Photograph by Robert Vente
FORCED OUT: Former tribal chairperson Liz DeRouen contends she was disenrolled for the wrong reasons.
Inner Circle Outcasts
Disenrollment from American Indian tribes is on the rise in California, and the Pomo are no different. Is it simple genealogy or is it simple greed?
By Leilani Clark
On a warm spring day, the sun shines down brightly on an innocuous business circle outside of downtown Healdsburg. Directly across the street from the Dry Creek tribal offices, where three security guards huddle in front of boxy beige buildings, patrons of an upscale fitness center lounge around a pool in sun-soaked oblivion to the conflict brewing just over the fence. A small group of people gather on the sidewalk outside of the tribal offices. They hold handmade signs covered in urgent proclamations: "Hopkins = Dictator—Hold Elections Now," "American Indians Demand Civil Rights" and "Corruption + Greed = Disenrollment."
The protesters hoot in response to beeps of support from occasional passing cars, and then return to chatting amiably with their neighbors. The relatively subdued nature of the protest certainly doesn't reflect the intense stratification brewing since the tribal board called off elections last December. Critics say the rift is a result of board corruption and greed; defenders of the rescheduled elections and the rash of disenrollments that followed say the actions are an attempt to preserve the cultural heritage of the Dry Creek tribe.
One of over 20 Pomo bands located in the North Bay region, Dry Creek practices an election process that mirrors the federal system. It is a way of governance that is not indigenous to the tribe, but is the result of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, a New Deal–era effort to provide for the formation of "tribal governments" under federal authority as vehicles for Indian "self-government." After nominations, candidates create and run on a platform, and are either voted in or rejected by a membership majority.
Last December, the process was stymied when the current board called off the election after an enrollment audit by an outside consultant raised concerns about the legitimacy of certain candidates. The controversy reached a boiling point when more than 70 members received letters in January stating that because they were unable to document their lineage or had been affiliated with other tribes in the past, they were being denied membership in the tribe. Thirty of those 70 have since been entirely disenrolled from the tribe.
After a series of protests, some dramatic recall efforts and public outcry, the elections were officially rescheduled for May 2009. Incumbent chairman Harvey Hopkins was reelected by a majority of the 340 voting members. But the disenrollment conundrum has yet to be resolved in any meaningful fashion.
"The disenrollment process is a way to intimidate members, a way to prevent members from having a voice in a corrupt tribal board," charges Ross Cunningham, a 30-year-old Dry Creek member. "The board is using the enrollment audit to get rid of their opposition and to get rid of potential leadership that could take their place." A musician and producer, Cunningham has been vocal in the protests against the board's actions. On the phone from San Francisco, Cunningham approaches the issue with the conviction expected from someone who believes that the survival of his very culture is at stake. "When you have tribal members disenrolling each other, it is a microcosm of what colonialism did to our people," he asserts.
The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians has joined a long line of California tribes caught in a maelstrom of disenrollment and election issues. In December 2008, 50 tribal members were removed from the Robinson Rancheria rolls. The last native speaker was removed from the Elam Colony tribal rolls in 2007, a move justified by the then-chairman who said that many of the people were adopted into the tribe and therefore were not blood relations. Since 2000, when casino gambling ramped up in the state, an estimated 2,500 tribal members across California have been disenrolled with an equal number being denied membership or banished from their tribe.
John Gomez, president of the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO), has become a key figure in the struggle to deal with rising disenrollment. Established in 2006, AIRRO was formed as a response to the growing number of tribal members across California and the United States who feel that they have been denied basic rights.
"In the disenrollments we've been seeing lately, people haven't committed any crimes, nor have they been accused of committing any crimes. In many instances, you are talking about tribal leaders who are targeted by another faction," says Gomez on the phone from Southern California. Gomez himself was disenrolled from the Pechanga Tribe of Luiseno Indians—proprietors of one of the most profitable casinos in California.
According to the Dry Creek Band's articles of association, individuals must be able to prove that they are descended from tribe members counted in the 1915 census. Approved in the early 1970s, the articles also state that members cannot have been on the rolls of another tribe. While the federal government established some 54 rancherias in the early 20th century, these lands were often undesirable and arid, leading many Pomos to work for wage labor throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, the census might not be the most accurate measure of Pomo ancestry.
