Disenrollment As Cottage Industry

In the New York Times Magazine story that broke earlier this year, "Who Decides Who Counts as Native American?," Professor Rob Williams described disenrollment as a cottage industry:

Robert Williams, chairman of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, told me that some tribes have recently begun to hire membership consultants to help trim their rolls. “It’s almost become an industry in some parts of Indian Country,” he said.

In a recent interview about their new groundbreaking book, Dismembered, Dr. David Wilkins and Shelly Wilkins expose the players in that industry:

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing the book?

DEW & SHW: Perhaps the most shocking thing we learned was the amount of money outsiders were making from fomenting discord within Tribal Nations. Non-native attorneys who keep the conflicts going in order to bill more hours, outside consultants—self-professed enrollment experts—who organize seminars or directly advise Tribal leaders on ways to “clean-up their rolls,” financial advisors who calculated how much further per-capita payments would go if membership were to be reduced.

It is not merely "Non-native attorneys" who churn billable hours in times of intra-tribal strife; Native lawyers do, too.  But at least as to disenrollment, there do now appear to be fewer reputable Indian law firms who will advocate for tribal politicians who seek to jettison their kin.

As Robin Ladue observed in the most recent edition of Tribal Business Journal, in an article titled, "Disenrollment Sparks Litigation, Economic Issues":

Some attorneys, including Robert A. Rosette, founding partner of Rosette LLP, say disenrollment procedures are a part of tribal sovereignty, but attorneys who assist or work for tribal councils must follow their own laws and not violate due process.

The National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) issued a resolution in 2015 that it is immoral and unethical for lawyers to encourage or take part in disenrollment processes that lack adequate due process, equal protection or a remedy for the violation of the civil rights of tribe members.

The Indian legal profession does seem to be increasingly turning away disenrollment business, finding it illegal, unethical or immoral---or simply distasteful.

But those "outside consultants" still appear undeterred from engaging in disenrollment commerce, perhaps as they are not subject to ethical or regulatory restraint; or without a moral compass.  Disenrollment auditors, in particular, continue to help tribes "'clean up their rolls.'"

That for-profit auditors, CPAs and financial advisors now help dictate who belongs, should repulse us all.  Beyond that, the disenrollment industry should be disinvited from Indian Country.

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.