Cedric Sunray: Tribes abandon traditional aspects of inclusion

Editor's Note: This is part one of two.

Cedric Sunray. Photo from The Baconian

A non-Indian woman with a one year old baby girl from a previous relationship marries into a tribal community and moves to the rez. Her new husband, an enrolled member of the tribe, adopts the one year old and the couple eventually have three children together. The four children love their dad equally and are raised with the collective values of their parents and the culture of their tribal community.

The oldest child is disallowed visits with her siblings for medical issues or dental checkups at the local IHS clinic. Her parents are told that she cannot receive toys at the annual Christmas gathering, as they are only for enrolled tribal members. She is not allowed to participate in the summer camps run by the tribe as they are only for those enrolled in the tribe or their direct biological descendants. This girl, who her dad loves so very much, learns over time that she is and will always be a second class citizen in her own community; the only community and people she has ever known.

When she turns eighteen she is informed that she cannot even vote or qualify for hiring preference in the very tribal community where she was raised. She will never hold a leadership position in her community if she had ever aspired to do so. Her style of artwork, which she had learned from those around her, would never be marketable as a member of her tribe. Or is it her tribe? She was brought up there. The only father she has ever known and who raised and loved her is a tribal member. Her siblings are tribal members. Her culture and worldview are of the community of her upbringing.

But in the new Indian Country of today her very identity is contested, disputed, and eventually refuted in legalistic ways which lead into social ways.

A mainstream white family lives in a wealthy suburb an hour or so from the contested young woman with a daughter of their own. They have generationally identified as white and have enjoyed the privilege of predominantly white educational systems and overall privilege. They have a family story of some Indian ancestry. During their daughter’s senior year in high school their extended family does a lot of genealogy research and is able to trace their ancestry to a singular person on the Dawes Rolls created over 100 years ago.

This minor Indian descent now qualifies her and her family members for tribal membership/citizenship which leads to IHS services, college tuition assistance, voting rights, and access to many other tribal programs. Eventually she attends college on the funding she receives from the tribe and goes to work for her tribe via tribal preference in hiring. Soon, she is elected to the tribal council and becomes an outspoken spokesman for the history of oppression experienced by “her” people.

These scenarios, which are actual real life situations, have become more commonplace in Indian Country today than many are willing to admit.

I seemingly learned from the time of infancy that communities and cultures are not formed exclusively of blood members. With no blood family members, aside from my mom (my parents divorced when I was two and my father passed when I was four) within 900 miles of my upbringing and the majority living over 1,600 miles away, I wasn’t even cognizant of what constituted family in terms of mainstream viewpoints. These were the days long prior to the internet, texting, Facebook, Skype and all the other mediums which make contact so simplistic today. Plane flights cost money and 900 or 1,600 miles might as well have been one million.

Growing up in the Conch community on the island of Key West was in all ways similar to growing up in any closed off, traditional indigenous community from the Southeastern Miccosukee of Florida to the Northwestern Alutiiq communities of Kodiak Island in Alaska. Conchs possessed long standing traditions which existed no other place on earth and were understood in exclusivity by the group’s members. Their unique and fully mixed cultural community of formerly Bahamian Black, Bahamian white, and Cubans of various shades isolated on the southernmost island of the Florida Keys, was a major curiosity of outsiders for many generations.

Living the first 18 years of my existence, with a short sojourn to the ghetto community of Opa Locka near Miami, Florida being my only respite, I did not know of any difference that I shared with those who called me family. I attended the same festivities and engaged completely in all aspects of the community without a singular eye or remark of questioning about my identity, despite being one of the very few whose family members had not lived on the island generationally. It was only as I became older that I realized that my family did not come from this island like the others.

During the island’s slow change from that of a major drug trafficking center to a place dressed up for tourists, I listened to the exclusionary language of Conch families as they differentiated between who was and who was not. Gentrification had begun and it was “us” against “them”. I was fully and am still fully engrained in the “us” despite my “lack” of blood related to the group.

Nobody told me blood was the maker of community. Involvement, commitment, and cultural knowledge were the defining traits where I grew up. The term wannabe was only used in the context of a person whose hands couldn’t back up his big mouth. My blood family and local community members told me that my father was an Indian, but that held little relevancy to me. I was a Conch. That is the world I understood and those were the people who accepted me unconditionally. At eighteen I reluctantly left the community in order to play college ball as at that time receiving a college degree was not the priority of my university pursuits.

When I left I briefly visited my father’s tribe and other reservations and learned that Indian communities were legally defining themselves based on blood and not necessarily involvement, community, and cultural knowledge. I had no idea that this concept was imposed by whites upon the indigenous population generations prior. It was 1992 when I first started visiting the tribes and casinos had arrived. My enrollment in my father’s tribe was based exclusively in blood. I hadn’t grown up there or done anything to show my worth to the community at this time. There was something foreign to me about the idea of legal inclusion as opposed to real inclusion.

I know from the facts of my upbringing that culture and absolute inclusion is not predicated on blood. No one will ever be able to convince me differently as I have lived the reality of being non-blood connected to a minority and unique cultural community (Conchs of Key West) and having full and unquestioned acceptance. This brings me to the point of the article.

Many tribes in North America have simply lost their way today. They have abandoned every traditional aspect of inclusion that has ever existed. The incidence of disenrollment which is now occurring in Indian Country is uncontrollable. Of the more than 60 tribes who have disenrolled their tribal members in the last 20 years, there exists a significantly larger number who have done so outside of the watchful eye of news reporters and even more who have now enshrined disenrollment justification language in their own tribal constitutions.

I recently finished a paper for one of my law classes at the University of Oklahoma College of Law which details the connection between gaming and disenrollment; a question more and more frequently debated and written about. In this research it became readily apparent that what is already thought by thousands, that disenrollment is directly connected to gaming wealth and petty internal community jealousies, is exactly that. Rhetoric posited by various leadership factions of tribes nationally attest to removing people for the reasons that they are dually enrolled with another tribe, that they lack a certain blood quantum, that their ancestors are “not really of this particular tribe” or my favorite, that they were fraudulently or mistakenly enrolled.

Cedric Sunray (MOWA Choctaw) is a full-time leadership teacher in the Oklahoma City Public Schools and student at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. He can be reached at helphaskell@hotmail.com

Join the Conversation