When 87-year-old Ruby "Roan" Cordero of Oakhurst received a letter a few weeks ago stating she would be disenrolled as a member of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, she couldn't understand the piece of paper.
Cordero only speaks a little English. Her Alzheimer's Disease has pulled her mind back to an earlier time, family members say, to childhood when she still spoke in her native language -- Chukchansi Indian.
Although she is from one of the area's original Chukchansi families, and only one of eight known people in the world fluent in the tribe's native language, she and more than 50 of her relatives received disenrollment letters last month. Their disenrollment hearings began Sept. 27 at the Picayune Rancheria.
The letters have shocked many in the family and made other tribal members question if they could be next.
"If they kick us out then everyone is going to go (get disenrolled) because I have documentation I am Chukchansi and have been a member since I was born," said another tribal elder and lifelong resident of Coarsegold and Oakhurst that received a disenrollment letter.
Reggie Lewis, tribal council chairman, said the council works within the enrollment department's recommendations -- five enrollment committee members and three staff -- whose job is to check the background of their people.
The recent disenrollments letters went out to descendants of Jack Roan, who was given one of the original Chukchansi allotments. The tribe focused on a few government documents stating he was Po-he-nee-chee, although in their tribal files, and presented at other hearings in the past, the family proved Roan was Chukchansi and Po-he-nee-chee using other government documents of the same caliber.
The Roan descendants were given 15 minutes before the session began, as stated in their letters, to view evidence presented against them at their disenrollment hearings this week.
Opponents say certain families are being targeted, with disenrollments rooted in greed over casino profits, old grudges between individuals, and because many live in neighboring Mountain Area towns, like Mariposa, away from the rancheria.
"It's sad because we've been members forever, way before the casino," said a tribal member about receiving her disenrollment letter. "We were standing in line for commodities together, and now they're stabbing us in the back."
More than ten Chukchansi people interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity.
The latest batch of disenrollment letters isn't anything new for the tribe. While Lewis estimated total disenrollments for the tribe since its inception between 400 and 500, Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement and a leading advocate for disenrolled Indians, said the real number is estimated at 800, the majority of disenrollments since the tribe opened Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in 2003.
Comparatively to other California tribes, Chukchansi far exceeds the average when it comes to disenrollment numbers, Wass said.
The tribe has about 1,500 members and 900 voting members, Lewis said. Waas said the tribe has their sights on disenrolling many more.
Lewis said he did not know the total number of disenrollment letters recently issued, but that he would be surprised if it was more than 100 people.
"They put a stop to all disenrollments for a little while, but I have a feeling that was a political thing more than anything," Wass said.
A disenrollment means tribal members lose monthly stipends, currently about $280 a month from the rancheria's multi-million dollar casino revenues, and benefits for housing, education, medical, and elder and child services.
"We're no longer a direct service provider," said Troy Burdick, superintendent of Central California Bureau of Indian Affairs with 55 tribes beneath him. "I can't think of anything my agency would provide as a direct benefit to them if they are not a member of a federally recognized tribe."
The Picayune Rancheria recently stopped providing many benefits to the tribe's existing "petitioners" -- tribal members of Chukchansi descent that are not direct descendents of a Chukchansi given allotment land by the U.S. government in 1887. About 60 petitioners are thought to remain, one member said.
Membership with the tribe is on shaky ground for the majority of the tribe, many Chukchansi say, because membership is no longer just about being a direct lineal descendant, and criteria in the Chukchansi constitution is interpreted differently by each new tribal council.
A point of concern in the constitution: "All persons of Chukchansi Indian blood who have a special relationship with the tribe not shared by Indians in general."
Those concerned say the statement is too loosely defined, and that criteria for meeting the "special relationship" requirement is too ambiguous.
Lewis said the tribe is trying to whittle membership down to those in the Coarsegold area.
"You may be Chukchansi, but you aren't a Chukchansi from here," Lewis said. "We're trying to get it down to the people who are from this area who are truly entitled to be tribal members ... you also have to prove that someone in your family has a special relationship with someone that started the tribe ... There are different bands of Chukchansi, and some of them had nothing to do with this tribe here ... I don't think that's being greedy, I think that's saying, 'Look, we acknowledge that you are Chukchansi and that you are Indian, but you are not from here.'"
Some tribal members have said that thinking is contrary to the original intent of the federal government in helping create the rancheria -- grouping the greatest number of like-minded individuals together in hopes of achieving greater prosperity.
