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Graton Rancheria's disenrollment rules defy trend

  • Graton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris answers questions while teaching his Native American Studies class at Sonoma State University on Wednesday. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

As bitter membership disputes roil many California tribes with casinos, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has moved to avoid such problems by revising its constitution in advance of the opening of its casino in Rohnert Park.

The changes to the tribe's 11-year-old governing document cover various legal areas. But the most significant revision, in light of an impending influx of gambling profits, curtails tribal leaders' ability to disenroll citizens.

With that move, the Graton Rancheria is swimming against what experts describe as a rising tide of tribes kicking out members in battles often believed to be over the distribution of casino income.

"California leads the charge in the number of tribal communities that are disenrolling great swaths of their bona fide members, and they're using the most specious of reasons," said David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Law School.

"Here we have a tribe that is bucking that trend . . . having done what I think is unique in Indian country in limiting the power of government officials," said Wilkins, who writes extensively about American Indian politics and maintains a collection of tribal constitutions.

The tribe's action comes at a key moment in its history. It is set to open what will be the Bay Area's biggest casino late this year on the outskirts of Rohnert Park. Projections are that it could bring in $418 million annually by its seventh year.

By making it far harder for the tribal government to revoke a member's citizenship, the Graton Rancheria has sought to avoid the strife that has riven some tribes.

"We saw the money coming," said Greg Sarris, the tribe's chairman for 21 years. "We saw the changes coming. We saw the challenges and we said, 'Let's do something that could prohibit disenrollments in our tribe.' "

The revisions do not completely outlaw disenrollments. But they set out provisions strictly limiting that possibility, rules that experts say don't exist elsewhere.

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