Lake County’s Robinson Rancheria re-enrolls almost 70 former members
In a rare turnabout, a Lake County tribe is reinstating nearly 70 members who eight years ago were stripped of their tribal status and benefits, cultural identities and, in some cases, their homes.
Exiled Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians still feel deeply the sting of that banishment but most welcome the chance to regain their tribal citizenship, which is expected to be finalized within weeks.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Julie Moran, 41. But “I’m going to re-enroll; my heart has always been with the tribe.”
Two other family members, however, have said they no longer want to be part of a tribe that cast them away, Moran said.
The Upper Lake tribe’s decision to reinstate its former members is an encouraging sign and counterweight against the massive, nationwide disenrollments embroiling Native American tribes for more than two decades, said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in disenrollments. He is a member of the Round Valley tribe in Mendocino County.
Some tribes in recent years have spoken out against the practice, a longtime problem that spiked in the 1990s following the legalization of Indian gaming. Native Americans also are widely using social media to protest the disenrollments.
“They are saying enough is enough,” Galanda said.
Galanda said he believes the Robinson Rancheria case is the first time an entire group of people disenrolled en masse has been re-enrolled without a court order. There has been at least one case in which dozens of people were voluntarily re-enrolled at once, but others in their group remained outsiders, he said.
Robinson tribal members first voted?52-25 to re-enroll members at the end of January at a general membership meeting. The six-member elected council affirmed that decision early this month and set the process in motion. The tribe has more than 400 members.
A majority of the tribe wants to undo what many believe were unwarranted disenrollments based on politics, ill will and a desire to increase casino revenue payments to the remaining members, said tribal Chairman Eddie Crandell. Those seeking the disenrollments at the time claimed the victims had questionable tribal heritage.
“There was a threat to power,” Crandell said. He wasn’t disenrolled, but several of his family members were the first to go, he said.
Thousands of Native Americans nationwide are believed to have been kicked out of their tribes since the 1990s.
“It’s very difficult to get precise figures,” said David Wilkins, a professor of Indian studies at the University of Minnesota and who has written extensively on the subject. He said he knows of 30 tribes just in California and 49 tribes in another 20 states that disenrolled or banished members. There are 576 tribes in the United States, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs website.
A Native American blog that tracks disenrollments, originalpechanga.com, has counted more than 11,000 people across the country kicked off tribal rolls for various reasons.
At Robinson Rancheria, the formerly disenrolled members included four generations of a family who say they can trace their ties to the tribe back almost 80 years.
“It’s still unreal and still unbelievable what was done to us,” said Julie Moran. Her grandmother, Mildred Goforth, 86, is one of the last of Lake County’s native Pomo speakers and had been a member of the tribe since the early 1940s, more than a decade before the tribe was disbanded by the federal government. It was reconstituted in 1956.
“To tell her she wasn’t” a member of the tribe, “that was the worst,” said Goforth’s daughter, Karen Ramos, 63, who lived on the rancheria for 24 years. Now, someone else lives in her home. Many of the people who were disenrolled in 2009 were removed because they weren’t counted in the 1980 census that is a basis for membership. There were exceptions made for people like Goforth, but the tribal council in power in 2008 removed the exception, said Crandell.
The disenrollment cut off families from relatives and friends who remained members and, in some cases, had supported their removal, Moran said. They also lost their connection to their Native American heritage and tribal benefits, including medical care and college tuition assistance.
“We were tribeless,” Moran said. “It really did take away who we were.”
The disenrolled families challenged the decision, but it was upheld by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which found it was consistent with the tribe’s constitution. Crandell said current tribal leaders now want to alter the constitution to allow membership of those who belonged in the 1940s. All members also must still be at least one quarter Native American to qualify, he said.
Moran and her mother won’t get their homes back but they are relieved to have their status reinstated and they hope there may be future opportunities for housing on the Rancheria.
Crandell said it’s time to mend fences and move forward as a tribe whose members help each other instead of fighting against one another.
“This is what’s going to change the sickness in the tribe,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MendoReporter.