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As bitter membership disputes roil many California tribes with casinos, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has moved to avoid such problems by revising its constitution in advance of the opening of its casino in Rohnert Park.

The changes to the tribe's 11-year-old governing document cover various legal areas. But the most significant revision, in light of an impending influx of gambling profits, curtails tribal leaders' ability to disenroll citizens.

With that move, the Graton Rancheria is swimming against what experts describe as a rising tide of tribes kicking out members in battles often believed to be over the distribution of casino income.

"California leads the charge in the number of tribal communities that are disenrolling great swaths of their bona fide members, and they're using the most specious of reasons," said David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Law School.

"Here we have a tribe that is bucking that trend . . . having done what I think is unique in Indian country in limiting the power of government officials," said Wilkins, who writes extensively about American Indian politics and maintains a collection of tribal constitutions.

The tribe's action comes at a key moment in its history. It is set to open what will be the Bay Area's biggest casino late this year on the outskirts of Rohnert Park. Projections are that it could bring in $418 million annually by its seventh year.

By making it far harder for the tribal government to revoke a member's citizenship, the Graton Rancheria has sought to avoid the strife that has riven some tribes.

"We saw the money coming," said Greg Sarris, the tribe's chairman for 21 years. "We saw the changes coming. We saw the challenges and we said, 'Let's do something that could prohibit disenrollments in our tribe.' "

The revisions do not completely outlaw disenrollments. But they set out provisions strictly limiting that possibility, rules that experts say don't exist elsewhere.

Members can lose their citizenship if their enrollment resulted from fraud or mistake -- but there is a three-year statute of limitations.

Members enrolled in another tribe are considered "to have relinquished (their) citizenship," the constitution says.

Descendants of people who lose citizenship remain eligible for membership.

The Tribal Council can suspend members -- usually for behavioral transgressions such as violence -- but their children remain eligible for membership.

Also, in a measure taken to preserve the new protections against political power shifts, the tribe's laws governing citizenship can be amended only by a two-thirds vote of the General Council. That body is made up of all adult members of the tribe, just under 800 people.

"It is unique; I've never seen anything like it," said Cheryl Williams, whose Sacramento and San Diego American Indian law firm, Williams & Cochrane, specializes in tribal litigation.

"I hope they're trendsetters," Williams said.

Citizenship fights among California's Indian tribes have escalated dramatically since the Graton Rancheria was federally restored in the same year California voters approved the right of tribes to run Las Vegas-style casinos.

Thirteen years after the 2000 passage of Proposition 1A, 59 California tribes run casinos; three others have shut down. And, especially among tribes with the most successful enterprises, a practice that experts say is new in Indian culture has arisen: disenrollments.

Tribal officials generally insist that such actions are efforts to ensure the legitimacy of their members. But others say it is clearly gambling profits that have driven a corrosive trend that has split families and sparked feuds within tribes.

"It's only because of gaming. There was no such thing as disenrollment prior to gaming; it never existed," said Laura Wass, Central Valley director of the American Indian Movement. Wass, a vocal critic of disenrollment, describes the practice as "the loss of heritage, the loss of yourself."

Estimates are that California tribes have disenrolled about 3,000 Indians, Wass said, "and that's probably increasing."

"I think we're at a crossroads in Indian country," said Wilkins, who also opposes the practice.

The Graton Rancheria adopted its initial constitution in 2002. It did not address disenrolling members or spell out how such actions could be taken and to whom they could apply.

That absence is common to tribal governing documents and has become a recipe for conflicts that now are splintering tribes, especially those with lucrative casinos, said Paula Fisher, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in tribal membership issues.

"If you don't spell it out, you're risking decades of litigation and heartbreak," said Fisher, who practices in states from Michigan to California and said such disputes are increasing.

That prospect led the Graton Rancheria to act.

"We didn't work this hard to create that kind of havoc," Sarris said.

In tackling the issue, the 1,300-member tribe was stepping into an area fraught with controversy.

"Outside Indian country, there's basic ground rules of things you don't talk about: religion and politics," said Scott Wheat, who has worked as a tribal court judge and is an attorney with Crowell Law Office-Tribal Advocacy Group in Spokane, Wash.

"In Indian country you have to add enrollment," Wheat said. "You're going to start a fight."

But with Graton Rancheria, the process was smooth, though long, said Michael Pfeffer, an attorney of the tribe's who worked closely on the revisions and the election that approved them.

"The tribe went through an extremely thorough and thoughtful process that was anything but contentious," Pfeffer said.

In a position he revisited in the tribe's April newsletter, Sarris said: "Why not take care of all our members on our current rolls? . . . if we start to decide who is in and who is out, what are we doing finally but continuing the colonizer's work of dividing and conquering, of separating families, of breaking up potentially stronger tribal communities?"

Ultimately, more than 85 percent of the tribe's general council voted to approve the changes, Pfeffer said.

The public and council meetings that took place to form the new section on citizenship were "an examination of what it means to be a FIGR citizen and what are the fundamental principles they wanted reflected in their governing documents," he said.

Wass described the changes to the tribe's constitution as a return to an historically important Indian cultural value, that preserving the "balance" of a tribe is paramount.

"It's the old way, not a new phenomena," she said of the Graton Rancheria constitutional revisions. "It's tradition."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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