David Wilkins: Putting the Noose on Tribal Citizenship: Modern Banishment and Disenrollment

Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series

The final speaker for the 2008 Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series at the University of Arizona, scholar David Wilkins (Lumbee) shares his research into the recent and growing phenomenon of disenrollment that is occurring across Indian Country, and delves into the likely motivations behind the efforts of some Native nations to engage in mass disenrollments of their citizens. He also argues that disenrollment is counter-cultural to Indigenous peoples, revealing that his research unearthed few examples of this sort of behavior historically.

Resource Type

Wilkins, David. "Putting the Noose on Tribal Citizenship: Modern Banishment and Disenrollment." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series, American Indian Studies, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 13, 2008. Presentation.

David Wilkins:

“Hello folks. Hello folks. All right, you’ve got to be with me here tonight. I’m really happy to be back in Tucson. Tom [Holm] actually had me come in this Sunday so I’ve been here for a fairly long while. But he set it up so that he worked me to death for a day and then I have some time off, and then I get worked to death for another day, and then I have some more time off. So it’s a nice balancing act. First of all, I want to ask does everybody have the tables and the figures? If you don’t, they should be out there at the desk there. You need to have those because this is the data that I really want to share with you tonight and really get you to ponder.

One of the great lessons I learned from Deloria and from Tom and from the other faculty that I had the privilege of studying under when I was here in the early ‘80s was the, Vine especially drummed into us the need and the absolute will to be willing to critique our own. Vine, as you know, from having read some of his publications, he not only attacked the federal government when the government needed to be attacked and the corporate world and various institutions of governance, he would also attack tribal governments when they acted astray or when they violated fundamental norms of justice and fairness. And he drilled that into us as his students and he reminded us to always be willing to challenge injustice wherever you see it. And so I’ve tried to follow his sage advice all these years. And this work that I’m going to be talking to you about tonight is one example of that.

But I really am happy to be back in Tucson and I thank you all for coming out this evening. It’s always nice to come back to one’s alma mater, especially when you’re leaving or fleeing a really cold and already snowy Minneapolis, Minnesota. We didn’t get dumped on like the Dakotas, but we got quite a bit of snow and it’s been really cold up there. And I’m not quite ready for the long slog of a Minnesota winter, but I have to steel up, which I’m down here getting all the rays that I can, trying to absorb as much as I can. It’s nice to be back on this campus and I’ve been piling as much Mexican food in my body as I can. I’m almost bilingual now I’ve eaten so much Mexican food. It’s really nice. There’s not a whole lot of good Mexican restaurants in the Twin Cities as you can imagine. But my wife is Diné, she’s from northern Arizona, born in Tuba City, raised out at Red Lake, Tonalea Chapter. I met her here when I was in my first semester as a student studying under Vine. I wasn’t quite ready to commit at the time, but she came back at the end of my tenure here after I had survived Tom’s seminars and Vine’s seminars and she said, ‘Are you ready now?’ I said, ‘Please take me in, take me in,’ and she did. And so we got married and we have three lovely children who are all practically grown now. But it’s just, she regrets not having come back with me and have a chance to be back here.

It’s been nearly 30 years, as Tom and I were talking over the last few days, since I was, I can’t imagine it has been that long, but there it is. But I thank Tom and Tsianina [Lomawaima], she’s at an ethnohistory conference right now, and the AIS [American Indian Studies] program for bringing me back as one of the speakers. The three previous speakers are hard acts to follow, especially Chief Mankiller, but I will do my best and I appreciate Teresa Spoonhunter for setting up all the logistics for my visit here.

The three concepts that I’ve worked with probably more than any others are the concepts of Indigenous governance, Indigenous activism and tribal sovereignty. And these are also concepts that were close to Vine’s heart and his mind. Although Vine as you know was our -- in using Tom’s words -- our renaissance scholar because he studied virtually everything under the sun. And so we may not see the likes of another Vine for many years to come. But these are the concepts that I work most closely with. They were first brought to my attention when I was a freshman in college in 1972 when I read Custer Died for Your Sins. Hopefully most of you have had a chance to read that. And that book really just sort of pried open my mind and taught me and reminded me of the beauty of our cultures and our languages, of our responsibilities and obligations to one another and the federal government’s politics and laws and so on. And they’re what led me to come here in the first place when Vine called me up and recruited me to the U of A [University of Arizona].

