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Cedric Sunray: The legacy of disenrollment at Haskell University

Filed Under: Education | Opinion | Federal Recognition
More on: bia, boarding schools, cedric sunray, disenrollment, haskell, kansas, termination, tribal colleges

A page from a Haskell Institute calendar shows Marvin Johnson, far left, among the graduates. Johnson is listed as "1/2" Nanticoke blood. Today he would not be allowed to enroll in Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas unless he demonstrated membership in a federally recognized tribe. Courtesy photo

Correction: The second photo features students at a boarding school in Louisiana. It was not taken at Haskell Institute. The caption has been corrected.

The Legacy of Disenrollment
By Cedric Sunray

On October 14th, 2011, Indian Country Today Media Network published an article I wrote titled, “Disenrollment Clubs.” Oh how times have changed because of the contributions and activism of too many to count.

My first contact with the issue of disenrollment occurred as a student at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where it was brought up as a topic in an intro class which regularly debated the issues of the day. The then recent removal of the Seminole Freedmen from their tribe in Oklahoma was on the docket and there was no shortage of opinions.

As the discussion began, an identifiable Seminole tribal member stood up and spoke against the continued inclusion of the Freedmen as she felt they were Black people and not Indian. Seated next to her was a young woman who anyone would believe to be fully white. Her remarks mirrored that of her Seminole classmate. She, it turned out, was a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Eventually the chance to speak came to a young man who had a Black racial phenotype. He stood up in the circle and began addressing us all in Mvskoke (Seminole/Creek) for the next minute or so. He then looked directly at our Seminole classmate, invoked the band of Seminole he came from (which was one of the Freedmen bands of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma) and said, “Since I know you can’t speak our language, I will translate what I said into English for you.” I had never seen a brown face become so red in my life. The gasps from all of us were palpable. There was a great lesson in this exchange and one which has seemingly been lost on those who seek to continue the use of disenrollment as a weapon.

When most people imagine disenrollment, they tend to date it back just one or two decades and position it relative to the 70 or so tribes nationally who have partaken in its genocide during this time period. But disenrollment, of course, has existed for well over a century with roots in the Dawes Act which attempted to redefine the Indigenous community in what had become America by breaking up communally held lands; a process which fully disenfranchised some.

Another wave of disenrollment occurred in the Termination period of the 1940s-1960s. During this time, entire tribes of people, or very large segments such as the Mixed-Blood Utes or Uintas, were excommunicated from Indian Country. Some of these tribes and individuals have never been reinstated. Oranna Felter, one such terminated/disenrolled Ute Indian who is now in her 70s, has spent the better part of her life fighting for the recognition of her people.

Several members of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians from Alabama and the United Houma Nation in Louisiana are seen at the Acadia Baptist school in Louisiana. Courtesy photo

Beginning in the 1970s until 2001 a third wave of disenrollment took shape as historic “non-federally recognized” tribes were slowly disenrolled from further attendance at the many Indian boarding schools they once inhabited; some of which had now become universities.

This form of disenrollment has been avoided for discussion by many. Since the foundation of the federal recognition process administered by the BIA in 1978, virtually all tribes recognized through this process with roots in the Eastern and Southern regions of the United States, hold one paramount component in common, with the exception being that of the Poarch Creek.

These tribes with the commonality include the Pequot (who gained recognition via Congressional approval), Tunica-Biloxi, Narragansett, Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head, Mohegan, Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, Mashpee Wampanoag, and most recently, Pamunkey. This commonality is that they all attended the Indian boarding school system and/or had federally-funded Indian schools built in their communities.

Ironically, of all the historic “non-federal” tribes with roots in these regions, the two with the highest rates of Indian boarding school attendance (MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians & Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma), were the lone boarding school tribes to be denied in the process. Unlike many of the others, they chose not to form alliances with gaming backers -- a fatal “mistake” in today’s fraud packed recognition process. Many of the Virginia, Delaware, Louisiana, and North Carolina’s boarding school attending tribes have also languished for years as Congress after Congress allows their pleas to go unheard.

