Four people are dead and two critically injured after a recent shooting spree in the tribal headquarters of the Cedarville Rancheria, a small American Indian tribe in Northern California. It all happened, police say, during a meeting at the Alturas headquarters where tribal leaders were discussing the banishment of Cherie Lash Rhoades—who has been arrested for the violent acts—and her son. Frustrations are boiling over in tribal membership disputes, reaching epidemic proportions, and this was only the most recent sign.
In the case of most American Indian tribes, historically the tribes have had the power to determine tribal membership. For centuries tribes “banished” people as punishment for serious offenses. In recent years, however, a trend has been evident with tribes canceling membership, or “disenrolling” tribal members due to claims of inferior membership qualification.
While the most recent trend evidences most cases arising in California, the practice is not exclusive to California and there are cases throughout the United States. Recent mass disenrollments are spreading along the West Coast to Washington and Oregon as well. Although there is no way to know exactly how many Indians have been disenrolled, the numbers are substantial. One activist group says at least 5,000 tribal members were disenrolled in California alone between 2000 and 2008.
One such mass disenrollment is now being waged by the Nooksack Indian tribe of Northwest Washington State. The Nooksacks are a federally recognized Indian tribe with more than 1,800 enrolled members. About 550 live on a Reservation of nearly 3,000 acres.
For 75 years Sonia Lomeli has lived with the belief that she is a Nooksack In dian.Born in 1938, Lomeli has fond childhood memories of participating in Nooksack spiritual traditions. Along with her family she visited Nooksack smokehouses on and off the reservation. The smokehouse, also called a longhouse by Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest, is a spiritual place of rebirth. She recalls cooking in the sacred Noooksack “burning” events that honored her Nooksack ancestors.
Lomeli’s mother, Elizabeth James, known to her family as “Libby,” was a well-known artisan, a basketmaker, and believed to be the very last Nooksack basket maker.
Lomelli formally enrolled in the Tribe in 1980’s about 30 years ago, when the Tribe approved her application. If the current Tribal Chairman, Robert Kelly has his way Lomeli and more than three hundred of her relatives will be terminated, or “disenrolled” from the Tribe. On February 14 Lomeli received from the Tribe an ominous “notice of intent to Disenroll.” The notice informed her that she could attend a meeting of the Tribal council where termination of her tribal membership would be on the agenda. The Council later voted to terminate her tribal status along with 305 of her relatives.
Motivation for the disenrollment trend nationally is hotly debated. Some experts, such as University of Minnesota Professor David Wilkins, have pointed to internal personal squabbles or political factional differences as a source of the trend. Others like authors Kathryn R. Rand and Stephen A. Light point to the enrichment of tribes from casino gambling. Tribal governments universally deny that greed or power is motivating disenrollment, declaring that they are upholding membership rules established in valid internal constitutions. As proof, they say they are removing people with tangential connections to the tribe, who joined primarily for benefits and in some instances monthly checks financed by the casino profits.
At the heart of the Nooksack conflict is the contention of Kelly, backed by a majority of the Council, that Lomeli’s grandmother, Annie George, was not a legitimate Nooksack Indian. George lived from 1895 to 1949. The Tribe claims that if Annie George was not a full-blooded Nooksack none of her 306 descendants can now claim tribal membership. Lomeli disagrees, as does her family’s attorney Gabe Galanda of Seattle’s Galanda Broadman. Galanda says Lomeli is ½ Indian and ¼ Nooksack, fulfilling Tribal requirements.
“My grandmother was an honorable woman,” says Lomeli. “She wouldn’t lie.”
The consequences of disenrollment can be substantial. For Lomeli it is literally a matter of life or death. She suffers from diabetes and goes three times a week for kidney dialysis. Also living with her is her 54-year-old daughter, Angelita. Angelita is disabled, walks with a walker and cannot speak. She has ovarian cancer and Lomeli is her care provider. She takes her for radiation and chemotherapy.
Angelita is also being disenrolled. If the disenrollment is allowed Lomeli and her daughter will lose their tribal health benefits, the house they own on the Reservation in Deming, Washington of 23 years and will be forced to move off the reservation they have no idea where they will go. Elderly, ill and frail, Lomeli is beyond despair.
