Cedric Sunray: Standing together to fight tribal disenrollment

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

Cedric Sunray. Photo from The Baconian

Rhetoric posited by various leadership factions of tribes nationally attest to removing people (disenrollment) 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.

The first justification, dual enrollment, is absurd. I don’t see any tribes attempting to revoke the American citizenship of their tribal members/citizens, yet they have no problem in saying that they can’t be a member of another sovereign nation which happens to be indigenous as well. You would think that if these tribal leaders were so proud of their “Indianness” that they would preference dual enrollment/citizenship/membership with another indigenous nation prior to even allowing citizenship with the United States. Dividing people into pieces makes little sense, especially in Indian Country. There are many citizens of the United States who hold dual citizenship with other countries.

The blood quantum issue is even more irrelevant. There are many tribes here in Oklahoma who herald their “inclusiveness” due to their lineal descendant requirement as opposed to strict blood quantum standards. Some of these tribes, for instance, attempted to use this supposed “inclusivity” as proof that they have no prejudice during their attempted removals of the Indian Freedmen population.

The reality is that non-indigenous perceptions of blood are still the determiner, whether they are requiring high blood quantum or not. This eliminates adopted children who are community raised, long-term intermarried spouses who have lived and loved in the community for many years and who have children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren within the community, those of other Indian tribes and their descendants who for circumstantial reasons found refuge in other Indian communities ages ago, individuals from the tribe who may be born of a tribal woman when the tribe requires patrilineal descent, individuals from the tribe born of a tribal man when the tribe requires matrilineal descent, children raised in the community who are the biological offspring of an intermarried individual who had married or partnered into the tribe after their birth, Freedmen descendants who either accurately or erroneously were placed on rolls not delineating blood, yet whose ancestors slaved in the fields for years of those who were, and other individuals who have become culturally and socially integrated into the community over the years, but do not share the same DNA with those who claim them.

The blood issue departs from traditional norms and has reduced tribal nation inclusion to ancestry.com as opposed to direct involvement, familial connection, and “paid the price with you”, a prerequisite of any Indian community traditionally.

The next removal is based on the supposed belief that the enrolled individuals descend from Indians, but not the “right” Indians. This is typically the play by tribal leaders who cannot refute Indian ancestry, but still need to remove the various families and individuals. So now their ancestors are said to have moved into the community from another Indian community many generations prior and thus they are not able to retain enrollment in the present day. This is simply low and petty and does nothing but reduce the intellectual capacity of the community, not only in losing brilliant minds, but in showing the ignorance of those who pushed the disenrollment issue in the first place.

The “fraud and mistaken enrollment” justification, however, is indeed my favorite. If a new administration dislikes those who came before them, suddenly those enrolled under the previous administration were “fraudulently or mistakenly enrolled." Anyone who needs to be eliminated for their opposition to various leaders or who made someone’s aunt’s friend’s cousin upset is found to have been “fraudulently or mistakenly enrolled."

Since the leadership controls the tribal court, if there is even one, the result is virtually always the same. Enrollment files mysteriously disappear, original documents float away from tribal archives, and other unethical ways are devised by seated administrations or tribal employees to erase entire families from records.

All of these immoral and divisive actions are protected under the guise of “sovereignty”. This is dangerous. Nobody is safe in the current environment as the removal of even fluent speaking members of various tribes has shown. Fluent speakers being removed? What possible justification could ever be concocted to justify the removal of fluent speakers? Let me guess, they are not cultural enough? Please. It has all become out of control and embarrassing. Indian Country is becoming a caricature of itself. “Sovereign” tribal governments running wild.

Taiaiake Alfred (Mohawk) wrote in the preface to his second edition of Peace, Power, and Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto:
“I came to learn and appreciate the views of those Native people who looked critically at what was being achieved through ‘Aboriginal self-government’ or ‘tribal sovereignty’ and saw the movement as vacuous and devoid of indigenous culture or any spiritual connection to ancestral teachings. In this view, Natives gaining control of governing structures is not enough to allow us to decolonize. In fact, without a cultural grounding, self-government becomes a kind of Trojan horse for capitalism, consumerism, and selfish individualism.”

There is a simplistic way of course to remedy this situation which goes beyond the expulsion from national Indian organizations and boycotts myself and others have written about previously. The simplistic course is solidarity. Solidarity doesn’t take money or capacity. Solidarity requires other tribal members/citizens to disenroll themselves when others are disenrolled.

Reduce those who have instigated these actions to becoming the leftover, powerless minority. Reduce their territory to the block or so where they reside in the community. If they want the tribal office, give it to them. They and their fifteen friends can rule a people less empire. Outcast those who attempted to outcast others. If the day ever comes where individuals in my own tribe attempt to accomplish the removal of a single individual from our tribal roll, they won’t stand alone. Alongside them will stand me and my family with shredded enrollment cards at our feet. Fortunately, I believe my people have more dignity than to engage in such an act.

It isn’t the reality that I am blood member and legally enrolled member of my tribe that makes me a member of my tribe. It is my over two decades of direct involvement in my tribe and the love I show for our culture and people that define this identity. No card can ever give me that or take that away. It is a remainder of life designation for me and a forever designation for my children and their descendants. No wayward tribal council or unethical human being can recreate one’s history and reality.

When ALL tribal members/citizens realize this, then they will have the confidence to practice solidarity and support ALL those who are disrespected with the attempt at paper genocide that disenrollment represents.

The federal government “allowing” tribes the “right” to determine their own membership or disenroll their own membership has no negative impact on the federal government in comparison to the gain the federal government receives from its allowance.

Disenrollment keeps tribes stratified and supportive of colonial ideas of who constitutes Indian. Disenrollment reduces fiduciary responsibilities of the federal government to Indian tribes by reducing numbers of tribal members/citizens. In knowing this it is simple to understand that anyone engaging or supporting the disenrollment of others is simply a pawn.

I think to one disenrollment issue a few years back where a 12 year old was removed from a tribe’s roll after a dispute, which had nothing to do with enrollment, between his grandmother and another woman working in the enrollment office.

In an effort to “get even” with the grandmother she engaged in supposed extensive research on the grandmother which showed she was actually 7/8 Indian as opposed to full blood and thus her grandson did not now meet the enrollment requirements for membership/citizenship. The boy who was raised in the community was legally excommunicated.

Yes, that is the zero sum game and bottom of the barrel thinking disenrollment has brought to Indian Country.

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

Related Stories:
Cedric Sunray: Tribes abandon traditional aspects of inclusion (10/20)

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