A good friend of mine, Helen Scheirbeck, who’s a Lumbee, worked in D.C. for many years. I had met her at a conference in Raleigh and she said that Vine had just established a program and when she described it, it sounded just what I had been waiting for. And she said, ‘Well, I’ll tell him that you’re interested.’ And I didn’t really believe that she even knew who Vine Deloria was, but she sounded convincing. I said, ‘Okay, well, let him know that.’ And a week later he called me up at my work place. He said, ‘Mr. Wilkins, I hear you want to come to Tucson.’ I said, ‘Is this really Vine Deloria?’ He said, ‘Well, who the hell do you think it is?’ He always spoke very bluntly to you. He described the program and told me Marlys Duchene was already out here and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m ready to come to Tucson.’ And that’s how we got first introduced even though I had heard him give a couple talks in the east.

But as Tom and I were working out the details of my visit here, he told me that I would have a chance to speak to a larger audience and the topic that immediately came to my mind was 'how do our nations define ourselves?' and 'how do we determine who can rightly belong to our nations?' And more importantly, 'What are the grounds on which those relations can be terminated or severed?’So the talk is mine, but the title for the actual talk is Tom’s. He actually came up with the title. He said, ‘How does this sound?’ It sounded very good. I’ve never been very good with titles and have to draw upon my colleagues. David Gibbs, who’s here tonight, has helped me with several titles for some of my work. I’m always looking for title ideas.

But as a Lumbee, the issue of deciding who is and is not Lumbee is one that our nation takes very seriously. It is, we believe, an internal decision that outsiders should have no say so in. But since every individual Native person has been recognized as a citizen of the United States since 1924, if not earlier, and we now have three layers of citizenship -- our Native status, our state rights as citizens and our federal status -- our situation is more complicated than any other group in the country. I’m convinced that if we are not careful in addressing this issue, that the federal government may eventually be compelled or will simply choose to act and will intervene again in profound ways, ways that will I’m sure have a devastating impact on the core sovereign power of deciding who has the right to belong to our nations. They’ve done it many times before, especially during the late 1800s and early 1900s when the Department of Interior on many occasions simply stepped in and told tribes to enroll this family or this group or this individual or told them they had to evict those individuals. Under the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act], if you read many of the IRA constitutions, the issue of membership is left to the tribe, but the Secretary of Interior has the ultimate discretionary authority to override tribal membership decisions. So we should remember our history. And under the self-assumed power of congressional plenary power with the court’s blessing, the federal government maintains to this day that they have the authority to intervene in all of our affairs including that of membership or citizenship. So with that as a rather stark opening, let me get to my prepared remarks and share with you the research that I’ve been doing on this topic and then we should have plenty of time for some question and answers later on.

Native nations are in the midst of some profound changes these days that rival and in fact may well overwhelm those that we face historically. The effects of gaming revenue on our communities and our relations with other governments, the ever-increasing level of Native political involvement in non-Indian elections, something we talked about in Tom’s class the other night and in the colloquium. Were you all Obama or McCain supporters? How many Obama supporters in the room? How many McCain supporters? A couple. Any Nader folks left anymore? Do they still exist? Well, we’ll see what Obama does. But it’s interesting that we have that many people very actively involved in the national elections. The increasing international involvement of Indigenous peoples, the recent adoption by the United Nations of the declaration on Indigenous peoples rights and the ratification two summers ago of the Intertribal United League of Indigenous Nations Treaty that was signed in Washington State, which evidences our continuing national and international status. There are of course the tremendous environmental changes that are bringing about profound changes to our lands, our waters, our skies. Just today in the New York Times, anybody catch what the Supreme Court said just yesterday? They handed down a decision in which the Supreme Court by a 5-4 decision told the Navy, ‘Go ahead and use a sonar and all the other equipment you want even if it causes horrific damage to whales and dolphins and other species of the oceans.’ So again, we see what the priorities are of the Supreme Court. And then we also have fascinating cultural and linguistic developments that are having significant consequences for our nations both good and ill. And then there’s a little thing called Wall Street’s meltdown and the financial distress and crisis that the nation, in fact the world is in the middle of and we’re part of that, aren’t we?

