Silence-Breaker: California Indian Law Association Speaks On Disenrollment

The California Indian Law Association is featuring the following program in Sacramento on Friday, October 14:

1:15 – 2:30 pm Tribal Disenrollment and Exclusions: A Discussion of Tribal Interests
 Moderator: Christina Snider, CILA Vice President
                 [INVITED]Adam Bailey, Associate, Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker
                 Sara Dutschke Setshwaelo, Counsel, Dentons LLP
                 Frank Lawrence, Law Office of Frank Lawrence
                 EJ “Eddie” Crandell, Chairperson, Robinson Rancheria

Each of these speakers, and the CILA conference organizers, should be commended for their bravery for discussing the still relatively taboo issue of disenrollment.

California remains the epicenter of disenrollment, with more than 30 tribes or rancherias having engaged in the practice according to Professor David Wilkins.  That's nearly half of all tribes in the country who have disenrolled their relatives.  At the Elem Colony, for example, the entire on-colony population were proposed for disenrollment in 2016 and are now being disenfranchised.

Ramona Band of Cahuilla Chairman Joseph Hamilton aptly described things in the Golden State:

In Southern California, where my tribe calls home, disenrollment is common, in part because of big gaming revenues and internal power struggles. It is also a symptom of the breakdown of traditional tribal power structures. Simply put, some tribal leaders listen to lawyers instead of elders.

Meanwhile over the last couple decades, the typically thought-leading UC System has turned a deaf ear to disenrollment.

[T]hose issues remain taboo within the Indian Country academic establishment, despite the current Indian disenrollment epidemic and the ability of our brightest minds to identify the causes and develop the cures.

As a Native person rightfully commented on a recent column by Professor David Wilkins: "There are no easy answers but I believe academia deserves as much of the blame as anyone for not facing this reality and attacking it head on."

With disenrollment having run rampant throughout California since the mid-2000s, that blame is rightly owed to lawyers and academics in the UC System, and to attorneys in general, for not doing enough---perhaps no doing anything---to prevent the epidemic from spreading.

In fact, as Professor Wilkins concludes in his seminal book on disenrollment, Dismembered, some lawyers have actually helped spread the epidemic: "there is evidence that some attorneys have prolonged or even fomented conflict to gain more resources for themselves and their law firms."

But with every dialogue about the subject---whether a speaker believes disenrollment is the prerogative of tribal politicians, or is antithetical to tribalism---there is hope.  Silence in too many realms has greatly contributed to the epidemic.  Public discourse will help cure it.

Gabriel S. Galanda is the managing lawyer of Galanda Broadman, PLLC, in Seattle. Gabe is a descendant of the Nomlaki and Concow Tribes, belonging to the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Northern California.