This story originally appeared on Underscore.news.
Being Indigenous and living in the homelands of her ancestors is the most important part of Erin Bernando’s identity.
It’s a history she can trace back to Ta-hon-nah Tumulth, a chief of a Chinook band of Cascade Indians who signed the Willamette Valley treaty in 1855 and lived near present-day Cascade Locks in the Columbia River Gorge. The treaty that Ta-hon-nah Tumulth signed led to the formation of a reservation for what would become the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
Yet, that connection to Chief Tumulth would be used against Bernando and dozens of her relatives during one of the most divisive periods of the tribe’s modern history. That painful period exposed broad disagreement over how the tribe determines its formal requirements for belonging that persist today.
Despite being part of negotiations for the 1855 treaty, the U.S. government executed Tumulth before he was able to move to the reservation. Residency there would eventually become an enrollment requirement — and the basis the tribe used in 2014 to revoke citizenship for Bernando and 85 of Tumulth’s other descendants.
Bernando and her relatives eventually saw their citizenship restored. And had the issue been raised today, it wouldn’t have led to a mass disenrollment controversy that divided tribal members.
Sovereign justice:The growing power of tribal courts
That’s because the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde recently took a major step to prevent such ruptures. Tribal members voted to amend their constitution to prevent most disenrollments. That sets Grand Ronde apart from nearly every other tribe in the U.S. that has disenrolled citizens for financial or political reasons — disenrollments that critics call arbitrary and unjust.
Bernando, who lives and works in Portland, called the vote a relief.
“What I hope it means is just that we are healing from some of these historical traumas that we then kind of unleashed upon ourselves and that we are moving past that kind of thing,” Bernando said. “That we’re really embracing our membership, and moving forward to face some of these enrollment problems head-on.”
In an all-mail election in November, Grand Ronde citizens resoundingly voted to change the tribe’s constitution to prohibit disenrolling a member unless they enrolled fraudulently or were a member of another tribe when they attained Grand Ronde citizenship. The vote capped more than a year of discussions and meetings where tribal leaders gathered feedback on unresolved enrollment issues.
Though turnout was only a small percentage of the tribe’s approximately 5,700-member population, nearly 76% of the 679 who participated voted in favor of the proposal. The results were finalized after nobody challenged the results to the U .S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversaw the vote.
Grand Ronde is now one of the few tribes that has revised its constitution to prevent such expulsions, according to experts who study the issue.
“They’ve made tremendous strides,” said David Wilkins, a political scientist and professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond who studies tribal disenrollment. “I’m not aware of many tribes that have taken the kind of necessary steps to try and address the gaping holes in the human rights records that they’ve created for themselves and the people they have cast out or are trying to cast out.”
Grand Ronde leaders gathered feedback from tribal members through surveys and at meetings about long-standing complaints over complicated requirements that make enrolling difficult.
But the foremost concern tribal citizens reported was the desire to resolve all remaining issues from the disenrollment disputes that erupted in 2013.
Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy said in an interview that the problem was partly caused by poor historical census records the tribe inherited from the federal government. Even as the tribe works to address the issues that led to the mass disenrollment incident, Kennedy said those faulty records mean it’s possible there could be additional disenrollment attempts like the one Tumulth’s descendants faced.
Still, Kennedy said the tribe is working to prevent that.
“We are not looking backwards,” Kennedy said, adding that the tribe’s vote to limit disenrollment “reassures the membership that the Tribal Council is committed to healing.”
Defining who belongs
One of the most fundamental rights of a tribal nation is its ability to determine independently how it defines citizenship. It’s a right reinforced by the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez.
But that also means tribal members have limited options outside of their tribe’s own court when facing attempts to expel them from their tribe for questionable reasons, Wilkins said. Even that assumes a tribe has its own court. Out of 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, about 400 run a court system of their own, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The 1978 Supreme Court ruling has meant that the federal government mostly doesn’t get involved in tribal disenrollment controversies. Experts have argued that it does have the ability to intervene in some circumstances, like when property rights are involved.
Such limited options for recourse mean tribal governments can easily abuse their power to decide who belongs in the tribe, according to Wilkins, who included the Grand Ronde situation in the 2017 book he wrote with his wife, Shelly Hulse Wilkins: Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights.
