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."
High-profile disputes over tribal enrollment have erupted in a number of other California tribes, especially in the dozen years since Las Vegas-style gaming was legalized on Indian lands.
"Ticking time bombs in the vast majority of tribal constitutions can allow these things to boil up," said Mike Pfeffer, an Oakland attorney and former head of California Indian Legal Services.
The problem, he said, is many tribal constitutions were drafted on models from the 1930s and have no statute of limitations.
"It allows well after the fact challenges as to whether somebody's parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents were properly enrolled under the criteria that was then in effect," he said.
Some tribes, such as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who are building a casino next to Rohnert Park, only allow three or four years for a membership to be challenged after an individual joins.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs rarely gets involved in membership disputes because of tribal sovereignty issues. And there are no legal recourses for disenrolled members who no longer get monthly payments from the casino -- about $650 in the case of Dry Creek -- and lose medical, educational and housing benefits.
Dry Creek members who face disenrollment can appeal to the board, but, Soltanizadeh said, it's "basically appealing to the firing squad."