So there’s a lot happening folks and all these developments remind me that we live in an ever shrinking and vastly interrelated world, a world that requires knowledge not only within and about our own cultures, but outside our reservation, trust or urban borders, as well. Vine Deloria always emphasized that we must develop a comprehensive bird's eye view of the world, but we must also be able to see the world from a very localized perspective. What Gunnar Myrdal once called 'a frog's eye perspective' and I think we need to have the ability to have that bird's eye view and that frog's eye view and be able to navigate between those two perspectives if we want to be effective advocates of our nations.

Now as I noted earlier, I belong to the Lumbee Nation of southeastern North Carolina. We’ve got a couple Lumbees in the house tonight. Yeah, there they are, sitting right there. We’re about 55,000 strong. We currently lack complete federal recognition as a bona fide American Indian community by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], but my lovely wife, Evelyn, as I said, is a duly enrolled member, citizen of the Diné Nation, the largest reservation-base First Nation in the country. So even before I joined the academy, I had already because of my two distinctive east and west tribal affiliations embarked on research to better understand Indigenous nationhood, tribal sovereignty and self-determination. And in fact, when our two, when I hooked up with my wife, with my tribe being so large and hers being the largest, we thought we might have 13 children but we stopped at three. That’s all we could handle.

My Ph.D. is in Comparative Politics, but I tell my students as I told the students yesterday that I’m really a “polegalorian” because I combine politics, law and history in roughly equal parts to try and better understand what makes Indigenous politics and governance and law go round. And one of the best books I read in graduate school was Frantz Fanon’s classic study The Wretched of the Earth. It’s a brilliant study of the physical and psychological damage that colonialism unleashes on those who are colonized and on the colonizers as well. And Fanon made one statement that has always resonated with me. He said, and I’m quoting here, ‘Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly, ‘In reality, who am I?’ And I think that’s a powerful question and that pithy statement still echoes loudly when I see the ongoing social, economic, cultural and psychological problems that are manifest throughout Indian Country.

Vine Deloria raised a related, but even a more comprehensive question in a number of his works. Vine like Fanon was deeply concerned about the manner in which Native nations went about their psychological recovery after decades of harsh assimilation and the persistence of ongoing disparities in political, legal and economic power. In short, he understood that disparities evident in Indigenous state relations were also forcing Native peoples to inquire, ‘Who are we?’ Vine raised this question in a particularly pithy essay in 1974 and he said this, ‘The gut question has to do with the meaning of the tribe. Should it continue to be a quasi political entity or could it become primarily an economic structure or could it become once again a religious or spiritual community?’ Vine emphasized that historically Native peoples were primarily spiritual communities. But he was troubled by the directions that some tribal governments were veering towards where economic, racial, DNA, political and legal criteria were becoming more meaningful than the kinship and clan based spiritual understandings and relationships that once linked our communities solidly together and that enabled us to endure what we’ve been enduring for the better part of half a millennium.

So let me now turn to an examination of this issue, one that appears to be damaging the collective heart of Indian Country -- the banishments, expulsions and disenrollments. 'Disenrollment' is a legal term of our art devised in the 1930s under the IRA in Indian Country that have increased dramatically in recent years. This issue -- the literal, physical reduction in the size of our nations goes to the heart of Fanon and Deloria’s queries to the essence and meaning of Indigenous membership or citizenship or clanship or whatever term you’re comfortable with and directly deals with social justice, civil rights and human rights in Indian Country. Native nations, as one of our inherent powers of governance, retain the right to remove, to exclude or to disenroll people from our nations, from our lands and from our membership rolls; both legally and culturally enrolled citizens and non-Indian and non-member Indian residents as well.

But it wasn’t until I read a 1996 Federal Court of Appeals decision, Poodry v. Tonawanda Band of Seneca, which held that several Seneca, who had been banished, did indeed have recourse under federal law to test the legality of their tribal government’s actions and that’s what convinced me to take a closer look at this issue. This case raised a sticky question of whether Native individuals had the right to use non-Indian courts to contest what their nation had done to them in regards to their membership status. And this -- as I eluded to at the outset of my remarks -- is one of those areas where it’s becoming clear that some federal courts are willing to intervene in these matters because of the importance of membership or citizenship to those facing banishment or disenrollment. As the court said in Poodry, ‘Banishment was indeed a severe enough punishment involving a sufficient restraint on the liberty of those being banished to qualify as what the court said was detention and to thus permit the federal court to review under the Indian Civil Rights Acts habeas corpus rule.’ The issue of citizenship as a fundamental property right may be in the works as well in terms of when the federal courts will get involved. Since property, as we all know, in one’s person is also fundamental to Americans and the economic system of this nation. More recently, two related cases involving banishment and disenrollment among the Santa Rosa Rancheria in California, Quair v. Sisco 1 and Quair v. Sisco 2 have expanded the scope of federal review and may in fact be a harbinger of things yet to come, signaling that the feds are willing, in certain cases, to intervene if tribal governments don’t provide adequate civil safeguards to those it desires to banish or disenroll.

