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Disenrollment activists taking their case to the UN

The United Nation’s Human Rights Council (HRC) has begun a year-long review of the United States’ human rights record, with particular attention to be paid to the nation’s treatment of its indigenous American Indian population.

Some American Indian activists are using the occasion to make a case that the country is falling short — by failing to protect Indians from their own tribal governments.

That will be the focus of a meeting in Sacramento on April 17 organized by the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO, pronounced “arrow”). The group will hold a second session in Temecula on April 24.

The goal is to gather testimony and evidence about actions taken by tribal government against Indians, both members of tribes and people have been told they are no longer tribal members. This testimony will then be turned over not only to the HRC but the federal Departments of State, Justice, and the Interior, said AIRRO president John Gomez, Jr.
“The UN is going to look at the United States record of enforcing and protecting the basic rights of people within its borders, especially indigenous people,” Gomez said. “I think this will be the first time it will be shown not only to the State Department but to the UN that there really is a problem in Indian Country.”

Gomez himself is a former member of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians who was disenrolled — that is, told his ancestry did not make him a legitimate member of the tribe — in 2004. He said that he is a legitimate Pechanga member, but that he and about 200 others were kicked out that year in a power struggle over the millions of dollars coming in from the tribe’s 3,000-slot-machine casino in Temecula. The tribe has repeatedly sought to refute Gomez’s claims over the half dozen years since. He now works full time for another tribe, the Ramona of Cahuilla Indians, but is not a member, in addition to running AIRRO.

Disenrollment and other Indian vs. Indian issues are hardly the main focus on the HRC review. It is part of the standard Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, under which the human rights records of each of the 192 U.N. member states is examined every four years. The process will include “listening sessions” in numerous spots around the country, though only two focused specifically on the rights of indigenous people. The first of these happened last week in Albuquerque, N.M.

At the end of this process, the 47-member HRC will deliver a set of suggestions to the United States on how it can improve its own internal human rights. The report will also likely focus on several other issues, such as prisons and the death penalty.

The United States’ sorry past record of respecting the rights of American Indians is well-known. What is less well-known is the federal government’s more recent history with tribes. The U.S. was one of only four nations to vote against adopting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Two of those countries have since endorsed it — Canada and Australia —leaving only the US and New Zealand as currently opposing it. The U.S. also was kicked off the HRC during the later years of the Bush Administration, which then declared a boycott of the group, but has rejoined during the Obama Administration.

There is a question as to what the federal government actually can do.

Indian tribes operate as sovereign governments within U.S. borders. According to federal law, each tribe determines their own membership. There is no requirement that these determinations be based on genealogy or genetic testing, though most tribes cite these factors when disenrolling members. One of the few means the federal government has of punishing or rewarding tribes is removing their federal recognition, something that has not typically been done over disenrollment.

In December, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal by 16 former members of the Pechanga tribe, who had argued that the disenrollments violated the Indian Civil Rights Act. The 9th Circuit agreed with a lower court, saying the Act only gave them jurisdiction if there had been criminal violations, not in civil disputes.

Gomez said that he is trying to draw attention to the issue, which has grown in importance as tribal gaming has become more prominent in the state. At least 2,000 members were disenrolled from California tribes between 2000 and 2006.

“We’ve been looking at what they can or cannot do,” Gomez said. “We’re hoping at least they’ll hold some type of discussion or hearing on the matter.”

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