“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” – Groucho Marx
In 2011, Cedric Sunray wrote a column here simply titled, “Disenrollment Clubs.” He opened with a quote about the Cherokee Freedmen, from Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilwoman Cara Cowan Watts: “This is not a club; you can’t just claim to be Cherokee and show up and be included.”
Sunray then deconstructed her position, observing “disenrollments are not the work of the community at large, but rather those who control the power structures within them.” He concluded that tribes who disenroll their kin “sink to the level of the Lions, Kiwanis, or . . . Knights of Columbus, in terms of function and stature in the international community.”
Indian legal scholar Robert Clinton, in a ruling he delivered as Acting Chief Justice of the Las Vegas Paiute Court of Appeals, likewise once compared disenrolling tribes to “social fraternities or sororities.”
Over the last five years, several high-profile disenrollment controversies have proven Sunray’s assessment right and borne out Judge Clinton’s comparison, making tribes look more like social clubs or fraternities rather than sovereign nations.
Every tribe should be troubled.
In August, the Grand Ronde Tribal Court of Appeals reversed the disenrollment of 66 direct lineal descendants of Tumulth, the Chief who signed the Treaty that formed the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Reservation, before the U.S. Army hanged him.
The Appeals Court applied the equitable doctrine of laches to rule that the Tribe was estopped from disenrolling the Treaty Chief’s descendants “after making an initial enrollment decision 27 years ago, continually enrolling [them] ever since, and after 27 years of consistently recognizing and stating that these people are [tribal] citizens.”
But, after that decision was handed down, Grand Ronde Chairman Reyn Leno openly threatened to have three appellate judges appear before the Tribal Council to “explain this opinion and answer questions.” His allies immediately threatened that the Tribal Council would ignore the ruling, and last week it was reported that the Appeals Court Judges’ “contracts are not being renewed by the tribal council after they ruled in favor of the descendants of Chief Tumulth.”
Leno then delayed the reinstatement of the Tumulth descendants until after a September 10, 2016 election in which his allies ran for three open Tribal Council seats. Although the Tumulth descendants were fully restored to Grand Ronde citizenship after the election, they were not allowed to vote on September 10. Leno’s public comments and disenfranchisement of as many as 66 voters was the behavior of a Kiwanis Club President, not the leader of a sovereign nation.
Also in August, the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin Tribal Court reversed the disenrollment of five members—including the grandson of the Tribe’s hereditary chief –
who were enrolled as far back as 1983, holding that: “Tribal governments and their administrative bodies must be bound to bring their causes of action in a timely manner; because an orderly and efficient operation of the tribal government requires it.”
Despite the ruling, the Tribal Council has yet to reinstate the five tribal members to the Tribe’s citizenship rolls.
The St. Croix Tribal Court remarked that tribal governments must behave in a lawful and orderly way: “To do otherwise will cause chaos, mistrust, rivalry, and political in-fighting.” Those are the petty attributes of college fraternities and sororities, not sovereign nations.
By failing to honor the Tribal Court’s ruling for over three months, and openly risking contempt of court, the St. Croix Tribal Council is acting like spoiled brat-“leaders” of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, not leaders of a sovereign nation.
At Nooksack, a six-person holdover Tribal Council has incinerated the entire tribal government in order to disenroll the so-called Nooksack 306. Since 2012, Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly—a man who has no Nooksack blood or ancestry but was adopted into the Tribe per its tradition of kw’ómot (adoption)—has openly admitted his fascist desire to “control [the] cultural identity of the Nooksack Tribe.”
Kelly and his fraternity brothers and sorority sisters could not exterminate the 306 through legal means over the last four years so, in 2016, they resorted to:
· Refusing to conduct the election that was constitutionally required to occur in March, for four Council seats they refuse to vacate;
· Firing the Tribal Court Chief Judge and appointing their Tribal Attorney to assume that post in order to deny the 306 and their allies access to the Tribal Courthouse;
· Suing the Northwest Intertribal Court System (NICS), which administers the Tribe’s Court of Appeals, and, through a second hand-picked Tribal Court Judge, enjoining NICS from dispensing justice to the 306;
· Creating a “Supreme Court,” appointing themselves to serve as its “Justices” with Kelly pretending to be “Chief Justice,” and in turn vacating twelve recent Appeals Court decisions in favor of the 306;
· Disbarring or banishing the 306’s attorneys and traditionally appointed speaker;
· Causing both the Tribal Court Clerk and Police Chief to be repeatedly held in contempt of court for refusing to follow Nooksack law;
· Rewriting tribal judicial, appellate, election and other codified laws, serially, to disadvantage the 306;
· Conducting a referendum “election” to disenroll the 306 based upon an online change.org “petition,” in which the 306 and adult tribal members not living in-county were not allowed to vote; and
· Further disenrolling the 306 through a telephonic “hearing” despite six stay or injunction orders issued by the Tribal Court or Court of Appeals.
During this unprecedented tribal self-destruction, the Nooksack Appeals Court declared that the Tribe has “cease[d] to operate under the rule of law . . . and as a result it forfeit[ed] . . . its legal authority to govern the Tribe,” and any “right to demand . . . that other sovereign governments deal with it government to government.”
On October 17, 2016, U.S. Interior Department Principal Deputy Secretary-Indian Affairs Lawrence Roberts advised the holdover Council at Nooksack that the United States presently “does not recognize actions taken by the Tribe.” Despite that stern instruction from the Trustee, the holdover Council persists with its vindictive and illegal behavior.
The Nooksack Appeals Court has thus declared: “at Nooksack the rule of law is dead.”
When tribal judges who make politically unpopular decisions get jettisoned, or tribal judicial rulings are ignored, or tribal law is otherwise deemed dead letter, a tribe ceases being sovereign—and instead becomes a social club or fraternity.
When one tribe devolves to that standing, anti-Indian groups and neutral federal legislators and officials begin to view all 567 federally recognized tribal governments in the same way; the function and stature of all tribal sovereigns and their government-to-government relationships are weakened.
With the White House, Senate and House of Representatives now aligned Republican and Indian Country “hard pressed to stop any GOP enactment or re-enactment of draconian Indian policies”—like tribal termination and trust land dispossession—social club or fraternity is a look that Indian Country can ill afford.
In the final analysis, the disenrollment club is one club you don’t want your tribe to join.
Gabriel “Gabe” Galanda is the managing partner of Galanda Broadman, PLLC, www.galandabroadman.com. He belongs to the Round Valley Indian Tribes. Gabe represents the Grand Ronde descendants of Chief Tumulth and serves as the traditionally appointed Noxwtsí7qen (“Speaker”) and counsel of record for 331 Nooksack citizens.