A few American Indian tribes have created great controversies when they have “disenrolled” tribal citizens. In 2006, Danielle Shenandoah first took this issue to the UN.
More recent disenrollment disputes have led the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (HRC) to begin a year-long review of the United States’ human rights record, with particular attention to be paid to the nation’s treatment of its indigenous American Indian population.
Some American Indian activists are using the occasion to make a case that the country is falling short — by failing to protect Indians from their own tribal governments.
That will be the focus of a meeting in Sacramento on April 17 organized by the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO, pronounced “arrow”). The group will hold a second session in Temecula on April 24.
The goal is to gather testimony and evidence about actions taken by tribal government againsts Indians, both citizens of tribes and people have been told they are no longer tribal citizens. This testimony will then be turned over not only to the HRC but the federal Departments of State, Justice, and the Interior, said AIRRO president John Gomez, Jr.
Gomez is a former citizen of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians who was disenrolled — that is, told his ancestry did not make him a legitimate member of the tribe — in 2004. He said that he is a legitimate Pechanga citizen, but that he and about 200 others were kicked out that year in a power struggle over the millions of dollars coming in from the tribe’s casino in Temecula. The tribe has repeatedly sought to refute Gomez’s claims over the half dozen years since.
Disenrollment and other Indian vs. Indian issues are hardly the main focus on the HRC review. It is part of the standard Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, under which the human rights records of each of the 192 U.N. member states is examined every four years. The process will include “listening sessions” in numerous spots around the country, though only two focused specifically on the rights of indigenous people. The first of these happened last week in Albuquerque, N.M.
Indian tribes operate as sovereign governments within U.S. borders. According to federal law, each tribe determines their own citizenship. There is no requirement that these determinations be based on genealogy or genetic testing, though most tribes use these factors.
In December, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal by 16 former citizens of the Pechanga Tribe, who argued that the disenrollments violated the Indian Civil Rights Act. The 9th Circuit agreed with a lower court, saying the Act only gave them jurisdiction if there had been criminal violations, not in civil disputes.
Gomez said that he is trying to draw attention to the issue, which has grown in importance as tribal gaming has become more prominent in the state. At least 2,000 citizens were disenrolled from California tribes between 2000 and 2006.