Now what these three cases show is that the federal courts are increasingly willing to enter into our internal decisions on enrollment or disenrollment like they once did historically and with a great deal of regularity. This has, as you can well imagine, some major implications for tribal sovereignty on this most basic issue of self-governance. So with this legal backdrop let me get into the bulk of my remarks now.

After the Poodry decision in ‘96, I noticed that banishments and disenrollments were apparently happening with much greater frequency in Indian Country. I was struck by the fact that as a number of expulsions and disenrollments continued to increase, particularly of tribally enrolled citizens, that many of our governments were justifying such exclusions on the grounds that this was a power they had always wielded and were simply wielding anew. So I began collecting. Like a packrat, I started collecting all the articles, all the cases, all the newspaper clippings I could to see what I could learn about this. With tribes increasingly engaged in terminating the cultural, political and legal identities and citizenship status of some of their own people, Fanon’s query and Deloria’s question of ‘who are we as Native nations?’ loomed in my mind. Are Native nations still in an era of tribal self-determination inaugurated in the 1960s and 1970s by Indigenous self-will and federal policy in which we make decisions based on Indigenous values that respect kinship connections or have we now entered a frightening and novel state of what I call Native self-decimation in which an ever increasing number of tribal nations are cutting off organic parts, members of their own community body by banishing or disenrolling legally and culturally recognized citizens for sometimes specious reasons?

This is I think a significant question to ask because if First Nations are indeed communities of related kinfolk, which is what we once were, then it would appear to me that the grounds on which to sever or terminate such a fundamentally organic and deeply connected human set of relationships would have to be explicit and would in fact rarely be carried out given the grave threat that such expulsions, the literal depopulation of already small communities would pose to our very existence. Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger’s "Terminator" character, we can indeed self-terminate, ladies and gentlemen, and this seems to be happening before our very eyes. And those charts that I asked you to, that I handed out gives you some evidence that this is in fact a growing phenomena and it has me scared to hell, to be honest with you.

Furthermore, I pondered how and why it was that the United States government, a secular state with the most diverse population of any country in the world, has in place protections that make it far more difficult for the federal government to strip American citizens of their citizenship status. Federal law does allow for the expatriation of American citizens who join foreign military units or act treasonously against the United States, but only where such actions are done ‘with the intention of relinquishing U.S. nationality.’ In other words, according to the Immigration Nationality Act, American citizens are subject to loss of citizenship if they perform certain acts voluntarily and with the intention of relinquishing their citizenship. And a person wishing to denounce their U.S. citizenship must voluntarily one, appear in person before a U.S. councilor or diplomatic officer; two, do so in a foreign country, normally at a U.S. embassy or consulate; and three, sign an oath of renunciation. So it’s not easy to stop being an American citizen, see? Interestingly, an American citizen cannot renounce their citizenship while in the United States. It can’t be done by mail and it can’t be done through an agent.

In contrast, our nations have what is today virtually absolute power, dare I say plenary power, to banish members and non-Indian residents and to disenroll or disenfranchise otherwise bona fide tribal citizens. So on this critical issue, tribal governments are far more powerful than the federal governments and the state governments. But is this what we want to be known for, that we can wield that kind of power over our own relatives? While we endure and have vigorously protested the virtually unlimited federal plenary power that is exercised over our lands, our resources and our rights, many of our own tribal governments are today increasingly exercising an even more pronounced version of plenary power and this in many cases over their own relatives. I find that a frightening reality.