“If I have to leave,” says Lomeli, “I might as well die.”
Lomeli and her relatives have filed a number of lawsuits in the Nooksack Tribal Court in Deming and in federal court. So far they have been unsuccessful. The case in Tribal court is now on appeal. Federal case law, particularly the 1976 United States Supreme Court case of Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez make victory an uphill battle for the 306 Nooksacks now facing tribal disenrollment. The Tribe knows they have the upper hand.
Casino gambling payouts to Nooksack tribal members have been minimal, so, observers say casino revenues are not fueling the attempted purge. Something else is happening here. Some believe it is a version of “ethnic cleansing,’ since Annie George’s three daughters whose descendants are being disenrolled all married Filipino migrant workers during the depression. Still others believe it is an effort to rid the reservation of Indians who did not grow up on the Reservation. They left for education and jobs.
“There were no jobs on the Reservation when I was growing up,” said Lomeli, who worked in the StarKist tuna cannery in San Pedro, California and other places. She returned in the1980’s when her elderly mother asked her to return to take care of her. She returned, bought a house from the Tribe, formally enrolled, and never left.
Others believe tribal politics play a role in the attempted purge. Lomeli’s family members hold official positions with the Tribe and are the targets of disenrollment. Her niece, Michelle Roberts 49, is an elected member of the eight person Tribal Council. Roberts was, for six years, employed as the Human Resources Manager for the tribally owned Nooksack River Casino. On August 21 without notice or warning she was fired from her job and escorted by a police officer out of the building.
“I asked them why I was being fired,” says Roberts. “They said it was, ‘at will,'” or in other words, because they could. The same day she received the pink slip she also received a notice like the one her aunt Sonia received, informing her that she was about to be thrown out of the Tribe.
Roberts’ cousin, Rudy St. Germain, is an Officer of the Tribe, the Tribal Secretary. He and all of his children are being denied tribal membership. Both Roberts and St. Germain have been removed from all Tribal Council meetings where the subject has been debated and voted on. This summer the Tribe fired St. Germain from his job as a Tribal landscaper.
Galanda believes that the federal law, the Indian Civil Rights Act and the Tribe’s own Constitution guarantees the Nooksack 306 constitutional rights that have been violated and he’s hoping to convince the courts that he’s right. Neither Galanda nor his clients are giving up.
Meanwhile on March 15 the Tribe held Tribal Council elections. Two Council candidates who are disenrollment opponents won seats, defeating two disenrollment supporters. “As a result of the election, the disenrollment is now on hold,” he said. “What is clear is that the Council and its Chairman lack a mandate for mass disenrollment,” said Galanda.
Neither Roberts or St. Germain are surprised that disenrollment has become violent in northern California, In fact, after U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn ignored a petition signed by 900 Washington Indians requesting federal intercession, Roberts and St. Germain and Rudy wrote them in December, 2013, foreshadowing the type of violence now apparent in the Cedarville shooting:
“What will it take for you to honor your trust responsibility? The threatened unconstitutional taking of Indian-owned homes? Further educational discrimination against Indian children? Tribal elders’ loss of health care or their resulting death? Violence amongst our people? We hope not.”
The letter, too, was ignored.
Lomeli doesn’t think she is being overly demanding. “I just want to be treated fairly and be respected,” she says, “and for my ancestors to be respected.” Lomeli’s request is a simple one: “Let us live the rest of our lives here. I’m at the end of my trail.”
As difficult it is to be an American Indian living on a reservation today, tribal heritage and identity is something they will not forfeit voluntarily. As witnessed recently on the Cedarville Rancheria, left with no remedy, disenfranchised Indians are taking matters into their own hands and the consequences can be deadly.
Note: Sonia Lomeli passed away March 25, 2014, 10 days after the tribal elections.
Jim Diamond has authored a chapter on Disenrollment in the Thompson-Reuters book, Best Practices for Defending Tribal Membership Cases: Leading Lawyers on Navigating Tribal Membership Enrollment Issues . He is a practicing attorney and is admitted to practice in 2 tribal courts. Jim’s full bio is here.