Tony Cohen, partner for Clement, Fitzpatrick and Kenworthy in Santa Rosa, who's specialized in federal Indian law for more than 30 years, said many American Indian people had to leave or sell allotment lands awarded by the U.S. government to find work, and are now being treated as non-native by their people because of it.
Law in Indian country
Wass tried to stop Chukchansi disenrollments all together in 2006/2007 with a petition for a constitutional amendment to secure all members enrolled as of 2002/2003 (1,200 people) on the tribe's roll. While there was enough petition signatures to put the amendment to the vote, tribal council at the time threw it away, she said.
"Tribal members could have gone to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but this is where it gets tricky in Indian country -- rumors rule," Wass said. "Those in power were saying, 'Don't worry, we will keep you,' and when some letters got pulled back, they quit fighting ... Do not think you are secure until there is an amendment to that constitution."
However, if a tribal government violates its own constitution, it isn't punishable, except internally, Cohen said. He noted, though, that the federal government can withhold grant funds and refuse to deal with a tribe on a government-to-government basis, and ultimately, Congress can terminate tribes.
"In the state of California, the state has criminal jurisdiction throughout tribal lands and over tribal members, but as to civil jurisdiction, the state has none," Cohen said. "Tribes can throw out everyone with blue eyes if they wanted, even though it's a violation of their own constitution and the U.S. Constitution."
To protect the civil rights of individuals, Congress would need to amend the Indian Civil Rights Act to waive tribal sovereign immunity so a tribal member can sue their tribe in federal court, Cohen said.
"An individual can sue tribal officials without triggering the officials' sovereign immunity if they allege that the officials were acting outside the scope of their authority," Cohen said. "For example a tribal chair has no sovereign immunity if it is alleged that the chair was exercising powers reserved to the treasurer by the tribal constitution."
Bureau of Indian Affairs considers enrollment issues internal tribal matters outside of their jurisdiction.
"I am aware that disenrollments occur and tribes have their reasons," said Troy Burdick, superintendent of Central California Bureau of Indian Affairs. "BIA is more or less an administrative body in dealing with contracting programs for these things that have to come through us for review and approval, but they are minimal. Most of the tribe's handle their own affairs pretty much on their own."
For Cathy Cory, disenrolled from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians with her family in 2006, losing some financial from the tribe wasn't so devastating, but the loss of identity, especially for her children, has been very hard.
Her daughter was a junior at San Francisco State majoring in Native American studies when she received her disenrollment letter, Cory said. Her daughter was instrumental in starting up the major at the school and organized the pow wow there.
No longer a member of a federally recognized tribe, she lost her grant and scholarship money. She wasn't able to finish school and has since returned home.
"She had plans to come back and work with the community and work for the tribe," Cory said. "And how many people have had those plans and dreams that have been shattered too? I'm very sure many of the future generations feel the same. Their heritage as Indian people have basically been stolen from them."
"The first reaction was kind of sickening and disgusting," said one young Chukchansi woman about of how it felt opening her disenrollment letter. "I feel sad that they are kicking out my own family, and I have 80 and 90-year-old elders that speak fluent Chukchansi ... How do you sleep at night knowing you are disenrolling 80 and 90-year-old elders that speak fluent Chukchansi, that we learn from, that carry the tradition. I am ashamed to even know them (those involved with disenrolling her family). I just feel embarrassed that I am Chukchansi."
"The people who were the least likely to be given help, when help was given, turned on each other," said a man with American Indian relatives. "They will come to their own demise."
"It will be ongoing through families," said Charlene Montgomery about Chukchansi disenrollments. "The younger ones will carry on what the older ones taught them about this, whether they were part of this or not, it will still be there. And if we are walking a spiritual path, we need to walk a spiritual path. We need to find forgiveness."
"I've seen native youth gathering at pow wows and celebrations come forward and really understand who they are -- really starting to work on the Red Road of sobriety out of alcohol and addiction -- and when you start to see the healing is starting and coming back because of connection to culture and language, to see it ripped out, it's horrible," Wass said. "General counsel, they can stand up for what they've got to do and quit relying on paperwork. Go in there and claim their heritage. They are the people, they are the government -- have petitions, protests. Do what you've got to do without violence, shut down that casino (if that's what it takes)."
"For as long as I can remember, we were taught the Chukchansi language, songs, stories, traditions and instilled that sense of pride I see only Indians have. I am 100% Indian power doing things for our nation, elders, youth and other Indian tribes as well," said Nolan Cordero, a young Chukchansi man. "How are we ever going to prosper if we hold one another down? I've made some serious mistakes along my way on this red road, but always blessed with good family, friends and Chukchansi people to show me they cared."