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.
Members can lose their citizenship if their enrollment resulted from fraud or mistake -- but there is a three-year statute of limitations.
Members enrolled in another tribe are considered "to have relinquished (their) citizenship," the constitution says.
Descendants of people who lose citizenship remain eligible for membership.
The Tribal Council can suspend members -- usually for behavioral transgressions such as violence -- but their children remain eligible for membership.
Also, in a measure taken to preserve the new protections against political power shifts, the tribe's laws governing citizenship can be amended only by a two-thirds vote of the General Council. That body is made up of all adult members of the tribe, just under 800 people.
"It is unique; I've never seen anything like it," said Cheryl Williams, whose Sacramento and San Diego American Indian law firm, Williams &amp; Cochrane, specializes in tribal litigation.
"I hope they're trendsetters," Williams said.
Citizenship fights among California's Indian tribes have escalated dramatically since the Graton Rancheria was federally restored in the same year California voters approved the right of tribes to run Las Vegas-style casinos.
Thirteen years after the 2000 passage of Proposition 1A, 59 California tribes run casinos; three others have shut down. And, especially among tribes with the most successful enterprises, a practice that experts say is new in Indian culture has arisen: disenrollments.