For one family, descendants of the last Chukchansi chief, Chief Hawa and his daughter Princess Melliot, being Chukchansi has always been a way of life.
Since 1892, heirs of Chief Hawa -- who the family refers to as "Grandpa Mukchaw" -- have lived and raised their children on the family's 1,000-plus acre ranch in Ahwahnee beside the Fresno River, living off the land and raising cattle.
"In my family, from the day I was born, my dad told me I was Chukchansi," said Chris Ballew, 70, wife of the late Larry Ballew, well-known in the mountains for his work in conservation. "We were always proud to be Indian, even when it wasn't a fad to be Chukchansi."
Ballew's river house, an oasis tucked into a quiet valley, shelters dream catchers and wind chimes, healing crystals, carved walking sticks tucked into corners, and rawhide drums scattered here and there.
While she's spent a lifetime living in a native way, she, her daughter Ricginda Dryer, and her grandson Luke Dryer, received letters last week stating they are now disenrolled as members of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians.
The letters are signed by chairman Reggie Lewis, voted out by the tribe in a Dec. 3 tribal council election but still seated on council at the rancheria, and secretary Jennifer Stanley.
A disenrollment means tribal members lose monthly stipends, currently about $380 a month from the rancheria's multi-million dollar casino revenues, and benefits for things like housing, education, medical, and elder and child services. Perhaps the most devastating, however, is what it can take from a family and culture, Ricginda said.
Her son Gabriel was disenrolled in 2007 when he was 13 because tribal council at the time determined that he was born a few years too late to be enrolled. He locked himself in his room for four days and cried and cried, she said.
"Now for my mom, she won't even talk about Chukchansi issues because she starts crying," Ricginda said. "And she just had open heart surgery, and her grandchildren need to be able to hear the Chukchansi stories."
Comparatively to other California tribes, Chukchansi far exceeds the average when it comes to disenrollment numbers, said Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement and a leading advocate for disenrolled Indians.
The council that issued the disenrollment decision declined to comment for this story.
Recent disenrollments were sent to all the tribe's remaining "petitioners" -- about 70 Chukchansi people enrolled in the tribe just based on their Chukchansi blood.
Most Chukchansi members are enrolled in the tribe by tracing their lineage back to an ancestor who received a Chukchansi allotment awarded by the government in the late 1800s, or to one of two families that lived on the Coarsegold rancheria in the 80s when the tribe was reformed -- the rancheria originally set up by the government as a place where all homeless Indians could live for a period of time.
"Our family was asked if we wanted allotment lands also, but the last chief, our Grandpa Mukchaw, said don't take any land from the government, because we will be sorry in the end, so his family bought this land in Ahwahnee," Ricginda said.
Petitioners have been put through disenrollment hearing three times since the tribe's reconstitution in 1988, the family said.
One member of their family, Percy Robert Elam, received a disenrollment letter from council in 2007, just two weeks after he was featured as one of three people in a two-page story with photos titled "Honoring Our Tribal Elders With Pride" in the tribe's annual Chukchansi Pow-wow brochure.
That story also featured Ruby Cordero, an 87-year-old fluent Chukchansi speaker, lifelong resident and and master basket weaver who was disenrolled in October with 53 other members family members from the Jack Roan Chukchansi allotment.
Tribal councils have sent out other letters to membership in the past asking members to reenroll because some enrollment records had been stolen or destroyed. Still, this time around, they told petitioners there was no record that they had petitioned into the tribe by the required deadline -- although their names are still listed on the tribe's original base roll, the "600 list" -- which members in Reggie Lewis' council made a motion to no longer recognize at a meeting Dec. 12, Ricginda said. Luckily for Ricginda, she found a copy of one of her family members original tribal enrollment applications, dated 1989, what council was shocked to see because they didn't think they existed, she said.
Still, none of that was not enough.
"I was raised Chukchansi," said Chris. "My family hunted and fished, living off the land, and Indians share. You always put one more potato in the pot; that's all Indian ways ... For me as an elder, losing my per capita check from the tribe takes a quarter of my income that helps with things like PG&E and food stamps, and I've always been very grateful for the help, but the thing that really saddens me is the split in the tribe.
"My family logged with the Lewises and all these families worked together throughout the 40s and 50s. I went to school with Jane Wyatt. When you are talking about the family connections, I have all that. And Joe and Chance Alberta were raised on this ranch, they lived a few years here, so for him (Chance) to do this makes me very sad, because I don't understand why."
"At my disenrollment hearing, I'm looking at Chance and say, 'Chance, we grew up with my Grandma Hazel on the same porch,'" Ricginda said. "And he's just sitting up there with his feet on the table and arms behind his head.
"Soon after that he gets so mad that he gets up and stomps out of the room saying 'You're a liar! You're a liar! You're a liar!' I felt very intimidated and attacked. I felt like he was trying to set me off so I wouldn't be able to finish my interview, and this happened right after I had been told by at the start of the interview by council that there would be no yelling or screaming...
"During my disenrollment hearing, most of the women in the meeting were crying because I talked about what they were doing to our family by bringing us in and causing so much stress."
Still, there has been good that has come out of the bad, Ricginda said.
"We no longer look at the tribe's membership like 'allotees, distributees, and petitioners' anymore. We are all coming together and trying to decide how to preserve the tribe as a whole. I'm no longer afraid anymore to walk my truth, and neither are they. That is the new council."