Due to the evidence of this association of recognition and Indian boarding school attendance, Kevin Washburn invited me to the Department of the Interior in June of 2013 to present to all of the Chiefs of Staff, as well as attorneys, in the Department of the Interior with power and control over the actions of the BIA and Bureau of Indian Education. My hour and a half presentation was greeted with support.

The support of those in the meetings all but vanished, figuratively (boarding school attendance was given passing lip service in the “revised” federal recognition regulations published two years later) and literally (almost all those in attendance have since jumped ship to more lucrative employment opportunities, as D.C. lobbyists, National Indian Gaming Commission leadership, and other political positions. Not to mention Kevin Washburn’s retirement after changing virtually nothing in the process and bowing to political pressures which negated re-petitioning from tribes already denied, thus making the “revised” process actually worse in the end for at least two federal Indian boarding school tribes previously denied and others whose denials were highly suspect).

These three pronounced forms of disenrollment (termination, boarding school removals, and individual/family disenrollments) are all intertwined. If a tribe was terminated, then they were logically and legally formerly federally acknowledged. If tribes and individual members of their tribes attended federal Indian boarding schools, it is also clear they were federally acknowledged. If individual members were disenrolled from federally-recognized tribes, it is also clear that they were once federally acknowledged. This rationale does not enter the space of opinion and does not require a law degree to decipher.

The continuation of the mass disenrollment of historic “non-federal” tribes who generationally attended Indian boarding schools from the federal Indian system is best evidenced in the example of Haskell Indian Nations University; formerly Haskell Institute.

In 2008, Odette Wright Norwood, a Nanticoke Indian from Delaware who had graduated from Haskell Institute in the 1950s, was denied admittance to the school when she had applied to return to pursue a bachelor degree. School administration explained to her that she did not “qualify” for admittance (i.e. she was not a member of a “federally recognized” tribe). This was decided despite BIA documentation listing her as ½ Indian by blood during the course of her attendance at the school and of course the obvious fact that she was an alumna.

In 2011, when the National Congress of American Indians heard a resolution supporting the return of attendance documented historic “non-federal” tribes to this institution, a council member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma stood up in an effort to stop the resolution and remarked, “These tribes never attended Haskell.”

Seated only a row away were members of the very tribes she was challenging and who were alumni of the institution. The council member was well aware of the actual history. She felt as though the individuals in the room, virtually all of whom were from federal tribes unacquainted with this full history despite some being former classmates and friends of the attendees, would be too ignorant or apathetic to catch her in this lie. Clearly, she couldn’t decipher from the fed tribal members from the “non-fed” tribal members who attended in the room either or she may have halted her comments. After this charade, the resolution passed unanimously.

The disenrolled (whether from tribes, Indian schools, or through full tribal terminations) are social realities being transformed into legal fictions.

Fortunately, the day of exclusion is slowly coming to an end as witnessed, amongst other venues, in a new exhibit showing at the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum dedicated to the histories of those historic “non-federal” Indians who walked her halls, played on her ball fields and courts, and fell in love in her courtyard.

Their faces, torn from the yearbooks and campus newspapers of years gone by, once again adorn the walls for all to see. They are Indian Country’s conscience. The ghosts have returned home. They are living and contributing in her space once again. The legacy of disenrollment, in all of its violent forms, is the representation of the mistruth that can only be suppressed so long before it comes to the surface.

Its equitable finale will not signal the dispossession of tribal sovereignty, but rather advance a stronger and more complete sovereignty that weighs the importance of cultural memory over political expediency.

Cedric Sunray (MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians) holds a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Kansas and a Master of Legal Studies in Indigenous Peoples Law from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. His writings have been published by academic presses such as The University of Arizona Press, University Press of Florida and Centenary College Press/Les Cahiers du Tintamarre. He has taught Indigenous/American Indian Studies at six colleges/universities and is currently a full-time university staff member in the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area where he develops programs for the Indigenous/American Indian student population. He can always be reached at

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