Dry Creek Pomos halt controversial disenrollments

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The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians has put a halt to the controversial disenrollments that kicked some longtime members out of the tribe.

Tribal members voted to place a 10-year moratorium on disenrollments in the approximate 1,200-member tribe, which owns River Rock Casino near Geyserville.

"It's great. I don't have to worry," said Cody Cordova, 33, who was facing potential expulsion along with his three sons, his brother and other relatives.

"It's a great weight lifted off my shoulders," said the Santa Rosa father, whose boys, ages 5, 9, and 12, also "don't have to worry no more."

Even though he grew up on the hardscrabble 75-acre rancheria, and his late father, Greg, was a past chairman who helped bring in the casino, his family background had been questioned.

A series of disenrollments have roiled the tribe over the past five years, sometimes pitting cousin against cousin, as tribal leaders winnow the rolls of anyone they believe does not meet the test of ancestral lineage.

Tribal officials have defended the practice as necessary to ensure the legitimacy of their members, who must be able to trace their ancestry to someone who was living on the rancheria when it was established in 1915. They also cannot have been a member of another tribe.

But critics say the enrollment reductions — which also have occurred in a number of other tribes that own casinos — have been used to get rid of political rivals, intimidate members from running for elected office, or reduce the number of people who receive per-capita payments from casino revenues.

Disenrolled members, most of whom have been part of the tribe their whole lives, also face a loss of their cultural identity.

Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins said Thursday the moratorium was approved last month. Meanwhile a committee is working on a potential referendum to change the tribe's constitution to address the disenrollment issue.

"New rules are going to open the door to some folks who have a valid reason to being here and letting them become a member of Dry Creek without further review of their file," he said.

The moratorium comes after approximately 75 members were notified they faced possible disenrollment if they could not provide birth certificates, or other documentation to demonstrate their legitimacy.

Now, most of them will not have to worry about being expelled from the tribe.

But for others, the reprieve came too late.

"I was told I failed to meet the test of lineal ancestry, because my parent was not a member," said Hailey Ferroni, who was part of a small batch disenrolled days before the practice was halted last month.

"I certainly don't accept this as legitimate," she said, adding that her older sister, LaVon DeRouen, also was expelled at the same time.

Hopkins, has "a personal thing against my mother," she asserted. "He made it clear during my sister's hearing."

Her mother, Liz DeRouen, former head of the tribe, "ran against him for chair. That's why she was originally taken off the ballot and had her enrollment status questioned. And ultimately, she was removed from the tribe," she said.

When Dry Creek board members expelled Hopkin's political rival DeRouen four years ago along with about 30 other tribal members, they said it was because she had been on another tribe's roll in the past.

But Ferroni said she shouldn't be disqualified as a result of the action taken against her mother.

"My great-grandfather is on the (Dry Creek Rancheria original) roll. It has nothing to do with whether a parent was a member," she said.

Last year, Ferroni's oldest sister, Layla Elgin DeRouen, was kicked out of the tribe after she declared her candidacy for secretary-treasurer of the board of directors.

Nancy Cordova, whose husband, Stan, and their daughter Carmen were booted out of the Dry Creek tribe in the past few years, said publicity over the randomness of the disenrollments may have helped put a stop to the practice.

Her son and his children were spared from disenrollment this time around.

"I don't know the rhyme and reason. It is election year," she said.

She suggested it could also be because investors in the casino are nervous.

The Dry Creek Rancheria earlier this month failed to make scheduled interest payments on bonds used to build their 12-year-old casino overlooking Alexander Valley.

Dry Creek leaders have acknowledged the opening of Graton Resort and Casino adjacent to Rohnert Park has cut significantly into their business, forcing them to reduce employees, as well as per-capita payments to tribal members.

"Currently the board is no longer looking at any others (disenrollments) and moving forward with the business of the tribe and specifically recovering from Graton opening," Hopkins said.

Meanwhile, Ferroni said she is trying not to dwell on her expulsion and is celebrating the fact she will be graduating with her master's degree in education from San Francisco State University.

"I'm trying not to let it define me. I still know where I come from and who I am," she said. "I'm trying to focus on the positives in my life."

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

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