Grand Ronde disenrollment dispute takes new turn with court ruling

The late Ida Altringer served as elder grand marshal for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde prior to her passing in 2008. After her death, the tribe's enrollment committee disenrolled her. Photo from Grand Ronde We All Belong / Facebook

A disenrollment dispute that has attracted nationwide attention is entering a new phase after an Oregon tribe was told it could not kick out the descendants of a treaty signer.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde hit dozens of descendants of Chief Tumulth with disenrollment letters in 2013. They were informed that they did not qualify for membership because their ancestor -- who signed the 1855 Willamette Valley Treaty -- never moved to the reservation or joined a base roll.

But circumstances beyond their control made it impossible for them to meet that standard. Chief Tumulth was executed a year after signing the agreement so he never really had a chance to relocate or be listed on the roll.

That disturbing history, though, wasn't the main reason why the Grand Ronde Court of Appeals put a halt to the disenrollment effort on Friday. Instead, a three-judge panel determined that the tribe waited too long -- 27 years to be exact -- to start the removal process, a delay that negatively impacted the rights of the chief's descendants.

"In light of the undisputed facts regarding the 27 year unreasonable delay in the tribe bringing this action and the reasonably anticipated prejudice and harm that petitioners would suffer if the tribe were allowed to proceed with this disenrollment action, we hold that laches prevents the tribe and enrollment committee/board from so proceeding," Robert J. Miller, a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe who serves as chief justice of the Grand Ronde appeals court, wrote in the 22-page opinion.

Tumulth's descendants celebrated after learning of the decision. They were enrolled starting in 1986, three years after the tribe was restored to federal recognition. The disenrollment letters had come 27 years later.

“This ruling is incredible news that we hope sets a new precedent for not only our tribe but also for all tribes engaged in the self-destructive practice of disenrollment,” said Russell Wilkinson, a spokesperson for the descendants, said on Monday.

“This is the first ruling in our case that was issued by Native judges—and that made the difference," Wilkinson added. The two other judges who joined the opinion are Patricia C. Paul, who is Alaska Native, and Douglas Nash, who is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.

The court dismissed the disenrollment proceedings with "prejudice" which would mean the tribe cannot try to remove the chief's descendants again in the future. But whether or not the tribe abides by the decision is another question.

A descendant of Chief Tumulth visits the grave of the chief's youngest daughter. Photo from Grand Ronde We All Belong / Facebook

A publicly-accessible post made by Chairman Reyn Leno on Facebook in fact indicates there may be trouble ahead. Although he noted that he was offering his views "as a tribal member" and not on behalf of the council, he wants the three judges to appear before the council to answer questions about the ruling. In other governments, that could be viewed as a threat to the independence or impartiality of the judicial system.

"It is my opinion that this court opinion is a huge infringement on our tribal sovereignty to determine our membership and remove people who were enrolled in error," Leno wrote in the post. "To have the court force the tribe to place people on our rolls who do not meet the constitutional requirements of membership is wrong."

The tribe historically has been transparent about its proceedings. Court decisions, along with council agendas, meetings and records have long been available online.

Media coverage of the disenrollment dispute, though, has led to calls for less disclosure. The tribe and its attorneys accused the Galanda Broadman law firm of violating a gag order after posts about the controversy appeared on Indianz.Com, Turtle Talk, Last Real Indians and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

At issue were tribal court briefs posted by the influential Turtle Talk blog and links to the briefs that appeared on the firm's social media pages. Turtle Talk later removed links to the briefs but posted a new set of briefs on Monday from the appeals court proceeding.

Chief Tumulth was executed by the U.S. Army for allegedly participating in a March 1856 uprising in Washington Territory. According to his descendants, his family was forced to hide in their own homeland for more than a century.

The situation changed when two of Tumuth’s great-grandchildren, Ida Altringer and Clyde Williams, were enrolled at Grand Ronde in 1986. Dozens more descendants were added to rolls over the years.

Altringer once served as elder grand marshal for the tribe but that didn't prevent her from being disenrolled after she died in 2008. Her obituary noted her tribal citizenship.

Another deceased Altringer was removed and his relatives attempted to challenge it. But the Grand Ronde Court of Appeals, in a separate decision issued on Friday, said that wasn't permissible under tribal law.

The tribe at various points has used Chief Tumulth and his relatives in attempts to bolster its historical legitimacy and land claims.

Chairman Leno's full post about the court ruling follows:
I am sure many members have questions about the recent appellate court decisions on the dis enrollment cases. I left for a family camping trip on Thursday and had limited phone and Internet access over the weekend. I did get a chance to talk to our Tribal attorney on Saturday. Rob made me aware of the opinions issued on Friday. 1.) The case involving the dis enrollment of Rebecca Crocker was upheld 2.) The cases involving the deceased dis enrolled members was upheld. 3.) The case involving 67 dis enrolled members who refer to themselves as the descendants of Chief Tulmuth was reversed.

From what I understand the case was not reversed because the Tribe or enrollment committee made a mistake or misinterpreted anything or because they met the enrollment requirements, it was simply reversed because the Tribe waited too long to correct the error. The Court did not find that the Treaty signed by Chief Tulmuth was a roll or record and they did not find that they met the enrollment requirements.

It is my opinion that this court opinion is a huge infringement on our Tribal sovereignty to determine our membership and remove people who were enrolled in error. To have the Court force the Tribe to place people on our rolls who do not meet the constitutional requirements of membership is wrong. It is also unfair to other people who have Grand Ronde blood but cannot enroll because they do not have a patent on the roll or because they do not meet blood quantum.

I am sure there will be a lot of questions about this opinion and the impact and hopefully answers will be available over the next few weeks. At this point, it is my understanding the case has been remanded to the Chief Judge to be remanded to the enrollment committee. Because this opinion is so important to our Tribe, it is my hope that our 3 appellate judges would be willing to explain this opinion and answer questions. This statement and opinions are my own as a Tribal member and is not the statement or opinion of the Tribal Council.

Reyn Leno

Grand Ronde Court of Appeals Decision:
In the Matter of: Alexander v. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (August 5, 2016)

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