Disenrollments continue at Chukchansi

Tribal leaders say they are preserving the integrity of the tribe's membership

Carmen GeorgeAugust 8, 2012 

Tribal council at the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians recently disenrolled more of its tribal members -- stating they were found to be improperly enrolled, based on criteria in the Chukchansi constitution.

In a separate action, many others have received letters from the Chukchansi Tribal Gaming Commission banishing them from casino property, sentences ranging from less than 10 years to "permanent exclusion." Hearings for the banishment charges were held at Chukchansi Aug. 8 and 9.

The disenrollments

Of the newly-disenrolled, removed based on membership criteria, several Chukchansi people said about 15 people in their family were notified last week that they are no longer tribal members -- almost eight months after their disenrollment hearing Dec. 16.

After tribal enrollment records and property were stolen and/or destroyed in mass by some former leaders in 1992, many in the tribe were asked to submit their paperwork again. Some of the disenrolled claim their later re-enrollment dates are being used against them to state they did not enroll in time, based on criteria in the constitution for enrollment.

James Herr, 56, of Raymond was one of the recently disenrolled.

Herr said he and his family are on the original "600" list, the tribe's first base roll submitted to Bureau of Indian Affairs which helped grant Chukchansi more funds for tribal programs.

But once the casino was built, he said, the tribe started picking away at the membership that helped get it built.

During a tribal audit done after 2000, "the tribe discovered individuals that did not meet the criteria for membership under the Constitution," stated the tribal council in a prepared release. "Although some individuals were not valid members themselves, or even of Indian decent, they held high positions within the tribe. It has been determined that these individuals then allowed for other individuals to be enrolled in and to receive benefits from the tribe even though they did not meet the Constitutional requirements for enrollment.

"As a result, last week the tribal council took actions to disenroll several individuals from the tribe. Although it saddens the tribal council and many members of our community to have to remove people that have been a part of our tribe, it is important that resources and benefits are awarded only to verified citizens legally entitled to enrollment."

After Herr's family's disenrollment hearing last year, he said tribal council had 60 days to respond with a decision, what was told to him during his hearing and written in previous letters from council.

Herr said his hearing focused on proving his family's bloodline, and said he was asked to take a DNA test, which he agreed to. Herr's aunt took the DNA test as a representative of the family in the spring, he said.

Dora Jones, a former tribal council member that was re-voted Dec. 3 but was not seated by those now in power, said she worked on the tribe's DNA Testing Ordinance with the other council members during her former term.

"The DNA testing was meant only to help confirm, 'Yes, that's my kid,' for children enrolling underneath their parents," Jones said. "We never passed the ordinance as a way to try to link or unlink families -- that was never the intention."

A disenrollment means a loss of tribal services provided by Bureau of Indian Affairs and Chukchansi.

For 70-year-old William Bowlin of Cedar Valley, a lifelong area resident and tribal member, that means about $850 less a month -- a $300 elder food card, $250 elder utility stipend, and more than $300 from the monthly casino revenues. Bowlin is also the father of Nancy Ayala, a tribal council member.

"It's going to hurt me bad," Bowlin said. "We'll just barely get by."

"I don't care about the money," Herr said. "They have taken something I was very proud of and dirtied it spoiled it and shown that my whole family doesn't belong and just isn't good enough. All these families -- that go back to way before the Mayflower came in -- the casino has separated and divided them, and as for me, I think that's disgusting. The disenrollment doesn't bother me as much as it does for my 81-year-old aunt or my 83-year-old father, who are very proud of who they are."

"Unfortunately, enrollment issues occur often in tribes that have historically lacked the resources to hire qualified individuals to research family and tribal history to ensure legitimate enrollment," stated a release from tribal council at the rancheria. "The Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians is pleased that a portion of revenues from their economic development efforts, including the casino, are now dedicated to protect the tribe's membership to avoid issues like these in the future."

Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement and a leading advocate for disenrolled Indians, said there have been several waves of Chukchansi disenrollments over they years that removed a total of close to 1,000 members -- more disenrollments than any other California tribe.

Of those, at least three-fourths were Chukchansi and should not have been disenrolled, Wass said.

The tribe today

"It's really changed," said Bowlin of the tribe over the years. "Now they (tribal council) are picking their own people and putting them in (to serve on council) and doing away with voting."

In May, Tracey Brechbuehl and Karen Wynn were appointed to the tribal council. Tribal Council member Nokomis Hernandez was removed, and is currently recovering from motorcycle injuries in Fresno. Chance Alberta remains as treasurer although he lost the regular Dec. 3 and special March 10 election. Reggie Lewis lost the Dec. 3 election but won the March 10 election.

Jennifer Stanley and Nancy Ayala were not up for re-election last year, but will be this December.

Outside of the prepared press release, tribal officials were not available to comment for this story.

Aftermath of the tribal office break-in

The casino banishment penalties recently proposed for some members stem from allegations that a member was present at the Tribal Government Complex Feb. 27 and 28 when some Chukchansi broke into the tribal office and occupied it in an effort to seat leaders they elected Dec 3.

The casino banishment letters, issued to many involved with the break-in and their relatives, states they were "engaged in disorderly conduct resulting in damage to property belonging to the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, personal injury to others, as well as bring embarrassment and/or discredit upon the tribe." Some were also charged with "disorderly conduct" resulting in "alleged violations" of the tribe's anti-violence ordinance at a heated Dec. 26 meeting, when members learned their elected leaders would not be seated as scheduled.

Janice Devine, a former tribal council member and treasurer for the tribe, said the district attorney's office told her last week that they have not received a case from the sheriff's department regarding what happened at the tribal offices Feb. 27 and 28.

"It just makes me feel like there isn't any agency or authority in the United States that can help us when we've had all this criminal, horrendous stuff done to us -- and no one cares," Devine said. "It makes me feel like we are in the 1800s or earlier and just 'Indians' ... I was in tears, the whole thing kind of hit me at once."

She was later told by law enforcement that the reason the case can't go to the district attorney's office if because they have not received unedited tribal office surveillance tapes from the incident, what they've asked for since April. Devine occupied the building with many other elder Chukchansi people, and a previous sheriff report have states that numerous individuals from a faction outside the building were seen smashing out windows and spraying pepper spray inside, and that a flaming log was reported to have also been thrown inside.

"I don't know what's wrong with having a court order to get that surveillance tape," Devine said.

"They (seated tribal council members at the rancheria) feel they can get away with lawlessness at any time because of the lack of control from Bureau of Indian Affairs, which should have stepped in and made a decision about the Dec. 3 election," said Morris Reid, voted in as tribal chair Dec. 3, but was not seated.

"Because of that (lack of BIA involvement), it's created lawlessness."

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