While Wilkins, a citizen of the Lumbee Nation of North Carolina, said that while there are valid reasons tribes have cited when revoking citizenship, such as fraudulent enrollment, the vast majority of tribal disenrollments have served to enshrine political power, punish rivals, or are financially motivated. Disenrolling a swath of members means those who remain get an increased share of limited tribal services and programs, he said.
The practice is “as anti-Indigenous as anything I’m aware of,” Wilkins said, and not reflective of the ways Indigenous people and tribal nations traditionally determined who belonged or how they dealt with questions of justice like the banishment of a tribal member.
Experts believe the mass “disenrollment epidemic” is rooted in the expansion of tribal gaming operations and increased success beginning in the early 1990s. That belief is supported by a recent academic study that found tribes with gaming operations are 30% more likely to disenroll a member.
During its own mass disenrollment era, Grand Ronde owned what was at the time the state’s most profitable casino. The tribe’s disenrollment attempts earned it notoriety alongside other tribes, like the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington state and the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians in California, that have disenrolled citizens amid public outcry for reasons many call abusive or unjustifiable.
Bernando and the other Tumulth descendants who were disenrolled eventually had their citizenship reinstated. Bernando said she believes her family “banging the pots and pans” helped reverse sentiment over the years.
She said her family’s experience and vocal opposition helped illustrate the broader enrollment issues and drive home the idea that disenrollments could affect all Grand Ronde families, whether that’s being threatened with revoked citizenship or difficulties with becoming a member.
“It hurts so bad,” Bernando said. “It’s so personal. And you can’t really understand that unless you’re going through it. Once people really understood what was happening, and that they kind of had those problems and their family too, I think that’s what changed.”
A rare example
No official numbers exist, because tribal governments often aren’t eager to share details and aren’t obligated to publicize that information, Wilkins said he believes that about 90 of the 574 federally recognized tribes have disenrolled upwards of 10,000 citizens for abusive reasons.
Wilkins, who spent time in Oregon with Grand Ronde people facing disenrollment during hearings in tribal court nearly a decade ago, said he was stunned when leaders went so far as to remove deceased tribal members who the tribe said didn’t belong. He said the new protections from disenrollment were “long overdue.”
“Now they have apparently righted themselves,” Wilkins said.
The change makes Grand Ronde one of the few tribes that have not only re-enrolled expelled citizens but have enacted policy changes to protect tribal citizens from future abusive disenrollments. Three other tribes — the Passamaquoddy in Maine, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in California and Washington state’s Spokane Tribe — have embedded protections against unjust disenrollments through constitutional reforms, Wilkins said, adding that there could be one or two others he is unaware of.
Of the three, the Spokane Tribe is the only other nation that had previously disenrolled members for reasons many like Wilkins say are unjust.
A few other tribes, Wilkins said, have made changes to address disenrollment through statutory changes enacted by elected leaders or expressed desires to make policy changes to protect against the actions.
Hopefully, he said, Grand Ronde’s reversed stance will motivate other tribes that have similarly engaged in unfair disenrollments “to think about their actions and how egregious and violative they are of who we once were as Indigenous communities” and take similar steps to limit the procedure to justifiable cases.
Wilkins also said he hoped Grand Ronde officials “will get the word out” about reforms so national organizations, like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), have another example of how a tribe’s stance toward disenrollment can evolve and prompt them to take stronger stands against abusive disenrollments.
Organizations like NCAI will need to lead any effort to convince all tribes to eliminate unfairly revoking tribal membership, Wilkins said. NCAI itself faced protesters outside its annual gathering in October from anti-disenrollment advocates and tribal disenrollees calling for the organization to take a stronger stand against the procedure.
More aggressive action from the federal government and a willingness by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pressure tribes against revoking tribal citizenship for questionable reasons would help, Wilkins added. He also suggested that tribes form an intertribal appeals court for Indigenous people to turn to if they are unable to fight disenrollment proceedings in their own tribal court or if their tribe doesn’t have a tribal court to turn to.
