In a terse, three-sentence press release, Elem Indian Colony’s executive committee (their elected tribal council) took the first step toward healing a decades-long rift between two factions of the small Northern California tribe of Pomo Indians.
On March 30, the executive leadership withdrew an action to disenroll some 61 members, and by extension their families and other descendents, from the approximately 200-member tribe. This would have resulted in all 130 residents of the 52-acre rancheria, located on the eastern edge of Clear Lake in Lake County, being ousted. The council cited a 2015 tribal ordinance as justification for the March 30, 2016, action. “The Executive Committee looks forward to working with all Elem members to heal the tragic wounds of decades of internal disputes by affirming and nurturing Elem’s traditional values of tribal unity and collaboration for the benefit of all members,” the statement said.
On April 30, 2016, 30 tribal members named in the disenrollment procedure filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court to challenge the action. The complaint in part stated that not only had the tribe violated the Indian Civil Rights Act, but that Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent Troy Burdick stated in writing that Elem had not submitted the 2015 ordinance that authorized disenrollment as a punishment for approval.
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At the same time, Elem tribal attorney Tony Cohen withdrew from representing the tribe. “Effective immediately, I will not be representing Elem in any context,” Cohen announced on his website. “Although I believe my work to restore the environment of the Rancheria would benefit all members of the tribe, I am not willing to suffer personal consequences for the misguided behavior of others, either the disenrollers, or the disenrollees.”
Cohen told ICMN that the tribe’s troubles began long before the council’s actions. “In 1995, nine people were shot within a week,” he says, as one of the worst examples of the long running dispute between the tribe’s two factions, who have been clashing over elections, revenues and other issues. Although nobody walked on, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department evacuated the faction whose members were seriously injured. Cohen notes that few of those 60 tribal members who belonged to the group that was targeted by the shootings ever returned to live on the reservation. Over the following two decades, the two factions continued to fight over their differences in how the tribe’s lands, revenues and future gaming opportunities should be managed.
However, Cohen believes that Elem’s problems may have a much older cause. He says that he learned from the Native people he works with that before Europeans arrived, Pomo people settled disputes in a far different manner—the talking circle. “The people would sit and discuss their disputes until a resolution was reached,” he says. “The best persons at mediating disputes became the leaders.” This method worked until the U.S. offered the Elem land. “They were handed a constitution and told to adopt it, and to elect their leaders,” Cohen says. “For the first time, there were winners and losers in a dispute.” The internal tribal conflicts that followed arose from that diversion from traditional governance, he says.
Another critical issue involves the rancheria’s continuing federal Superfund status. The reservation has been contaminated by tailings from a mercury mine that were used by the BIA as fill dirt under homes. The National Institutes of Health notes that one symptom of mercury poisoning is “mental disturbances such as mood swings and memory loss.” Cohen thinks that mercury poisoning may account, at least in part, for some tribal members’ violent tendencies. “We need to get the feds to do what’s right and obtain some better land for Elem,” he says.
Fortunately, the current elected leadership came to the realization that disenrollment was not the solution to Elem’s situation, Cohen says. “Tribal Chairman Augustin Garcia said his challenge was to get the elders to agree to the move” to end disenrollment procedures.
“The council is now going to work toward uniting the tribe, healing the invaders’ damage and support all tribal members,” he says. “People have done bad things, but punishment will not include disenrollment.” Cohen also returned to representing the tribe, as he promised to do if the tribe began the process of bringing the two factions together.
The elected tribal leadership will “begin the Secretarial Election process to amend Elem’s Constitution with input from all members, and by that process to permanently prohibit disenrollment,” the release says. Cohen says that the election will also seek to create a “two-state” nation, with two separate landbases governed in a federal-state manner.
However, the release has been met with skepticism by the reservation residents. Robert Geary, one of the Elem tribal members who are suing the tribe, said, “[The council’s release] is deceiving; they’re taking disenrollment off the table, but we’re still disenfranchised. We can’t vote or receive any services.”
Geary believes that the council wants his group to move off the reservation; however, he says, “This is where we’ve always been.”
Little Fawn Boland, attorney for the tribal members who filed the lawsuit, said, “We don’t consider it a victory, as the tribal members are still disenfranchised until 2032.” But she added that they are still willing to work toward a solution for the original suit and the three countersuits that followed.