Native Americans protest ousting from tribes over political disputes
Michael Martinez Chicago Tribune Jan. 14, 2006 12:00 AM
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Dozens of American Indians in several states tried to launch a national movement this week as they protested the growing trend of Native Americans being denied profits from tribal casinos following political disputes.
They denounced what they said was tribal corruption in demonstrations outside the Western Indian Gaming Conference here, a meeting already overshadowed by the scandal over Capitol Hill lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to conspiracy to defraud Indians with casino interests of more than $20 million.
Thousands of Indians nationwide, including 4,000 people in California, have been stripped of or denied rightful membership in their tribes, and 75 percent of the California cases involved controversies over casinos, said Laura Wass, founder of the Many Lightnings American Indian Legacy Center in Fresno, Calif.
One of the protesters this week was Donald Wanatee Sr., who lived for nearly all of his 73 years on an Iowa reservation but, in a single day last spring, went from tribal elder to tribal outcast.
His exile followed a struggle over a tribal casino that pitted Indian against Indian within the Sac and Fox Tribe of Mississippi in Iowa. He, his brother and 16 other members of the tribe ultimately lost to a rival faction. Last May, they stopped receiving their share of gaming profits amounting to $2,000 a month each in the 1,300-member nation in central Iowa, Wanatee said.
Disenrollments are often appealed to U.S. courts, but tribal leaders have defeated or deferred the challenges by asserting that Indian nations have sovereignty in determining membership. Tribal councils have defended the removals as legitimate and allowable under their constitutions, with due process given to all.
Anthony Miranda, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Commission, which sponsored the gaming conference, said his group didn't involve itself in enrollment disputes, explaining that they were local tribal mat- ters.
About 1,500 of the disenrollments occurred after an official challenge by another tribe member or leader who questioned a fellow member's blood percentage or alleged that an ancestor left the reservation or tribe's rolls decades ago, voiding descendants' standing, according to protesters here.
In the other cases, Indians were often denied recognition after tribes imposed a moratorium on enrollments, despite the individuals' longstanding ties, said Mark Maslin, a protest organizer.
But the official explanations, protesters said, are a pretext for purging tribe members seen as a threat by a ruling faction, frequently after an argument over a tribal casino.
At stake is the wealth created by lucrative casinos, granted by government to long-subjugated and impoverished Indian nations since the 1980s to promote economic development and self-sufficiency. In one tribe, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians in Southern California, annual payments to each member exceed $100,000, according to one disenrolled family.
Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, declined to comment this week.