Sam Lawhon, 47, has been a member of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians since the tribe’s federal recognition was regained in 1983 through the Tillie Hardwick Case when he was 18.
“Our family had 22 original members that created and voted on our tribe’s constitution in 1988,” Lawhon said. “The Tillie Hardwick case allowed 17 California Rancherias that were terminated by the federal government to the status they had at the time of termination - for Picayune Rancheria it was in 1958.
Sam sat on the tribal council from 2007 to 2009.
His wife Kim, a kindergarten teacher at Coarsegold Elementary School who implemented and taught a Chukchansi language revitalization program for almost 10 years, prior to the funding for the program being cut by the tribe last year. She finished her Master’s Degree eight months ago with a thesis on Chukchansi Language Revitalization Methods.
In 2011, Kim said there were only eight known Chukchansi people fluent in the native language in the world and only five that live in the area. Sam believes those numbers have dropped to six and four, respectively.
And now the Lawhons, along with about a dozen other Chukchansi “distributees” (members of the tribe’s founding families families) including the Ramirez and Wyatt families, have received “disenrollment” letters from the existing federally recognized tribal council enrollment committee.
In a prepared statement, tribal Chairwoman Claudia Gonzales said on July 18, the tribe adopted amendments to its Enrollment Ordinance clarifying who is eligible for membership in the tribe and prohibiting disenrollment of any member except in very limited circumstances including: (1) if a member voluntarily relinquishes their membership - (2) if they are an enrolled member of another tribe - (3) if they were enrolled after December 2008 based on a mistake or fraud.
The dual enrollment refers to the second council established by the distributees who have appealed to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals to establish them as the recognized council. The appeal has yet to be heard by the Interior Board.
“The Amended Enrollment Ordinance makes membership criteria as straight forward and clear as possible and allows us to expand the tribe by enrolling future generations,” Gonzales said. “We are hopeful the new membership rules will remove any questions over who is eligible for membership and discourage further disputes.”
Gonzales said the amended ordinance honors the tribe’s certification of its membership as it stood on Dec. 22, 2008, and prohibits revisiting the eligibility of those tribal members.
“However, the tribe has received credible reports regarding a handful of persons who may be dually enrolled in another tribe, which is prohibited by the tribe’s Constitution,” Gonzales said. “We can confirm that there currently are investigations into these reports, but we cannot comment further on those ongoing investigations. As a matter of tribal policy, information regarding specific tribal members is confidential, and we cannot comment on individual tribal members and their membership status.”
Sam, and other receiving the letters, have been given hearing times and dates to appear before the tribal council to determine if they are in fact, enrolled in another tribe.
Sam’s hearing is set at 10 a.m., Aug. 23, at tribal offices, 8080 N. Palm Ave., Fresno.
“I am really disappointed by this council, though I should not be surprised,” Sam said. “I attended a tribal meeting on July 25, where I was served a disenrollment hearing letter.
During that meeting Claudia Gonzales said there are more than 46 people in the tribe, people working against them, and costing the tribe a lot of money in legal fees,” Sam said earlier this week. “I believe these current disenrollment letters are just retaliation for the internal tribal dispute. I’m surprised Claudia thinks she can just say anything to the media, yet this is currently how the tribe is being run, with half-truths, secrecy, and lies. It has become a dictatorship.”
Sam feels the current council can not circumvent the constitution by creating changes to ordinances.
“There is no current law in the tribe that allows the Gonzales council to disenroll me,” Sam said. “They just don’t like opposition ... this can be seen in their Law & Order Code put out for comment of the membership. This put tribal members at risk for having and voicing their opinions and they have already sent letters to tribal members threatening their banishment from the tribe for 10 years for speaking their opinions at meetings which are held on non-tribal lands. I can’t wait for the day disenrollment will be impossible, and the membership will have the power.”
Sam urges tribal members and community-at-large to express their concern with recent political actions of the tribal council.
“It’s unfortunate to have to ask the community for help, but our members voices are oppressed for fear of job loss, sanctions, and disenrollment. The latest letters only reignite the cycle of conflict for our tribe ... the very same conflict that led to the eventual closure of our casino. Most of the tribe realizes that the community is dramatically affected by the tribe’s political and social stability. No one in the community or the tribe wants to relive the hardship of a casino closure again.”
“Like many many people, I’m disappointed that the tribe is doing this (disenrollments) again,” said Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler. “I was hoping that after getting the casino re-opened after the 14 month closure, they would put aside all the in-fighting ... and let bygones be bygones for the overall good of the tribe.”