After completing my preliminary research, I then critically examined several related questions in this ongoing research, and I say it’s ongoing because I continue to receive and analyze data. I have friends that have been disenrolled and that are facing disenrollment and they send me all kind of newsletters and all kind of information, they keep me updated and it really is just mushrooming out of control. A colleague and I have compiled a database of 318 tribal constitutions and these include the IRA constitutions, those established in Oklahoma and Alaska and tribal constitutions that post date the IRA as well. And I’ve also over the years collected quite a few pre-IRA constitutions, some of which are going to be in that book that Tom was kind enough to blindly review for me.

Now while the constitutions that mention disenrollment or exclusion contain a variety of statements about how and why these processes may be carried out, as will be discussed in a moment, we found only one instance in all 318 constitutions where a Native nation has expressly declared that it would never banish its own citizens. Does anyone want to take a guess which tribal nation says that in their constitution? Anybody? The Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy. We’ve got a Passamaquoddy here?”

Audience member:

“Half. Half Passamaquoddy.”

David Wilkins:

“Well, there you go. In their 19, in your 1990 constitution, it says, and I quote, ‘Notwithstanding any provisions of this constitution, the government of the Pleasant Point Reservation shall have no power of banishment over tribal members.’ That’s the only one that says that. And when I first discovered that clause I got on the horn. I called the Pleasant Point and I tracked down one of the authors of their constitution and I said, ‘What compelled you to insert this clause? You’re the only tribe that has this in your constitution.’ And he said, ‘We felt that it just, we had to do this. It wouldn’t be right for us to say we have the power to decide who no longer is one of us. We’re not going to be in office for long. What if somebody comes in after us and decide that we’re not members?’ But he said, ‘I have to be honest with you. We’re having so many problems with drugs in our community we’re beginning to think we might have to revisit this.’ So I don’t know how long even this provision might last.

So as I prepared to write an article about this as I finally felt I had enough data, these are the four questions that I came up with that guided me as I entered this shaky area. The first one is, how do the current disenrollment or banishment proceedings compare or contrast with the traditional means, if that is even discernible from a documentary or oral history available, that First Nations once used to banish or remove tribal citizens, assuming that they did that? Second, why are disenrollments and banishments occurring at the intensified rate that they are? What’s moving that, what’s making that happen? Third, what are the rationales being used by tribal officials to justify the expulsion of tribal or non-tribal individuals and families? And then fourth, how do current disenrollment, banishment proceedings comport with the tribe’s constitutional provisions, if the tribe has a constitution, because half the tribes in the United States don’t operate under constitutions?

So these were the four questions that I was pondering as I moved into it and immediately, having studied this stuff for a number of years, three incongruous premises I was reminded of as I got into it. First, as sovereign nations, our governments retain as one of our central powers of self-governance the right to decide who can be in our nation. The Supreme Court said that in what case? 1978. Come on, folks. Some of you have had Robert Hershey or Tom Holm’s classes. What Supreme Court decision said in 1978 that tribes can decide their own membership? There, thank you. Yes, Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez. That’s the linchpin decision on that. Second, many tribal nations, under their powers as governments and landowners, also reserve in their treaties and constitutions, the right to exclude non-members from their reserved homelands with stipulated exceptions for certain federal officials. But then third, and here’s the kicker, the federal government, under the constitutionally problematic doctrine of plenary power, has reserved to itself the power to trump both of those first two premises and to overturn or interfere with any tribal nation’s powers including citizenship, membership decisions when it suits the federal government’s desires to so intervene.

It’s this third premise that our governments must always bear in mind, because nothing we do can ever fully be said to be completely immune from the scope of federal interference, notwithstanding the doctrine of tribal sovereignty or the absence of constitutional markers granting such unlimited authority to the United States government. And more disturbing, as we move deeper into the 21st century, is the fact that state governments increasingly, with the explicit and precedent defying sanction of the Supreme Court, are increasingly moving into tribal territories and jurisdictional realms and are imposing their authority over our lands, our rights, our resources. In fact, the states are beginning to act like they have a form of plenary power over us and if we don’t find some way to deal with that, we’re really going to be caught in a vise, ladies and gentlemen. So as a comparative, let me give you some background to this broad topic of banishment because as [Rene] Descartes once said, although I may be misquoting him here, ‘Intentionally, I think therefore I compare.’ I think that’s what he said. I could be wrong there.

