Raelyn Rodriguez, center, was recently disenrolled from the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians after the tribe said her family had already been enrolled in another Indian nation. She is shown here with her children. Courtesy photo
Update and Correction: Some minor changes to Eddie Crandell's quotes were made following publication of this story. The changes were made after reviewing the audio recording of his interview. Additionally, two corrections were made: first, to Crandell's full name, and, second, to the year in which the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians engaged in a mass disenrollment.
The 9-year-old girl couldn’t understand.
How could anyone tell her she was no longer Modoc? And if she was no longer Modoc, what was she?
Her mother Syd Colombe struggled to answer her questions.
She tried to convince her daughter to not allow their family’s disenrollment from the Modoc Nation to affect her sense of identity.
“You’re always Modoc,” Colombe told her. “Nobody will ever tell you that you’re not. Nobody can ever take that from you.”
In May, Colombe learned her tribe’s leadership had removed her and most of her family from the tribe’s citizenship rolls, adding them to the thousands of Native people to be stripped of their tribal citizenry.
Following a brief hiatus from 2016 to 2018 – when many tribal politicians feared the public shame elicited by the removal of tribal citizens – tribal disenrollment is again on the rise, said Gabe Galanda, an attorney and citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes who has written extensively about tribal disenrollment and has represented victims of disenrollment.
It is estimated that 11,000 tribal members have been disenrolled from 80, or 15 percent, of the 573 federally recognized tribal governments since 1934, when tribes began organizing governments based on the Indian Reorganization Act.
Prior to spring 2016, tribes conducted numerous mass disenrollments, Galanda said. However, tribes mostly halted the practice until March 2018, when the Omaha Tribe decided to remove 15 citizens from its rolls, Galanda said.
He attributed that brief lull in disenrollment to the Obama administration’s efforts to intercede in disenrollment disputes that were undercutting the federal government’s stated desire to bolster tribal governments.
“It had a stigmatizing effect on (disenrollment),” Galanda said.
By comparison, the Trump administration has taken a hands-off approach to disenrollment, which Galanda said has once again catalyzed the disenrollment movement. Within the last two years, five tribes have disenrolled citizens, Galanda said.
Among them: the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, which adjusted its historic membership rolls; the Modoc Nation of Oklahoma, which terminated a four-generation family of fifteen; and California’s Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, which disenrolled at least nine citizens based on a non-Native anthropologist’s audit of tribal membership rolls.
Galanda also cited the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, which he said recently jettisoned another 60 tribal citizens.
But efforts to stop disenrollment are underway.
In an effort to shame tribal politicians who disenroll their citizens, prominent Native leaders will launch the Stop Disenrollment visual advocacy event on February 10 for the fifth year. The event involves people publishing photos of themselves on social media posing with outstretched hands emblazoned with words protesting disenrollment.
Galanda said tribes that conduct mass disenrollments often do so in order to increase the amount of financial support they can provide to individual members, whether it be through per capita payments or through social or health care programs.
Efforts to educate tribes about the negative impacts of disenrollment have reduced the number of mass disenrollments in recent years, he said. Public disclosure of mass disenrollments also has helped to shame tribal leaders from removing citizens from their tribal rolls, he said.
But much work remains.
Marisa Cummings, left, was disenrolled from the Omaha Tribe after enrollment officials reduced her late grandfather's blood quantum. She is shown here with her grandmother. Courtesy photo
National Native organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association need to start talking about disenrollment in order to make it clear that it is not an acceptable practice in Indian Country, Galanda said.
Beyond public shame, however, tribal citizens have little recourse for fighting disenrollment because tribes are granted almost unfettered jurisdiction in deciding citizenship. The only hope most dis-enrollees have is through political action and removal of tribal leaders who conduct mass disenrollments, he said.
Raelyn Rodriguez, 25, said she still doesn’t understand how people she grew up around could decide to remove her from her tribe. In early November, Rodriguez received a letter from the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians enrollment committee that stated she had been removed the tribe’s rolls.
The letter stated that the committee had conducted its own internal audit, finding that Rodriguez’s family had been listed as citizens of another tribe in 1913, making them ineligible for membership in the Rincon tribe.
