apply to a few other California tribes, though Risling said he was not sure of how many.
One tribe in a similar situation is the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomos. But the BIA upheld the disenrollment of 45 people there last year. The tribe also owns a 600-slot-machine casino, giving them a greater degree of financial independence.
The best-known recent case of the federal government getting involved in tribal membership comes from the widely-covered dispute between the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Cherokee Freedmen, descendants of former slaves owned by tribal members. The tribe’s effort to expel these 2,800 people – about one percent of the total membership – has been going on for a quarter century.
It also led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to freeze $33 million that would have gone to the tribe – something allowed under the treaty the tribe signed with the federal government way back in 1866. The case is ongoing.
Despite the case being “put on pause” inside the BIA for so many years, Gene Sloan said he is quite happy—and that he hopes it leads to change in federal policy.
“We wanted to set a precedent for other tribal people that were disenrolled,” Sloan said.
of press time, neither the Cahto Tribe nor their attorney had replied to phone calls seeking comment.