SAN FRANCISCO – Two casino-owning tribes in California have thinned their membership ranks over the last several months, cutting off scores of people from a share of casino profits and other benefits of tribal membership.
Officials with The Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians and the Pala Band of Mission Indians say the former members' ancestral blood lines disqualified them.
Critics, however, have a different explanation: greed.
They accuse tribal officials of trying to increase their share of profits from their casinos, a charge that tribal officials vehemently deny.
Many expulsions have occurred around the country, but they are particularly numerous in California, where many tribes reconstituted over the last several decades then entered the casino business, advocates say.
Exact expulsion figures are hard to come by, but Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement, estimates that about 2,500 tribal members have been purged since 1997, most in California.
The Chukchansi, owners of the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in the Sierra foothills near Yosemite National Park, have expelled dozens of members since around November. The Pala Band of Mission Indians in northern San Diego County — owners of the Pala Resort and Casino — expelled more than 150 people on Wednesday.
Still other tribal members have had their benefits suspended through banishment — the fate recently of several members of the United Auburn Indian Community, operator of the Thunder Valley Casino Resort outside Sacramento.
Expelled and banished tribal members can be cut off from thousands of dollars in monthly stipends and other benefits. With the tribes claiming sovereign status, experts say these people have little recourse to challenge tribes' enrollment decisions in courts.
"Native people to this day have no voice," Wass said. "We can't go anywhere with this to get human rights or civil rights upheld."
Nancy Dondero, 58, said she lost a $1,000-a-month stipend and her daughter, Nikah, stopped receiving college funding and had to drop out of California State University, Fresno when she and her family were removed from the Chukchansi tribe in November.
"I know who I am," Dondero said. "I know who my dad is. I will always be Chukchansi."
Dondero traces her heritage back to her great grandfather, Jack Roan. Tribal officials say a 1929 application with the state and Roan's own will list him as Pohoneechee, a Miwok band.
But Dondero said her great grandfather didn't understand English, so someone else may have filled out the forms and inserted the wrong tribal affiliation. He was allotted land as a Chukchansi, she said.
Ricginda Dryer, 50, another Chukchansi member, said she received a letter from the tribe last month informing her that she had been expelled. Tribal officials said she failed to petition to be a member after the tribe was reconstituted in the 1980s, according to Dryer.
"They're trying to lower the numbers down to be exclusively a couple of families, so they can make as much money as possible a month," she said.
But Rob Rosette, an attorney for the Chukchansi, said the expulsions have nothing to do with casino profits. The remaining tribal members will only see an approximate $25 increase in their monthly checks, he said.
"It's painful, it's not easy," he said of the removals. "But these leaders are doing their jobs. They are elected to office to follow the tribe's Constitution and laws."
For those who have been disenrolled or banished, fighting the tribe can be nearly impossible, said David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a Lumbee tribe member.
When tribes do have their own judicial branches, Wilkins said they tend not to be independent from political influence. And the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has largely stayed out of enrollment decisions since a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed tribal sovereignty in membership decisions.
"They have no recourse in either tribal proceedings or federal court proceedings," he said. "They're in a legal wonderland."
Jessica Tavares, 62, said she and several other United Auburn members were recently banned from tribal lands and had their per capita payments suspended just for speaking out against the tribal council.
Tavares and the other suspended members were involved in a petition to recall the council, accusing it, among other things, of denying funding for tribal schools and pledging $1 million to the Sacramento Kings basketball team without proper consultation.
Now, Tavares cannot set foot on tribal land for 10 years and won't receive per-capita payments for four years.
"This banishment means a lot because some of those properties we played on as kids," said Tavares, a former tribal chairwoman. "That's a piece of me."
In a Nov. 29 letter explaining their decision, the tribal council said Tavares was not suspended for the petition itself, but defamatory statements that violated tribal law. The tribe has maintained its commitment to tribal schools and did not need the entire tribe's approval for the casino advertising commitment to the Kings, the council said.
Tribe spokesman Doug Elmets declined comment, saying the suspensions were an "internal tribal matter."
Elmets, who also represents the Pala tribe in San Diego County, said expulsions there had nothing to do with casino profits and noted disputes over tribal membership have been going on since the late 1980s, well before the tribe even thought of a casino.
But Fred Hiestand, Tavares's attorney, said his client's free speech was violated.
"The irony here is we spend trillions of dollars trying to export our Bill of Rights to other countries," he said. "But in our own country we have these pockets of despotism that we allow to exist under the guise of sovereign immunity."