Indian attorneys take a stand and denounce tribal disenrollment

Participants in #stopstribalgenocide protest at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Riverside, California, in January 2015. Photo from Original Pechanga / Twitter

The National Native American Bar Association is taking a stand against the tribal disenrollment epidemic.

A resolution passed at the group's annual meeting in Arizona last week underscores the right of tribal nations to determine their own citizenship rules. But it also states that people are being removed from the rolls "without equal protection at law or due process of law, or any effective remedy for the violation of such rights."

As a result, NNABA said it was "immoral and unethical" for "any lawyer" to help tribes remove people from their rolls without an adequate process to address the rights of the individuals affected.

Most tribes provide some sort of mechanism for a disenrolled person to dispute their removal, typically through their court system or their governing body. But the process can be controversial -- the Nooksack Tribe of Washington was only going give 306 people 10 minutes to plead their case over the telephone rather than provide them with an in-person hearing.

The disnerollees are being represented by attorney Gabe Galanda, who sits on NNABA's leadership board.

In another case from Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe is removing 234 people from the rolls. But 65 of them are deceased.

"The very fabric of the cosmos as we have always understood it is being assaulted in this macabre fashion through recent attempts, some successful, by several Native governments to engage in the loathsome practice of disenrollment of deceased tribal members," observed professor David Wilkins in a column for Indian Country Today.

The federal courts almost always stay away from tribal disenrollment cases and the Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn't like to interfere either. That leaves people who are removed little recourse to challenge their membership status.

Congress has been known to take sides as it did with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The 2008 reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act bars the tribe from receiving federal housing funds if it removes Freedmen, who are the descendants of African slaves, while litigation is pending in the courts.

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