Disenrollment is not a new issue. All nations have the right and power to define membership and so do Indian nations. Membership in Indian nations has become increasingly legalistic, and remains to a certain extent legally controlled by Bureau of Indians Affairs rules.
For example, the BIA prohibits Indians who are descendants of more than one nation to take membership in multiple nations. Some of the most publicized disenrollment issues, like the highly publicized Pechanga case, are the result of long standing issues within the community and BIA rules affecting enrollment.
During the 1890s, through the General Allotment Act, California Indians were encouraged to take small allotments of land and turn to farming. If they did so, they also were asked to sign documents that said they accepted U.S. citizenship and rejected tribal membership. Some Pechanga members accepted the land and withdrew from the Pechanga tribe, although many of their relatives still lived in the Pechanga nation. During the hard times of the 1930s, some allotees returned to their relatives living on the Pechanga reservation and they were taken into the community.
More recently, some elders among the Pechanga challenged the right of the allotee families to remain in the tribe, since their ancestors had signed agreements to withdraw form Pechanga tribal membership. The Pechanga general council, a body of all adult members, discussed the issues of allottee families and decided to not include those families as Pechanga tribal members since their ancestors had signed out of the tribe during the allotment period. One can argue about the wisdom of why the BIA required rejection of tribal membership as a condition to gaining a farming allotment, but that is what happened. The Pechanga general council decided the membership issue largely on legal grounds, something done often in U.S. society.
Disenrolled members have appealed to federal courts and sometimes to state courts. State courts and Federal courts, however, since the Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez case in 1978, do not have jurisdiction over tribal membership rules. The proper forum for disenrolled members is to seek redress in tribal courts. If there are no tribal courts, then disenrollees must appeal to the tribal government or council. Where reservations have tribal courts, then the courts are sometimes a check and balance on the legislature (tribal council) and tribal chair. Such a case would become part of the tribe’s public record and people could argue the merits of the case in public.
Sometimes tribal courts also have appeals courts, and in those cases the disenrolled persons have the opportunity to argue about procedural difficulties with the lower tribal court decisions. If tribal courts and tribal appeals court remedies fail, then disenrolled persons do not have recourse. Like in any nation, leadership, or a majority, can make bad decisions or poor judgement calls. Nevertheless, the whole of Indian tribal membership issues should not be brought into question because of the perceived actions of some nations, whose actions are often not well researched or understood by the press, and often while meaning well, are not accurately or fully reported.
Who belongs to a nation and the rules of membership are often contested and debated within many nations. Many people challenge whether President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen. They say that neither of his parents were proper U.S. citizens, and they doubt that he was born a natural citizen in Hawaii. Whether right or wrong, the discussion raises a lot of commotion. Indian enrollment issues are not terribly different.
Often Indian disenrollment debates focus on specific membership rules particular to a given tribe, such as their traditional kinship system like at Acoma Pueblo; or understandings that tribal members must be directly and actively engaged in the cultural and social community like at Cochiti Pueblo. It is difficult to make generalizations. Indian nation membership debates require deep understanding of tribal community, history, culture, and identity.