Intermarriage between Northern California bands is quite common as well, the result of geographical instability after forced relocation by the United States government. It is sometimes hard for individuals to know the full history of their ancestors.
Disenrollment carries potentially catastrophic consequences for tribal members. Loss of per capita, or gaming revenue, is only one of the repercussions. Health, housing and education benefits granted via federal government trust responsibilities are lost as well. For Dry Creek members, this means losing access to a per capita payment of $600 a month; elders receive an additional $200. But critics of the new wave of banishments say that loss of per capita is only part of the story.
"It goes beyond loss of membership," Gomez says. "It affects people to the core. Psychologically, it's like you are removing a part of these people, who they are and where they come from—for generations. Some will question whether they are Indian anymore."
Liz Elgin DeRouen received her disenrollment letter from the Dry Creek tribal board in January 2009. A serious woman with long dark hair, DeRouen talks in measured words over coffee and juice at a local cafe.
DeRouen first served as a tribal administrator from 1994 to 1996 under late chairman Greg Cordova, working with him on the tribe's first multiprogram documents with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and helping to solidify the tribe's governance documents. While working as an administrator in the Indian child welfare system, DeRouen served on election, housing and education committees. In 2000, she ran for vice-chair and was elected to serve by a majority of the membership. When the elected chairman left his position in 2001, DeRouen took over as chairperson.
"There was an enormous upheaval in the tribe at the time. We had major negotiations going on for gaming development. We had enrollment disputes and challenges to leadership positions," she remembers. Questions about monetary transactions, issues with developers and even a coup served to effectively shut down the tribal government for a short time. DeRouen's position as incoming tribal chairperson did not go unchallenged, and the validity of her enrollment came up for questioning. Ironically, DeRouen's grandfather was interim chairman during the development phase of the articles of association. After a series of proceedings, her claim to Dry Creek heritage was approved by the membership, the enrollment committee and interior BIA appeals
The tribal chair serves for a two-year term. In 2002, DeRouen again ran for chair, facing the same challenges to her enrollment. Once again, her membership was approved. It was during the 2004 elections that things started to get messy. DeRouen once again ran for chair against Dean Hoagland and current chairman Harvey Hopkins. At a special meeting, it was decided by the board that Hoagland and DeRouen's names would be removed from the ballot for questionable eligibility. She says that 135 people objected to the process and challenged the election as illegal. In the end, Harvey Hopkins, a former heavy-equipment operator and truck driver, was elected tribal chairman in early 2005, a position he holds today.
DeRouen's disenrollment is based on the claim that she has been concurrently enrolled with the Point Arena tribe, an accusation that, if true, would be a violation of the articles of association.
"A lot of tribes went through times of no money, no staff, no ability to hold information on rolls. Stuff was done in garages and living rooms. It wasn't something that was systemized," she explains. While DeRouen readily admits that her mother and some of her sisters are from Point Arena, she says that she received a letter from the current Point Arena chairman stating that her name has not been found on any of their records.
"He basically notified the Dry Creek tribe and said that this is not unique, that it happens all the time and that as governments we need to do our best to sort this out in an individualized fashion, rather then a cookie-cutter approach," she says.
So is this a case of selective discrimination? DeRouen's father is one of the Dry Creek band's oldest male members, and none of DeRouen's three daughters have been asked to leave as of this writing. Her voice rising with emotion, DeRouen claims that people are afraid to speak against the actions of the board for fear that they will be targeted next. "I don't care what they do to me, but I'm going to stand up for everyone else who does fear them," she says. "I don't care about the money. I care about what they are doing to the others, intimidating them and not allowing them due process, not allowing them to live free from fear."
Who Is Harvey Hopkins?
Supporters of Dry Creek tribal chairman Harvey Hopkins and the current board say that he is a peacemaker, a man who has reached out to adversaries and healed conflicts with the surrounding Alexander Valley and Healdsburg communities. In a glowing May 2008 Santa Rosa Press Democrat profile, members of country government are quoted as saying that Hopkins has brought a more open way of communicating with nontribal entities. Tribal elders have said that he is viewed well, and that he cares about the tribe as a whole. Hopkins has claimed that the enrollment audit is a way to preserve the culture of the tribe.
"People may see it as a money issue. It's not," Hopkins has said in an official statement. "I think the culture of the tribe is really what we're trying to mend—to make sure we stand as a tribe, as a unit, one solid group of people saying, 'We are who we are.'"
