Dry Creek Pomos face expulsion from tribe

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More than 75 members of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians have been notified they face expulsion in another round of disenrollments that have roiled the tribe in recent years.

Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins sent out letters this month to adults and some children identifying them for potential removal from the approximate 1,200-member tribe. The letters contend they don't meet criteria for lineal descent because they, their parents or their grandparents were members of other tribes.

Coming at a time when the tribe's River Rock Casino is suffering the bruising effects of competition from the newly opened Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, some suspect it's another way to trim expenses by reducing the number of Dry Creek tribal members who get a monthly "per capita" distribution of casino profits.

"The rest of per capita won't be affected if you remove people," said Liz DeRouen, a former chairman of the tribe who was disenrolled four years ago after she lost an election to Hopkins in 2004.

She and Hopkins blame each other for the $150 million debt the tribe owes to bondholders who financed construction of the casino and for the fact it hasn't been paid off.

Last year, DeRouen's eldest daughter, Layla Elgin DeRouen, 30, was kicked out of the tribe after she declared her candidacy for secretary-treasurer of the five-member board of directors.

Now her two younger daughters, LaVon DeRouen, 28, and Hailey Ferroni, 23, have been notified they face expulsion.

There have been a number of contentious enrollment reductions involving tribes that own casinos. The implications go beyond the monthly distribution payments, housing and educational benefits that disenrolled members lose.

Some say they also face a loss of their cultural identity.

"It's the most hurtful thing native people can do to their own people," said Nancy Cordova of Windsor, whose husband, Stan, and their daughter were booted out of the Dry Creek tribe where they belonged for decades.

Now Stan and Nancy Cordova's son and his minor children, along with her daughter's children, are being put on notice that they face expulsion.

The ostensible reason was that Stan Cordova's mother was a member of a Covelo tribe when he was a child, even though he would go on to become a chairman of the Dry Creek Rancheria where his father and grandmother belonged.

Disenrollments can pit cousin again cousin, since most tribal members are related. Members are disenrolled if they are not able to meet Dry Creek requirements to be descended from someone who was living on the rancheria when it was established in 1915. They also cannot have been a member of another tribe.

Hopkins said in an interview at the tribe's Santa Rosa offices that Dry Creek has never stopped taking a look at enrollment since members rejected a proposal to grandfather in all members in a disputed referendum vote in 2006.

"It comes out of a continuous audit by the enrollment committee," he said of the ongoing review of membership status.

He said there were meetings held last year to potentially change the tribe's constitution to grandfather in existing tribal members and end the controversial disenrollments .

"Five people showed up," at one meeting and "six at another, and we have 640 adult members," Hopkins said.

Tribal elder Reg Elgin said it's "horrendous" to have to get rid of people.

"I would be devastated if for whatever reason someone told me I'm not a Pomo Indian," he said.

But Elgin said "we do have a democratically elected board. I believe they have the best interests of our tribe in hand."

Some who recently got letters have been on another tribal roll or don't meet the lineage test, Hopkins said, but others may just need to provide a birth certificate or other documents.

"Just because the names are out there, doesn't mean they are going to be removed," he said of those who recently were notified there was a problem with their membership.

Hopkins countered critics who say disenrollments are arbitrary and selective, used as a way to neutralize political opponents at election time.

Hopkins plans to run for re-election in the fall.

"If you're going to run for office or the chair, you have to be a member of Dry Creek to be on the board of directors, so we would do an enrollment audit verification," he said.

Dry Creek Board member Bruce Smith defended the disenrollments that have happened to date. "I don't think any person could prove anyone was inappropriately removed from this tribe," he said.

Hopkins and Smith said disenrolled members can appeal to the board of directors within 30 days.

But some have compared it to appealing to the firing squad. "There's no neutral place to take appeals," said Liz DeRouen.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs also takes a generally hands-off approach to the disputes.

The BIA's attitude is that "tribal enrollment is a matter of tribal business and not for the federal government," Dennis Whittlesey, a Washington D.C.-based Indian law attorney, said Monday.

He said there is virtually nothing expelled members can do. "Legal challenges cannot be mounted due to tribal sovereign immunity and are routinely dismissed," he said.

Whittlesey noted there have been a number of "notorious" enrollment reductions in parts of California and other states. They have involved tribes with casinos that begin disenrolling members after experiencing downturns in casino cash flow and a reduction in per capita payments.

Dry Creek officials recently cut the $650 monthly per capita payment to adult tribal members to $600, then announced it was being reduced to $300 as a result of the big drop in revenue River Rock casino has experienced since Graton casino opened in November.

But Dry Creek officials said tribal members could apply for $200 per month in gas and food allowance to help make up the difference.

Cody Cordova, 33, grew up on the 75-acre Dry Creek reservation near Geyserville, but was notified he and his three children face disenrollment, even though his late father Greg was a former chairman of the tribe and helped bring in the casino.

Essentially, he said he was told "I'm not a descendant of the tribe" even though his great-grandmother was on the original Dry Creek census.

"My Dad was never disenrolled. My lineage was never broken," Cordova asserted.

Cordova, a mechanic, said losing the per capita payments are less of a concern to him than what his three boys, aged 4 though 12, are losing.

"They're taking away my kids' heritage," he said.

"I care about my family and my kids, where we are from. We are born and raised there. They can't take that away from us," Cordova said.

Those threatened with disenrollment say this is the first time children are being cut from the tribal rolls. Usually the vetting process comes a few months before tribal members turn 18 and become eligible for "per cap" payments.

Board member Smith defended the new approach.

"You have to identify them at a younger age, because why would you go through your whole childhood thinking 'I have no problem,'" he said. "And then all of a sudden, someone is going to look a little closer and say 'wait a minute, you have a problem.'"

Ferroni, who also is facing disenrollment, acknowledged that she has gotten thousands of dollars in tuition from the tribe in obtaining her bachelor's degree from University of California Davis, where she majored in Native American studies and minored in psychology and sociology.

"The tribe featured me and my plans in newsletters," she said. "They invested more into me than the rest of the general membership."

She now is going to graduate school at San Francisco State.

"There is so much potential for people who are getting disenrolled to have turned the tribe around," Ferroni said. "When you disenroll people, you have a brain drain, a dearth of knowledge and creativity. It's something I could have offered to my tribe."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or

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