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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."

Her father, Stan Cordova, 61, a former Dry Creek tribal chairman who was cut from the rolls, said, "It wasn't like this before the casino."

"It's because of that money rolling into the office," Cordova asserted, adding that board members want to hold onto their salaried positions.

"They're the only ones getting rich," Cordova said of the five board members, who make salaries ranging from $40,000 to $100,000, the amount Hopkins is paid.

Cordova said that when he was chairman in the 1980s, prior to the casino being built, his salary was "zero."

Hopkins, who is running for his fifth consecutive term as chairman, downplayed his salary, saying he could make twice as much in his occupation as an excavating contractor.

"It's a 24/7 job. If they think $100,000 is what I'm here for, I could walk away from this job and earn that much easily in half a year," Hopkins said.

Hopkins won another term in 2010, six months after losing a recall election in which the results were challenged. The recall was sparked by the controversy that erupted over the disenrollment of 30 long-time members.

"The future is only better because I came back," Hopkins said this week.

He touted accomplishments that include refinancing of $200 million of River Rock debt at a lower interest rate, a better access road to the casino, purchase of vineyards and acquiring acreage for a casino expansion.

But the disenrollments have pitted cousin against cousin and even board members against each other.

"We all share family. We all come from a tribe that has fought so hard to stay together. Now it feels like we are being broken apart," said Marina Nojima, a board member who is running against Hopkins for the chairmanship of the tribe.

She said she hopes the tribe eventually clears up the ambiguity in its Articles of Association so that when it comes to membership criteria, people "really know what they mean and it's not just board or committee members saying, 'It's this way.'"

To illustrate how raw and murky the issue can be, Cordova, the disenrolled former tribal chairman, is Hopkins' first cousin.

Cordova's grandmother and great-grandmother lived on the hardscrabble 75 acres in Geyserville when the Rancheria was established. He lived for 16 years with his family on the Rancheria prior to the casino being built in 2002. But because his mother is a member of another tribe in Covelo, he was disqualified as a Dry Creek Indian in 2009.

Now his daughter Soltanizadeh, running for commissioner on the tribe's gaming board, faces disenrollment, even though she previously held elected position on the tribe's construction corporation board.

And DeRouen's daughter, Laila DeRouen, 29, also received a disenrollment notice last month after she declared her candidacy for secretary-treasurer on the tribal board. It didn't matter that she previously served as chairperson of the election committee, overseeing election rules.

Her status is at issue because her mother Liz had parents in separate tribes, even though Liz DeRouen ardently maintains she was only on Dry Creek's rolls.

Both Soltanizadeh and Laila DeRouen say tribal leaders are using a new interpretation that alleges their lineage was broken, even though they can trace predecessors to residents of the Rancheria in 1915.

Soltanizadeh fears that her three children, age 6 through 11, will face the same fate in the future.

"My main fear, why I've stuck my neck out, is because of my kids," she said. "All they know is hurt from the tribe.

"There used to be a lot of pride I had in the tribe. I want to get it back," she said.

Stan Cordova fights back tears as he talks about what he's been through.

He said his grandson asks, "'Grandpa, are you an Indian anymore?' He's seen me cry. He's seen me hurt."

His reply to the boy: "We'll always be Indians. God made us Pomo Indians."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com

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