Until then, he said, controversial disenrollments will continue, and could resume at tribes like Grand Ronde, because tribal political situations and constitutional protections can quickly be reversed. That will remain the case as long as tribal leaders continue to be influenced by their own political interests or financial considerations like casino revenue sharing via per capita payment to individual tribal members.
“We have these occasional gold nuggets, like Grand Ronde,” Wilkins said. “So that gives me a bit of hope, although I’m always on the edge when it comes to this. I’m not going to hang my hat thinking the battle has been won, because it hasn’t.”
Grand Ronde’s nine-member tribal council voted in August to allow the tribe’s members to vote on the issue.
“It was just a very negative experience in watching the way tribal members turned on each other, watching the way it just divided the tribe,” Tribal Council Vice Chair Chris Mercier, who was a council member for most of those years, said in a Sept. 21 informational video about the upcoming vote. “I don’t want to ever see the tribe go through what it went through eight or nine, 10 years ago.”
The tribe adopted a new constitution in 1984, one year after it managed to restore its status as a federally recognized tribe. Achieving restoration required a nearly 30-year battle after the U.S. government terminated Grand Ronde’s status as a sovereign nation and along with it the government’s obligations to the tribe and its people.
In the late 1990s, the tribe opened Spirit Mountain Casino, which led to an increase in tribal funds for programs and services and bigger casino revenue-sharing payments to individual tribal members. And as the casino succeeded, the tribe’s population swelled from about 3,400 to more than 5,000. That growth meant smaller financial perks for each member. Then, in 1999, the tribe’s members voted to amend its constitution to make enrolling in the tribe more difficult.
The tribe then moved to mass disenroll Tumulth’s descendants — and strip them of their rights and benefits, like access to tribal housing, health care and other programs. The move was based on an audit that found descendance to Tumulth was used to grant citizenship even though he never lived on the reservation because he was killed before he could move there. For that reason, Tumulth never appeared on early reservation census records that the tribe would later rely on to establish membership eligibility. Grand Ronde put those rules in place after it regained federal recognition in 1983.
A tribal enrollment committee voted to make the action official in 2015. A tribal appeals court judge invalidated the disenrollments in 2016 because the tribe had waited too long to eject the members, not based on the reasoning that they were unjust.
For Bernando, the most painful result of her disenrollment and its ensuing three-year battle was how she felt like many other tribal members stopped accepting her and her family as Native people and Grand Ronde relatives, despite their ability to clearly point to being descendants of one of the tribe’s historical leaders. The trauma from that three-year disenrollment battle, Bernando added, has been a prominent part of her life for a decade and is something she says she is still processing.
“It was such a really awful thing to have to go through,” Bernando said. “I felt like we were unwanted, that we were outcasts, that we were othered by our own people.”
More changes coming?
Whatever the motivation for the mass disenrollments, Chairwoman Kennedy said in a Sept. 21 informational video, the tribe had no choice when it found out some had enrolled without meeting requirements, even if it seemed unfair.
But what’s become clear since the disenrollment period 10 years ago, and especially since the 1999 constitutional changes that made tribal enrollment harder, is that tribal leaders needed to address complaints about the tribe’s approach to enrollment, Kennedy said.
“Then I think many people realized, and once they did, were like, ‘Whoa, changes need to be made,’” Kennedy said. “We cannot move forward. Our families are split.”
In recent years, tribal leaders began to more aggressively research and gather feedback from Grand Ronde citizens to potentially revise enrollment requirements. Problems included blood quantum requirements that are increasingly difficult to meet and the inability of parents to enroll children born during the 30 years when the tribe was terminated by the federal government.
Kennedy said there’s not a single Grand Ronde family that has been spared from the stress and trauma of either being disenrolled or not being able to enroll, even though they should be eligible.
“The outcry of our members was what we were listening to,” Kennedy said. “They said, ‘We’ve got to change this, we’ve got to.”
Kennedy said Grand Ronde leaders will continue to hold public meetings dedicated to the issue for tribal citizens to provide recommendations or tell their own story of how the tribe’s complicated enrollment process has affected them.
“It’s been a long road,” Kennedy said. “So we will continue to listen to our members, and continue to hear about the situations they have.”
She added that the vote was “just a starting point, just to say we had done this and we’re not going to do this anymore and now we can hopefully move on from it.”
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.