Gary Davis, a musician from the Cherokee Nation, is part of the #stopdisenrollment campaign. Photo from Stop Disenrollment

National campaign launched to stop tribal disenrollment epidemic

A prominent coalition of activists, artists and at least one elected tribal leader joined a campaign on Monday to stop disenrollment in Indian Country.

According to the group, more than 80 tribes have purged their rolls in recent years. As many as 10,000 people have lost their membership in what has been called a nationwide epidemic.

Activists like Winona LaDuke, who is running to lead the White Earth Nation of Minnesota, and Greg Sarris, the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in California, are hoping they can help put an end to the controversial practice. They are encouraging indigenous people everywhere to explain, via social media, why disenrollment hurts Indian Country.

"Cowardly self extinction," Gary Davis, the president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development who is also known as the musician Litefoot, wrote on his palm as one of the inaugural #stopdisenrollment participants. His tribe, the Cherokee Nation, has faced criticism for denying citizenship to thousands of Freedmen, the descendants of former African slaves.

Freedmen descendants protest outside a Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee, Oklahoma. File photo from Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants Of Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes

"Colonial dreams come true," added artist Louis Gong, another inaugural participant. He descends from the Nooksack Tribe, whose leaders are trying to remove 306 people from the rolls.

Disenrollment is not a new phenomenon in Indian Country. Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, a seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1978 whose impacts are heavily debated today, arose when Santa Clara Pueblo enforced a law that bars membership to children of women who marry outside of the tribe while children of men who do the same are not affected.

But the issue has gained prominence in the last few years as the practice of disenrollment is distanced from the exercise of sovereignty. While tribes retain the inherent right to determine their own membership rules, a growing number of scholars and legal advocates argue that, in many cases, people are being ousted from their communities for seemingly arbitrary reasons. They also complain that some tribal resolution procedures do not offer adequate protections for people who are being removed.

To address those concerns, the National Native American Bar Association took a big step last year with a resolution and ethics opinion that effectively denounced disenrollment. The group said it was "immoral and unethical" for "any lawyer" to help tribes remove people without an adequate process to address the rights of the individuals who are affected.

Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is the first Native American to serve on the city council in Seattle, Washington. She denounced disenrollment in a post on the blog of the Galanda Broadman law firm. Photo from Facebook

The attention appears to be paying off in some parts of Indian Country. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the Spokane Tribe of Washington and the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point in Maine have recently changed their laws to make it harder to disenroll people.

But most elected tribal leaders defend their efforts regardless of the negative perception. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon went so far as to seek court sanctions against a group of 86 people who are facing removal, accusing the group and their attorneys of trying the case in the media. The tribe is trying to disenroll the descendants of Chief Tumulth, a leader who signed the 1855 Willamette Valley Treaty before he was executed by the U.S. Army.

Outside of tribal court systems and other tribal resolution procedures, people who are removed from the rolls have little recourse to challenge membership decisions. The federal courts almost always stay away from disenrollment cases and the Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn't like to interfere either.

In some high-profile disputes, Congress has been known to take sides. The 2008 reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act barred the Cherokee Nation from receiving federal housing funds if the tribe disenrolls the Freedmen while litigation is pending in the courts. A subsequent provision allowed the tribe to regain access to the money even though the case has yet to be resolved.

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