A struggle for control of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians played out Monday in Santa Rosa as two candidates for tribal office challenged their pending disenrollment.
The candidates, daughters of previous tribal leaders who themselves were disenrolled four years ago, appealed to the five-member Dry Creek board of directors to reverse the decision to kick them out of the tribe.
"It's a political thing. There's no reason I should not be qualified to run," said Laila Elgin DeRouen, who was informed in October she no longer qualified for tribal membership after declaring her candidacy for secretary-treasurer of the board.
"What I presented was the truth," she said after emerging from her appeal hearing at the Dry Creek administrative offices off Airport Boulevard. "They should never have questioned my membership to begin with."
Disputes over membership in tribes have increased since Las Vegas-style gambling was legalized on Indian lands in California a dozen years ago.
They have flared up periodically among the about 1,100 members of Dry Creek Rancheria, who opened their River Rock Casino near Geyserville in 2002.
At stake is an about $650-a-month payment each adult tribal member receives, along with eligibility for medical, educational and housing benefits.
For those who have been booted out despite tracing their lineage back for generations, they say they also face a painful loss of their cultural identity and heritage.
To drive home her legitimacy as a tribal member, DeRouen on Monday wore to the hearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of her great-grandfather, Alfred Elgin Sr., who was living on the Dry Creek Rancheria when it was established in 1915.
She also wore a traditional Pomo dance skirt and rabbit fur headdress adorned with "flicker" feathers and abalone shells.
DeRouen, 29, and Carmen Cordova Soltanizadeh, 34, a candidate for tribal gaming commissioner who also is facing disenrollment, both argued their case to the board of directors in separate closed-door sessions.
Although both women invited The Press Democrat to their hearing, Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins said it was a "private matter." He did not allow a reporter and photographer to remain in the room.
Later he said it was necessary to enforce confidentiality guidelines that govern the board.
He said the hearing "has everything to do with family background and grandparents, including some name-calling that goes on."
Hopkins said the board of directors made no decision Monday on the appeals but wanted to deliberate further.
"We'll try to complete it within 10 days," he said.
The question over the women's legitimacy as tribal members led to the indefinite cancellation of the November tribal elections in which Hopkins was running for re-election as chairman.
The two women and their supporters complain Hopkins and other tribal leaders are holding onto power by selectively disenrolling rivals.
But Hopkins and tribal administrator Gus Pina said there is an automatic vetting that takes place for any candidate for office.
"It's not an intimidation factor," Pina said. "It's a fact of life if you're going to run for office, you have to show you have a right to represent the tribal membership."
But DeRouen's mother, Liz Elgin DeRouen, said automatically reviewing each candidate's eligibility for membership only began when she ran for re-election as chairwoman against Hopkins in 2004.