Now, worldwide the political, religious or military leadership in societies have reserved to themselves or shared the power to authoritative expel certain individuals, families or sometimes even entire groups from their respective nations or states as a punitive measure for what they considered grave offenses. As such, enforced removal from one’s Native land entailed a devastating loss of political, territorial and cultural identity for those expatriated since those evicted were utterly deprived of the security and comfort of their own family, community, religious or ethnic group. One of the earliest recorded and arguably the most widely known case of formal exile according to Christian tradition was what? God’s banishment of Adam and Eve. I mean, Eve had to have that apple and God got a little bit ticked off and what happened? They got banished, they got evicted from the Garden of Eden for their act of disobedience. That’s a fairly ominous precedent to follow, don’t you think? Another famous exile also involved God. Cain’s killing of his brother Abel compelled God to banish him and to place a shaming mark on Cain. So that’s where it all sort of begins at least from a Western tradition. Early Greeks and Romans used exile as a form of punishment appropriate to major crimes such as homicide, although ostracism, a milder variant of exile was sometimes imposed for political reasons. Among Romans, physical exile was one way for an individual to avoid the death penalty with voluntary exile allowing the accused to cope with prolonged if not always permanent absence from their country of origin. So along with involuntary exile, voluntary expatriation is another dimension to immigration where what is sought is not primarily the advantages of the place to which one goes, but essentially freedom from whatever disadvantages prevailed at home. Sometimes we just choose to leave. That’s voluntary immigration. Now I’m addressing that particular aspect of Indigenous exile, although it’s clearly a matter that deserves attention because where do 60 percent of us now live? In urban areas. Why have we left our homelands, why have we left our reservations, our trust lands? Well, there are lots of reasons why and that would make for some interesting studies right there. So M.A. students, Ph.D. students, ponder that.

Historically, some Native nations occasionally exercised the power to banish members. However, there’s not a whole lot of documentary or even oral data on this. I searched real thoroughly because I wanted to find out, is this something we used to do and if we did, who did it and why? We do know that the Iroquois Nations, if you read the Great Law of Peace, it has several provisions regarding banishment. If a chief kills another person, that individual is banished forever. And that’s in the Great Law and there’s another provision for regular people if they commit crimes, they can also be banished although they were given an opportunity to be brought back in at a later time. The Cheyenne people on rare occasions also banished individuals who committed horrific offenses. Llewellyn and Hubbell’s book talks about their banishment procedure. But the few available sources that document the power to banish or forcibly exclude show that it was a practice that was rarely used since Indigenous communities focused on mediation, restitution and compensation to deal with problem-causing individuals. No one in tribal society wanted to be ostracized, least of all banished or exiled, and certainly tribal leaders were very careful in exercising power that might lead to such dismissals since in most cases they were probably related to those they were getting ready to banish because we were always about restorative justice, not in a punitive measures.

So with that as a background, I then moved into -- with my computer friend’s help -- a search of our tribal constitutional database to see what if anything tribal constitutions say about this. And what we found was that the terms banish, exile and exclusion do not appear in any of the 318 constitutions. But we did find the phrases loss of membership, the word expel and the word expulsion a number of times. The loss of membership was found in 150 tribal constitutions. So there are ways we can, individuals can lose their membership. Typically it’s for excessive absences if you’re a tribal official or if you have sort of a diluted blood quantum, which is another dimension. Interestingly, the term disenrollment was only found in six constitutions typically involving tribal members who had gotten themselves enrolled in more than one tribe. That’s really frowned upon by our nations, huh? You have to be all Diné or all Yakima or all Lumbee. You can’t belong to two tribes even though many of us have multiple tribal ancestries. Non-Indians and non-member Indians could also be expelled from tribal lands if they were deemed to be disruptive to tribal stability or for other related reasons. In fact, many Native nations retain the explicit right in one or more of their treaties to expel or exclude from tribal lands any non-enrolled Indians or non-Indians except those specifically authorized to be there. The Navajo Nation’s Treaty of 1868 empowers the Navajo Nation to exclude or to expel non-members from their lands if they want to do that. And I’m going to just read you a couple of examples in which, of some of the language in a few tribal constitutions that deals with the issue of exclusion.

