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Will tribal disenrollments make it onto Obama’s radar?

American Indian activists have high hopes for the new Barack Obama administration — including the hope that the issue of tribal disenrollments could finally be on the president’s radar.

Many say they are closely watching who Obama will appoint to head the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Meanwhile, the inclusion of disenrollment and other issues of importance to tribes have made it into a list of recommendations for question to ask potential Interior appointees issued by the federal General Accountability Office (GAO).

Activists, particularly in California, have tried for years to get the BIA to take more action against tribes that disenroll-that is, kick out-members. In most cases, when people are disenrolled from tribes, there is some claim made against the genealogical status as legitimate tribal members. However, the rate of disenrollments has skyrocketed in recent years, at the same time that casino profits have been kicking in for a few tribes, particularly in California. Up to 2,000 people have been disenrolled from California tribes in the past few years.

“We would hope that considering his background as a civil rights attorney and professor, he would understand the situation and that those under him would take some direction from him,” said John Gomez, Jr., president of the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO).

Gomez founded the organization after he was one of 250 people disenrolled from the Pechanga tribe in 2004, costing him his health benefits about about $15,000 a month in payments from the tribe’s casino. The Pechanga tribal government has repeatedly said his and other disenrollments were legitimate.

He and others said that the Obama campaign has probably done more to reach out to American Indians than any other major party presidential nominee in history. Last year, Obama appointed Keith Harper, a well-known attorney and a member of the Cherokee Nation, to head his outreach to Native communities.

Last month, he named Harper and five other American Indians to his transition team. Harper was an plaintiff’s attorney on the Cobell vs. Kempthorne case. This was a massive class action case charging Interior and Dick Kempthorne, the agency’s director since 2006, with massive mismanagement of assets they held on behalf of American Indians.

While Harper is likely to get an appointment at Interior are elsewhere, he is not among the names being floated as director of the department. The two names that come up most often in connection to that job are Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, and Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Thompson has long been considered friendly to tribal issues; he has already been endorsed for the job by one California tribe, the Karuk.

Gover may be a somewhat more controversial figure. He’s an Indian himself, a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, as well as a former University of Arizona Law Professor. He also worked as an assistant secretary of the Interior from 1997 to 2000, during which time the agency was held in contempt of court for failing to produce documents as part of the 12 year old Cobell lawsuit. This were also allegations of Gover intervening on behalf of gaming tribes while at Interior.

“A lot people felt that he pushed through some things in connection to several gaming tribes that kind of snuck in under the table,” Corey said. “I think there would probably be some resistance to Kevin Gover.”

But Corey, a former member of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, said either would be better than the current regime at the Interior. One major point in Gover’s favor, she said, was that he has paid attention to disenrollment issues. Recently, while appearing on the Indian-themed news radio show “Native America Calling,” he said that tribes that kicked out members were “not acting like nations.” BIA officials have repeatedly claimed ignorance of the scale of disenrollments, Corey said.  

“I know that’s untrue, because practically everyone I know whose been disenrolled has been on the phone with them,” Corey said. “Most of those people have received absolutely no response.”

Corey said that either Gover or Thompson would likely pay more attention to the issue. There are also signs that the BIA may start pushing back against disenrollments. Earlier this month, the agency announced they would not accept a decision by one California tribe, the San Pasqual Indian Band, to eject 60 members. The San Pasqual has an unusual constitution, which gives the BIA power over tribal membership; most tribes are completely sovereign in that regard.  

Both Corey and Gomez also pointed to a November report from the GAO, “Confirmation of Political Appointees.” The report lists questions that should be asked of appointees to numerous executive branch jobs. It brings up several issues of interest in Indian country that Interior nominees should be knowledgeable about, including health care, sovereignty and economic development. It is also essentially the first time the GAO has brought up disenrollment, they said.

This is a regular document that the agency puts out, according to Robin Nazarro, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the agency. The current version is a more complete, well-thought out work put out whenever a new administration comes in.

“Given that we knew there had been disputes among tribal members and among tribal leaders, and that they were occurring more frequently, it was a priority, especially for someone who would be considered for Secretary of the Interior,” Nazarro said.

Laura Wass, San Jaoquin Valley director of the American Indian Movement, said that many in Indian Country are hopeful about the new administration. Except when casinos were involved, she said, the Bush Administration generally ignored Indian issues, repeatedly cutting budgets at Interior and the BIA. Meanwhile, life expectancy among reservation Indians has fallen to 47, teen suicide rates have risen to four times the national average, and many other indicators of well-being have deteriorated.

She joined Corey in saying that either Thompson or Gover would be a step up.

“We can’t say what they’ll do, but they’ll lend an ear to the issues,” Wass said. “At least we will not be dealing with those in ignorance. We’ll be dealing with those with firsthand knowledge.”


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