COARSEGOLD, Calif. — The six-page, single-spaced letter Nancy Dondero and about 50 of her loved ones received last month was liberally peppered with legal citations and footnotes. But its meaning was brutally simple. “It is the decision of a majority of the Tribal Council,” the letter states, “that you are hereby opted out.”
And with that, the official membership of Mrs. Dondero in the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, the cultural identity card she had carried all her life, has summarily ended.
“That’s it,” said Ms. Dondero, 58. “We are tribeless.”
Ms. Dondero and her clan joined thousands of California Indians who have been expelled from their tribes in recent years for the crime of not being of good lineage.
For centuries, Native American tribes banished people as punishment for serious offenses. But it’s only in recent years, experts say, that they’ve begun to systematically de-register Indians deemed to be inauthentic members of a group. And California, with dozens of tiny tribes that have been decimated, dispersed and then reconstituted, often made up of ethnically mixed Indians, is the trend’s national home.
Clan rivalries and political wrangling are often triggers for unsubscribes, but critics say one factor has driven the trend the most: casino games. The state has more than 60 Indian casinos which grossed nearly $7 billion last year, the most of any state, according to the Indian Gaming Commission.
For Indians who lose their tribal membership, the financial impact can be enormous. A few small tribes with casinos pay members monthly checks of $15,000 or more from gambling profits. Many offer housing allowances and college scholarships. Out-of-school children may lose access to tribal schools.
The money and immense power it has bestowed on tribes that have endured extreme poverty for decades has prompted many tribal governments to consolidate control of their gambling businesses by reducing membership, critics and independent analysts.
“Sometimes it’s political vendettas or family feuds that have gotten out of hand,” said David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and professor of Native American studies at the University of Minnesota who has studied deregistration across the country. “But in California, it seems most often that gaming revenue is the trigger.”
At least 2,500 Indians have been deregistered by at least two dozen Californian tribes over the past decade, according to estimates by Indian lawyers and scholars. In nearly all of these cases, tribal governments—exercising federally recognized authority—determined that the ousted Indians did not have the proper ancestry. According to 2010 census figures, more than 362,000 Indians live in California.
Tribal governments universally deny that greed or power drives opt-out, saying they are just following membership rules established in their constitutions. To that end, they often say they are weeding out people with little connection to their tribe, who have joined them primarily for services, scholarships, and monthly checks funded by casino profits.
“You have people who want to be part of the tribe, where nobody knows who they are or where they come from,” said Reggie Lewis, chairman of the Chukchansi Tribal Council. “We have sworn to respect the Constitution. And basically that’s what we’re trying to do.
The tribe has de-enrolled more than 400 members in the past five years, and dozens more are facing de-enrollment hearings. Some members estimate that the number of tribe members is now below 1,000.
Sometimes, disenfranchised Indians are forced off tribal lands – although in California many Indians do not live on the small reservations, also called rancherias.
The Chukchansi Tribe, whose 2,000 slot casino is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas near Yosemite National Park, gives members a monthly stipend of less than $300 per person. But it also pays for utilities, food bills and tuition – and Nikah Dondero, the 32-year-old daughter of Nancy Dondero, had to turn down a masters program after being unenrolled last month because she lost his purse.
“It’s like I’m a white girl now with Okie kids,” said Ms. Dondero, a mother of two.
Beyond the benefits, critics of opting out say it can be psychologically devastating. “It destroys their connection to their ancestry, their cultural heritage, their tradition,” said Laura Wass, Central California director for the Native American Movement, an opponent of de-enlistment. “You must go to the iron gates and beg entrance to your own land.”
The fights over registration have spawned a cottage industry for ancestry research. Many tribal governments employ lawyers or researchers who comb through government records looking for evidence of an individual’s tribal authenticity. Companies that test Indian DNA have sprouted across the country. The Chukchansi hired a former Bureau of Indian Affairs official who specializes in federal records to examine each member’s lineage.
In the case of Nancy Dondero, the deregistration of her extended family came down to a single ancestor: a great-grandfather, Jack Roan, who died in 1942 at the age of 76. The tribe’s enrollment committee, appointed by the seven-member tribal council, determined Mr Roan was not Chukchansi based on a personal will and affidavits in which he claimed to be a member of another tribe.
At a hearing in September, Roan’s descendants were allowed to present their own evidence, which included a census and land records showing that Mr Roan was a Chukchansi. But the council rejected their argument, saying their documents contained incorrect information submitted by white people. Mr. Roan was fired, along with his descendants.
Paradoxically, Mr. Roan’s face has become an iconic image of the Chukchansi, thanks to a photograph taken by Edward S. Curtis, the famous documentarian of the American West, who the list like Chukchansi in a photograph taken in the 1920s.
One of Mr. Roan’s daughters, Ruby Cordero, is also considered a cultural pillar of the tribe as she is an expert basket weaver and among the last native speakers of the Chukchansi language. But at 87, she too was deregistered.
“She was born and raised on this property,” said Nancy Dondero, Ruby’s great-niece.
Unsubscriptions are not subject to appeal. But in early December, the Chukchansi held tribal elections, which could result in new council members. (The vote is still being counted.) If so, another council could reinstate Roan’s descendants, though that’s far from certain.
Some Indian advocates like Ms Wass say it’s time Congress allowed federal courts or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to offer legal recourse to Indians who believe they have been improperly de-enrolled.
Tony Cohen, a northern California attorney who has represented Indians and tribal leaders for three decades, said Congress could, for example, enact legislation allowing Indians to sue tribal governments in federal court if they believed that their rights had been violated. But no such legislation is pending, and Congress has been reluctant to meddle in issues of tribal affiliation.
“I don’t like to see Congress interfere with Indian sovereignty,” Cohen said. “But I also don’t like seeing tribal governments allowed to be, in essence, dictators.”
Citing a 1978 Supreme Court decision written by Judge Thurgood Marshall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs asserts that tribal governments have exclusive authority to determine membership – unless a tribal constitution authorizes government intervention. But such provisions are rare.
And some federal officials say that’s exactly how it’s always been.
“The tribe has always had the ability to evict people,” said Kevin Bearquiver, deputy office manager for the Pacific region. “Tolerance is a European thing brought to the country. We never tolerated things. We turned our backs on people. »