The administrative building of the Omaha Tribe in Walthill, Nebraska. Photo: Ali Eminov

'I was born an Omaha and I'm going to die an Omaha'

Omaha Tribe defends decision to remove dually-enrolled citizens from rolls
Director of tribe's corporation among those disenrolled

Taylor Keen has worked to revitalize the traditional corn of his people, hosted a war dance that hadn’t been held by the Omaha Nation for decades and led the tribe’s economic development efforts for several years.

The 50-year-old Omaha man attended Dartmouth College and Harvard University before returning to Nebraska to teach at Creighton University.

Since returning, he’s become one of the most recognizable Natives in his home state, where he serves on the boards of several humanities organizations and played the role of Ponca Chief Standing Bear for events like the state’s annual summer Chautauqua.

But recently, the Omaha Tribe disenrolled the university instructor, ostensibly as part of an effort to remove tribal citizens who are also enrolled in other tribes. Keen is enrolled in the Cherokee Nation as well.

He says he fears Omaha tribal leaders may have ulterior motives for their decision to remove him from the tribe’s rolls.

“I take my tribal citizenship very seriously,” he said. “I have to be one of the most proud Cherokee citizens and Omaha citizens.”

Taylor Keen stands at the grave marker of Chief Big Elk, who led the Omaha people in the 1800s, in Bellevue, Nebraska. Keen, who was recently disenrolled from the Omaha Tribe, is a descendant of Big Elk. Courtesy photo

Omaha Tribe Chairman Michael Wolfe said the tribal council didn’t target Keen in its decision to rescind the citizenship of dually enrolled citizens. He said the council simply decided to enforce the tribe’s constitution, which requires that tribal citizens who enroll in other tribes automatically lose their Omaha citizenship.

“It’s in our constitution,” he said. “It isn’t anything with the council. We’re just following what the people wanted.”

The Omaha Tribe’s decision remove Keen and other dually enrolled citizens makes it the 80th tribe to do so, according to 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.

He said tribes conducted numerous mass disenrollments prior to spring 2016. However, tribes have mostly halted the practice since then, at least until the Omaha Tribe’s decision in March to remove 17 dually enrolled citizens from its rolls, Galanda said.

Keen said he didn’t learn until September the tribe had decided to disenroll him.

“My Omaha grandmother enrolled us Omaha and my late father enrolled us Cherokee when I was a teen,” he wrote on his Facebook page on September 14. “Now I too am a victim of disenrollment. I will fight it and we will win. Time for a new constitution for the Omaha and to rid ourselves of less than leaders on our so-called tribal council. Shame on them.”

The Omaha Tribe held its 214th annual Umonhon Hedewachi Powwow in Macy, Nebraska, this past August. Shown here are dancers and spectators at the 2016 event. Photo: Ali Eminov

According to the September 10 letter to Keen from the Omaha Tribal Council, the council made its decision to disenroll Keen after learning he had been enrolled in the Cherokee Nation in 1992, 10 years after becoming an Omaha tribal member.

On September 21, Omaha Vice-Chairman Orville Cayou sent a follow-up letter to the tribe’s citizens explaining the council’s decision to reassert the tribe’s constitutional provisions.

“We would like to stress to our membership that there is no mass disenrollment occurring,” he wrote. “We understand our membership may have concerns and we will be available to answer any and all questions.”

Despite the tribe’s provision calling for automatic disenrollment of citizens who become enrolled in other tribes, Galanda said he believes the tribe had a responsibility to give Keen and the other dually enrolled citizens a chance to respond to the decision.

“The word ‘automatic’ does not mean you don’t get due process,” he said.

While the Omaha Tribe’s decision to rescind the citizenship of dually enrolled members concerns him, Galanda said he’s even more concerned about the council’s September 10 decision to change the way the tribe decides who can be citizens. According to a resolution passed by the council, the tribe has reverted to basing citizenship decisions on its 1964 citizenship roll, which is essentially a list of citizens at that time.

Prior to the decision, the Omaha Tribe had based its citizenship on its 1989 base roll. By reverting to an earlier base roll, the tribal council effectively reduced the number of people who could then fulfill the tribe’s requirement that citizens have at least one-quarter Omaha blood quantum, Galanda said.

“Hundreds of Omaha Indians just had their blood quantum adjusted downward by honoring only the 1964 base rolls, and that portends disaster for Omaha, meaning mass exodus and mass disenrollment,” Galanda said.

Gabe Galanda, an attorney and citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, says the Omaha Tribe failed to provide due process to those removed from its rolls. Courtesy photo

Wolfe, however, argued the council’s decision to base its citizenship requirements on the 1964 base roll was based on a desire to correct past mistakes of tribal leaders.