Rodriguez said she hired a genealogist who discovered the Rincon tribe’s base roll wasn’t established until 1957, meaning the tribe had no citizens until then.
But despite her efforts to get her disenrollment reversed, the tribe has refused her appeals, declining even to elaborate on the reasons for its decision, Rodriguez said.
She said her disenrollment has caused her to question the relationships she has established within her community.
“They've known me since I was like little,” she said. “They've known my grandparents. They've known my family, my great-grandparents."
“For these people that I loved and trusted and voted for, for them to just follow through with such an evil process has been very hurtful.”
Galanda said the Rincon enrollment committee based much of its research on earlier research done by a non-Native anthropologist’s audit of membership rolls. That anthropologist originally identified about 200 Rincon citizens who he said shouldn’t be eligible for membership. The tribe’s enrollment committee later reduced that to nine citizens, including seven members of Rodriguez’s family.
Within the Rincon tribe, membership is big money.
Tribal citizens receive nearly $7,500 a month, primarily from revenue garnered from the tribe’s Harrah's Resort Southern California, just north of San Diego.
The tribe also provides scholarship support to the tune of up to $50,000 per year for its citizens.
Rodriguez currently studies integrative psychology at National University in La Jolla, California, and receives a tribal scholarship to attend.
Despite losing these benefits, Rodriguez said the worst aspect of her disenrollment has been its impact on her sense of identity.
She said she hopes to become a youth therapist or trauma counselor, helping children from her tribe.
“I know it's going to be harder, obviously, but it's not something that is going to stop me,” she said. “I feel like I love this field too much.”
One tribe that has endured several rounds of mass disenrollments is the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians of northern California.
Eddie Crandell Sr., chairman of Robinson Rancheria, said the first mass disenrollment took place around 2008, when the tribe’s enrollment committee removed a group of citizens who had been added to the tribe’s rolls after the tribe organized in 1978.
He said a second round of mass disenrollment occurred after a tribal election in which Crandell beat the incumbent chairwoman, who later invalidated the election. Following an October 2008 tribal membership meeting held to discuss the election, the tribe began disenrolling citizens who had publicly supported Crandell at the meeting, he said.
The disenrolled citizens appealed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency, but were denied any support, he said.
Crandell said the worst part about that disenrollment action was that he was allowed to remain a citizen and continued to receive per capita payments. Those who had supported him and were exiled blamed Crandell, he said.
“They were even more mad at me because had they just stayed and kept quiet, they could have still been members,” he said.
Robinson Rancherie Chairman Eddie Crandell #StopDisenrollment
It would take another nine years before Crandell and other opponents of the mass disenrollment were elected to the tribal council and reversed the earlier disenrollment.
But always, the fear of disenrollment lingers among the tribe’s citizens.
“It plays an effect still because it's always thrown out as a fear tactic in the community amongst the membership,” Crandell said. “This is a weak tool for a weak person because these weak people are the ones that use these tools.”
He said disenrollees lose access to many benefits, including per capita payments, housing and medical support, and assistance provided by the California Tribal TANF Partnership, which Robinson Rancheria administers on behalf of 20 tribes.
Disenrollment can be traumatizing, and Crandell said he has seen grown men break down and cry after receiving written notice of disenrollment.
“It makes it hard to like your people when they embrace colonial tactics like disenrollment,” he said. “Everybody is so dysfunctional and toxic.”
He said he doesn’t plan to seek re-election this year and fears whoever takes his position will again support disenrollment.
“Once the wrong person gets elected, there we are again,” he said.
Charlie Walker, third from right, was the first chairman of the Omaha Tribe. His great granddaughter, Marisa Cummings, was disenrolled from the tribe in late 2018. The photo shows a visit made by Omaha leaders to the office of President Harry Truman to plead for him to not terminate the federal government's relationship with their tribal nation. Family photo
Marisa Cumming's grandmother and children are shown in this photo on a Memorial Day on the Omaha Reservation. Courtesy photo
In March 2018, the Omaha Tribe became the 80th tribe to disenroll several of its citizens who were dually enrolled in other tribes. Later that year, the tribe disenrolled at least two other citizens whose lineage had come into question, including Marisa Cummings.
