Joseph Hamilton: Tribal leaders must talk about disenrollments

Ramona Band Chairman Joseph Hamilton with Federal Emergency Management Agency Federal Coordinating Officer Sandy Coachman. Photo from FEMA

Joseph Hamilton, the chairman of the Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indians, challenges tribal leaders and tribal organizations to address the disenrollment epidemic in Indian Country:
In Southern California, where my tribe calls home, disenrollment is common, in part because of big gaming revenues and internal power struggles. It is also a symptom of the breakdown of traditional tribal power structures. Simply put, some tribal leaders listen to lawyers instead of elders.

I am worried that in another generation the disconnect will become so great that tribal councils will view disenrollment as just another traditional political tool. I am worried that we are on the verge of enshrining a new Indian “tradition” of irresponsible and malicious disenrollment.

We must not let that happen.

Obviously, disenrollment involves tough issues. I know the deep pain disenrollment causes, as I have met and talked at length with those who have been kicked out of their tribe.

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in tribal sovereignty, which does include a tribe’s right to disenroll members. However, disenrollment is not an innate right of tribal peoples; it was foisted upon tribes by the federal government in order to extinguish us. But disenrollment is a tribal right nonetheless. I suppose a tribe has the right to extinguish itself, like some did in the 1950s, if it so chooses.

The point is not that we can’t hold contradictory views about this issue, but instead that we better start talking about disenrollment and finding solutions before it’s too late. Unfortunately, nobody in tribal leader circles is willing to talk about it. Not at NCAI, not at NIGA, not among Southern California tribal leaders, not anywhere.

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Joseph Hamilton: Tribal Leaders Must Talk About Disenrollment (Indian Country Today 10/5)

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