The Abenaki people of Maine, their constitution says this, ‘The tribal council may recommend permanent disenfranchisement of any member for serious violations of any of the provisions of the constitution or bylaws made pursuant thereto and the majority vote of the members present at will, will be necessary to call such member to be permanently disenfranchised.’ The Alabama Coushatta constitution says, ‘The tribal council may, by an affirmative vote of five members, expel any members for neglect of duty or gross misconduct. Before any vote for expulsion is taken on the matter, such member shall be given an opportunity to answer any and all charges at the designated council meeting, but the decision of the tribal council shall be final.’ So a number of tribes have provisions in which they lay out very explicitly the grounds on which you can lose your membership; again, the most common phrase in many of the constitutions.

Now what this abbreviated cross-section of constitutions shows is that not surprisingly, there is a significant amount of diversity regarding the rationale used by tribal officials to formally disenroll or physically expel tribal members. In some cases, those facing expulsion or disenrollment were entitled to a hearing so they could learn the reasons they were going to be forced to leave. More often provisions for loss of membership in IRA and later constitutions tend to emphasize a voluntary angle in which tribal members might decide to emigrate from their nation in order to permanently separate themselves from their birth nation. Now it’s important to note that provisions regarding a tribe’s power to exclude non-Indians or non-member Indians from tribal lands are far more prevalent in tribal constitutions than language regarding the actual disenrollment of bona fide tribal members. In other words, when I lived on the Navajo reservation, I made sure I kept a clean nose because I didn’t want to get escorted off the rez by Mr. [Raymond] Austin or somebody in the police force. So I was always aware of that.

1978 was a watershed year for Indian rights with the Supreme Court handing down two major decisions that affected tribal sovereignty, internally and externally. In Oliphant v. Suquamish, the Court deprived tribal governments of the external power to prosecute non-Indians who committed certain crimes, while the Santa Clara case held that tribal governments retained the internal power to decide their own citizenry. Santa Clara in fact appears to have been sort of the beginning point that has emboldened tribal governments to be more emphatic or proactive or in some cases retaliatory in their efforts to clarify their tribal citizenship or membership roles because it’s in the wake of this decision that we begin to see a slow rise in the number of banishments and disenrollments, a rise that increases dramatically in the 1990s when gaming revenue becomes a major stream [of revenue] and when crime in Indian Country just takes off dramatically.

In studying contemporary law and literature, there appear to be four major reasons relied on by tribal governments to justify the banishment or disenrollment of tribal members. One, family conflicts; two, racial criteria and alleged dilution of blood quantum; three, criminal activity including treason or drug sales or gang activity; and then fourth, and finally, financial issues, whether it’s the distribution of per capita gaming assets or judgment funds or something like that. Of course in some disenrollment cases, enrollment committees, tribal councils, judicial bodies, may invoke more than one reason to justify the disenrollment of individuals or families. In other words, disenrollments may be politically motivated, economically motivated, racially motivated or culturally motivated or some combination of the above. For example, just last month the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe up in my wintery state banished four band members for five years based on a number of assaults and weapons violations. In this instance, the banished individuals are still entitled to receive their yearly share of casino profits, about $7,000 a year, although they can’t actually set foot on the reservation to collect the revenue. Someone had to send the check to them, it had to be mailed to them or something. And they can request reinstatement to the tribe in 2013 if they’ve lived a clean life and held steady jobs. So this was just last month, four people up in Mille Lacs.

Throughout Indian Country banishment and disenrollment proceedings have indeed increased, and as you know from the table, one of the tables in California alone, especially Laura Wass's table, you can see that at least 16 native communities have or are currently involved in the process of disenrolling sometimes significant numbers of enrolled tribal citizens. And California’s joined by Nevada, Iowa, New York, New Mexico, Minnesota, Washington, Rhode Island and other states as well. And not surprisingly, the reasons for contemporary disenrollment or expulsion of tribal members -- not to mention the disenfranchisement or expulsion of non-Indians or non-member Indians like the Black Seminoles or the Cherokee Freedmen in Oklahoma -- coincide with the ones discussed previously ranging from those steeped in traditional philosophical values to those that reflect new economic and societal forces. Each Native nation that is actively engaging in expulsion or disenrollment of enrolled citizens or non-enrolled citizens of any country deserve specific and detailed assessment. But time and the lack of comprehensive and comparative data does not permit such a systematic and comprehensive inquiry at this point. I’ve tried, but it’s not easy. Efforts to secure factual information about banishments and disenrollments is not an easy process and tribal governments are sometimes reluctant to share this kind of data with outside parties, especially nosy Lumbees, because they say, ‘Hey, you’re not a member. You don’t have the right to know.’ Moreover, the role of Bureau of Indian Affairs is vital on this issue, but attempts to secure information from that body are equally difficult since the Bureau generally insists that those are internal matters to the tribe. And of course given the Cobell litigation, I don’t know that we could even trust the information coming out of the BIA if we were able to get any information from the BIA.