“Previous enrollment directors have done things incorrectly,” he said. “We’re not going to be part of wrongdoing. We’re going to be part of correction.”

Galanda said the use of blood quantum to decide tribal citizenship is contrary to traditional Native practices. Using blood quantum to determine tribal citizenship became prevalent after the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which provided tribes a means to preserve their lands by placing them in federal trust and established a way for tribes to create governments, he said.

Galanda said those tribes that established governments under the Indian Reorganization Act have often been the ones that have suffered the most from government corruption and dysfunction. Those tribes have lost connection to their traditional forms of leadership, which provided ways for preventing any one person from becoming too powerful, he said.

“The politician sees that void in spiritual or religious or cultural leadership or peacemaking and they go even harder towards whatever they’re after – getting rid of people, absconding with more money, staying in power,” Galanda said.

He said the Omaha Tribe certainly has experienced tribal corruption, having seen many of its leaders prosecuted following a 2012 scandal involving a $389,000 payment to several council members and tribal members. The payment was meant to be an incentive for those who helped prepare documents for a contract support costs case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the tribe hadn't actually received any money from the case at that point, and nine tribal leaders were later indicted for misusing federal funds.

Taylor Keen is seen her performing as Chief Standing Bear, the Ponca leader who brought his people back to Nebraska in the late 1800s. Photo: Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

More recently, the tribe came under fire for failing to properly spend Federal Emergency Management Agency funds following disastrous flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 that destroyed 11 tribal-owned homes and damaged the tribe’s casino and irrigations systems.

According to a 2017 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, the OIG could only verify $3 million of the $16.9 million awarded to the tribe for flood recovery.

“This appears to be a tribe, from what I’ve read in the headlines, that’s lost its way,” Galanda said.

He said tribes that conduct mass disenrollments often do so in order to increase the amount of financial support the tribe 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 dis-enrollments in recent years, Galanda said. Public disclosure of mass dis-enrollments also has helped to shame tribal leaders from removing citizens from their tribal rolls, he said.

But much work remains, he said.

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.

“They have contributed to the epidemic that is disenrollment by their silence,” he said. “They’ve enabled the next group of tribal politicians like the Omaha leadership to do what they’re doing to their own relatives because they’re not placing blame or shame where it belongs, which is on the people that would do this to their own people.”

Beyond public shame, however, tribal citizens have little recourse for fighting disenrollment because tribes are granted almost unfettered jurisdiction in deciding citizenship, Galanda said. The only hope most dis-enrollees have of regaining tribal citizenship is through political action and removal of tribal leaders who conduct mass dis-enrollments, he said.

Among the Omaha people, Keen and the other 16 dually enrolled citizens who recently lost their tribal citizenship aren’t the first to be removed the tribe’s membership.

Rick Grant, 43, was notified in March that the tribal council had removed him as a citizen because of his concurrent enrollment in the Santee Sioux Tribe.

Grant, who had served as an information technology manager for the tribe’s health clinic, said he believes the decision to remove him as a citizen was politically motivated. He said he had become critical of tribal leadership in the months prior to being disenrolled.

He has since moved to North Dakota but says he is hopeful the decision to remove him as an Omaha tribal citizen can still be reversed through political action.

“I was born an Omaha and I’m going to die an Omaha,” he said. “They tried to take all of that away from me. They tried to take away the place I call home.”

Prominent Native voices, including actor Irene Bedard, have taken part in the “Stop Disenrollment” campaign aimed at documenting mass disenrollments in Indian Country. Photo: Stop Disenrollment

Like Grant, Keen believes the decision to rescind his tribal citizenship was politically motivated.

Following recent tribal government scandals, corrupt tribal leaders within the tribe have fewer ways of enriching themselves financially, he said. Dis-enrollment allows them to increase the amount of financial support for each tribal member, he said.

And disenrolling Keen, in particular, allowed the tribe to remove him as chairman of the Blackbird Bend Corporation, the Omaha Tribe’s economic development arm. He said he worries tribal leaders will take advantage of the leadership vacuum they’ve created in that organization, which Keen served for eight years.

“I don’t know how much that has to do with this,” he said. “I guess they think they can get away with it.”

Wolfe said the council’s decision to disenroll dually enrolled citizens had nothing to do with Keen’s role in the tribal corporation. As for the council’s decision to remove him as chairman of the corporation, Wolfe said the council decided it was time for a change within the organization.

“For him to attack us in this way, this is being disrespectful,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the Blackbird Bend Corporation.”

Keen said he has begun a political movement to change the tribe’s constitution in order to allow Omaha tribal citizens to be enrolled in other tribes as well.

“No piece of paper or resolution from a broken form of government is going to take away my identity,” he said. “If their intention was to hurt me, well, they’ve made a martyr out of me.”

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