The 43-year-old University of South Dakota director of Native student services said she first learned about an inexplicable change that had been made to her grandfather’s blood quantum after seeking his enrollment information in order to request a headstone for him from the tribe. She discovered her grandfather, who had once been described as being 4/4th Omaha, was now considered 31/32nd Omaha.
At the same time, his siblings – who shared with the same mother and father – were still considered 4/4ths Omaha.
Cummings began researching how the change occurred, eventually discovering a former BIA officer who had conducted genealogy research for the Omahas had gathered information that her grandfather wasn’t a full-blood Omaha.
Later in late 2018, the Omaha Tribal Council voted to disenroll Cummings and her sister, or more specifically voted to decline membership to them, despite the fact that they had been enrolled many years before and even had tribal identification numbers.
Cummings said she the timing of her disenrollment was interesting, considering she had served as the tribe’s chief administrator from March 2015 to September 2016, a position in which she was responsible for improving the tribe’s accounting procedures in order to allow the tribe to be audited.
Among the changes Cummings made was to require every requisition for tribal assistance come through her office. She discovered numerous improper requests were being made, and approved, including requests for money for such things as clothing and birthday parties.
She discovered some grandparents were receiving tribal assistance to serve as guardians for their grandchildren, despite the fact that their grandchildren’s parents lived in the same home. She began denying those improper funding requests.
“In doing so, I made a lot of enemies, and people were not happy because their funding had been cut,” Cummings said.
She later made more enemies following a federal investigation into illegal payments that the Omaha Tribal Council made to itself from federal funds, an inquest that eventually led to the convictions of eight tribal council members and one tribal employee.
As chief tribal administrator, Cummings was required to work with federal investigators and did so, providing required documents to them.
She said she believes her disenrollment was retaliation for her cooperation with federal authorities a few years prior.
“They refuse to provide us with any documentation to say that we were disenrolled,” she said.
She said she would like to see her tribe take up constitutional reform.
“Through the constitutional reform process, we can define ourselves as who we are as Omaha people, who is a citizen and who we want to be in 20 or 50 years or 100 years from now,” she said.
She said constitutional reform would allow the tribe to improve checks and balances and transparency within its government and would pave the way for greater economic development. Cummings said a strengthened tribal economy would erode the financial fears many tribal citizens feel that she says often lead to disenrollment efforts.
“There’s so much that can happen in that process in terms of building even a cultural renaissance among the Omaha people, so that we don’t look at being Omaha as holding a piece of paper,” she said. “We look at being Omaha as knowing our language, knowing our clanship, knowing our teachings, connection to land, connection to the life force in general that makes us who we are as Omaha.”
“If we don’t have that, we’re just white people walking around with a piece of paper.”
Did you know that the Modoc Nation’s traditional territory spans over 5,000 square miles of diverse terrain along the border of California and Oregon?
Syd Colombe said her family’s removal from the Modoc Nation occurred after the tribe’s enrollment committee found evidence that her grandfather had moved to Oregon in the 1930s, despite a tribal ordinance that had threatened to remove any tribal members who returned to Oregon.
Her grandfather eventually returned to Oklahoma nearly 30 years later.
She said she believes the tribe decided to remove her family from its rolls after one of her aunts spoke publicly against some of the tribal council’s business decisions. During one particularly raucous tribal meeting in May 2018, Colombe said she had to try to calm down some members who were berating her aunt.
“They treated her horribly,” she said.
The next year, Colombe’s family was disenrolled.
She said being exiled from her tribe hasn’t led to the loss of any necessary benefits for her or her children but it has caused her to doubt herself when she tells people that she is Modoc.
“When people say, ‘Are you a member of a tribe?’ I say, ‘Yes, I’m Modoc,’” Colombe said. “Because I am Modoc. You can never change who you are. But it causes me to question if I’m truthful.”
She said tribal officials have informed her that she can try to get enrolled in the Klamath Tribes of Oregon (a tribe that shares lineage with the Modoc) or the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (her father’s tribe).
But she said she grew up Modoc, and knows its customs and history, and people.
“My tribal identity isn’t like clothing,” she said. “If one doesn’t fit, I don’t go put another one on.”
“I have a deeper sense of who I am and who I always will be.”