So what is evident is that historically the power to banish or disenroll tribal relatives was utilized, but only in the rarest of circumstances and even then, with the expelled usually having the opportunity to be readmitted if certain conditions were met. Since Native nations were in effect extended families of related kin, the idea of permanently expelling one’s own relatives was not a decision made lightly since traditional values and norms sought strenuously to use much less traumatic forms of punishment to restore proper social behavior. However, as tribal nations continue to expand, with our citizens becoming more differentiated through intermarriage, exposure to and appropriation of certain western values via popular culture, mass media, democratic institutions, and with the oftentimes disruptive role of capital generated from gaming institutions, smoke shops, claims settlements, some tribal governments have felt compelled to consider more dramatic sanctions like banishment and disenrollment as one means to cope with an ever-changing landscape.

There are a number of brazen examples where tribal governments have acted maliciously and I believe unjustifiably to disenroll or banish some tribal citizens on the most spurious of grounds including inter-personal feuds or grabs for raw political power or sheer economic greed. In one of the harshest cases that’s on some of the tables that you have in front of you, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians in California have disenrolled 900 of their 1,500 citizens. Now think about that, ladies and gentlemen. More than half of the nation has been disenrolled. They no longer exist for political and legal purposes as Chukchansi. Now what does that say about this community? And those individuals have lost not only their tribal citizenship, but also their primary source of income, health care benefits, etc.

And a few months ago there was an article describing a recent ordinance by the Rocky Boy Tribal Council in Montana that makes it an offense ‘for any person to engage in communication that harms the reputation or integrity of another.’ And according to the ordinance even the mere allegation of slander or liable are sufficient grounds for the tribe to take action. And that action might lead if convicted to loss of all that person’s real property and a five-year exclusion from the reservation and a fine of up to $5,000. And a second offense is punishable by relinquishment of enrollment and permanent exclusion from the reservation. When I first heard about this, I researched that a bit more and I learned that apparently that ordinance was passed after several anonymous letters were passed around the reservation alleging that some tribal council men were buying trucks and four-wheelers with tribal funds and were misusing tribal credit cards. So there you have it. Someone has since told me that they think that that ordinance has been rescinded. I haven’t been able to verify that. I hope it has.

Now when Native nations overreact like this, such actions I believe violate not only tradition of values, but they also profoundly violate the basic civil and human rights of those disenrolled, if the disenrollees have been wrongly disenfranchised. Yet today, a wave of banishments and disenrollments have been unleashed, leading to the legal, political and cultural exile of thousands of bona fide Native citizens. As our nations continue to evolve, it is imperative that we carefully consider and follow our own traditions and values and consider those of other enlightened communities that focus on fairness, justice, moral equality and respect before engaging in behavior, disenrollment of duly enrolled citizens, that profoundly violates our peoples’ human, social and civil rights and further exposes our already vulnerable nations to outside forces ever intent on limiting what remains of tribal sovereignty. Finally, as John Maynard Keynes once said, and I’m quoting here, ‘While the means we use may be molded by the ends we seek, it is the means we use that mold the ends we achieve.’ So we'd better be careful. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.”

Related Resources


In this in-depth interview with NNI's Ian Record, federal Indian law and policy scholar David Wilkins discusses the incredible diversity and sophistication of traditional Indigenous governance systems, the profound impacts colonial policies had on those systems, and how Native nations are working…

Indian Country Today Article

For most of the modern tribal self-determination era, American Indian nations have emphasized inclusion. Starting in the early 1970s, higher tribal membership numbers equated to higher federal self-determination dollars. As tribes otherwise redoubled their efforts to reverse the destruction caused…

An Essay on the Modern Dynamics of Tribal Disenrollment

Disenrollment is predominately about race, and money, and an “individualistic, materialistic attitude” that is not indigenous to tribal communities. Because many tribes have maintained the IRA’s paternalistic and antiquated definition of “Indian” vis-a-vis blood quantum (as discussed in “An Essay…