Disputes over tribal membership have flared up again within the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, prompting an indefinite postponement of the election for its board of directors, which runs River Rock Casino near Geyserville.
The November election was called off after the legitimacy of two candidates for office, both lifelong members of the tribe, was questioned.
At stake is control of Sonoma County's only operating Indian casino, along with payments and benefits that are lost by members disenrolled from the tribe.
For those who have been kicked out despite tracing their tribal lineage back for generations, it's a painful experience that also threatens their cultural identity and heritage.
"It's devastating when your citizenship is removed and you're challenged --- who and what you are. It takes a toll on your well-being," said Liz Elgin DeRouen, 48, a former Dry Creek tribal chairwoman who was disenrolled three years ago. "You're disenfranchised to the deepest level."
Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins defended the tribe's need to ensure that its approximate 1,100 members are legitimate.
In essence, they must be descended from someone who was living on the Rancheria when it was established in 1915 and cannot have been a member of another tribe.
"We've been down this road before. When election time comes, we have to review every member who wants to run, to make sure they are members of Dry Creek," Hopkins said.
"There are cases of people on the board who were not members. Because of that we are a little gun-shy," he said.
But DeRouen and other critics charge that current tribal leaders, including Hopkins, are holding onto power by selectively disenrolling rivals.
"They have no cause to disenroll me. They're just making stuff up," said Carmen Cordova Soltanizadeh, 34, one of the two board challengers whose candidacy triggered questions over her tribal roots.
"I can trace my bloodline to my grandmother in the 1915 roll. It still runs strong," she said. "They don't want us in authority. We stand for right and honesty. They're scared of us coming in."