Steve Russell: Small tribes get even smaller with disenrollment

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

Judge and professor Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, continues his look into the disenrolment epidemic in Indian Country:
Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government gathered survivors of the genocide into tiny reservations known in California as rancherías. Because of the genocide and because Congress had failed to ratify a series of treaties signed by California tribes, the former owners of the dirt on which the state was established had been left homeless.

Less than 50 years after most of the rancherías were established, federal Indian policy lurched into the “termination and relocation” period and many California Indians became homeless again. Of the 41 rancherías selected for termination, 38 were. Since Congress belatedly realized that termination and relocation forced Indians to trade rural poverty for urban poverty and it was a bad trade, 27 of the terminated rancherías have been restored.

This difficult and recent history explains why the surviving rancherías are tiny and many Indians have lost touch with their indigenous cultures. The good news, if it is good news, is that many of the rancherías are located near cities or major highways, and therefore are excellent locations for casinos.

Money falling into a dirt-poor reservation is like what some tribes call a male rain ending a drought. It’s good news but it can be destructive. Tribal leadership gets challenged in unforeseen ways and not all leaders rise to the challenge.

Kids fortunate enough to be raised on a small rez with a big casino and leadership with foresight are the envy of Indian country when the question in front of them is medical school or law school and neither will cost the parents a dime. Kids raised with lesser leaders may get accumulated per caps at age 18, high school done or not, and the question in front of them is Navigator or Escalade?

More critical for all tribes is the impact of large money and small leadership on what lawyer Gabe Galanda, a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, calls “the American Indian disenrollment epidemic.” This epidemic has disappeared literally thousands of Indians.

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: Disappearing Indians III: Carving Up the New Buffalo (Indian Country Today 8/4)

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