Critics claim that Hopkins is driven by financial impetus rather than the preservation of Pomo culture. In a March 2009 press release posted to IndyBay.org, details of an afternoon protest outside of the River Rock Casino were followed by a list of membership demands. The list included the request for a general membership meeting, for an election to be held within two weeks of the protest (it was held two months later), for a moratorium on disenrollment proceedings and for a suspension of the current board's salaries until elections were held.
The demands were followed by a list of accusations that painted Hopkins as more profiteer than peacemaker. It was alleged that Hopkins had made himself 10 percent owner of the Dry Creek Development Corporation (DCDC)—which shares the same address as the Dry Creek tribal offices—and claimed that this was a violation of Securities and Exchange Commission rulings.
According to the Department of Consumer Affairs' Contractors State License Board, under the license listing for the DCDC, Hopkins is named as a responsible managing officer with certification that he owns 10 percent or more of the voting stock/equity of the corporation; the license is currently under suspension for failures to comply with workers' compensation rules. Critics say that the DCDC was responsible for constructing a $72 million "road to nowhere" right below the casino, which might have provided some significant profits to the company.
Allegations include the insistence that Hopkins used tribal funds in excess of $900,000 to pay for a 2005 sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by a former tribal administrator. Court records state that the lawsuit was dismissed four weeks after it was filed. He has been named a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a former River Rock Casino executive who said that Hopkins had forced the casino to use the company he owned and operated for exterior maintenance. Calls to the tribal offices requesting an interview with Hopkins or a member of the current board of directors were not returned.
The proliferation of casinos has been a source of conflict both on and off the reservations since the establishment of gaming compacts in the early part of the decade. Like a reflective prism, Indian gaming looks different depending on how it is held up to the light. Some say that it is a way for tribes to strengthen a sovereignty increasingly threatened by congressional actions, while others say that gaming has led to greed and rampant corruption—weakening the resolve of some tribes. In a recent appearance on the KPFA radio talk show Bay Native Circle, Laura Wass of the American Indian Movement made the case for the connection to the casinos, going so far as to say that disenrollment did not occur before gaming.
In 2000, Proposition 1A was passed by California voters by a 65 percent margin. The measure permitted tribes to expand their gambling operations and allowed Nevada-style gambling in California. The era of Indian gaming unfurled with hurricane force. Ten years later, revenues exceed $5.1 billion per year.
River Rock Casino, owned and operated by the River Rock Entertainment Authority, started as a humble tent erected on a rocky hillside in 2002. Built on the 75 acres of land allocated to the Dry Creek Band by the federal government after they were stripped of their original 85,400 acres, the casino was not welcomed with open arms by the outlying community. As tribe leaders leapt at the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the tribal-state compacts signed by then-governor Gray Davis, state and local officials mounted a campaign of objections concerning possible building, safety and environmental code violations.
Further controversy ensued over the construction of a seven-story parking garage on a hill overlooking the pastoral Alexander Valley. As the only Indian casino currently in Sonoma County, plans for expansion include a proposed $300 million permanent casino structure with spas, restaurants and a hotel.
Having generated profits of $130.6 million in 2008, according to the most recent financial reports, the casino has brought financial rewards to the Dry Creek band, including the $600 monthly per capita from the revenue, a number that might seem low compared to the $15,000 a month and more that members of the highly profitable Pechanga tribe receive. DeRouen points out: "Six hundred dollars a month, that's not a lot of money, but it's the only income for some. I work with poor people everyday, so I know."
But members of the Dry Creek board insist that there is not financial motive for the spate of disenrollments going on here in Sonoma County, insisting that this is an issue of preserving culture and legitimate claims to ancestry, nothing more. In a statement released after his reelection, Hopkins said, "We have a good mix to help the tribe develop economically and continue positive relationships with our neighbors while preserving our culture."
One solution to the brewing disenrollment issue involves intervention by state or federal courts. Yet the importance of maintaining sovereignty makes most "wronged" tribe members unwilling to reach outside of the tribe for help. Unlike George W. Bush, who was castigated by the Native American community after a butchered response at a 2004 Journalists of Color conference, in which he said that tribes "had been given sovereignty," many Indian leaders believe that the right to self-govern is inherent and insoluble, something that cannot be given or taken away.
Ex-tribal chairperson DeRouen says that tribes need to start running their government in a more democratic manner in order to preserve the right to self-govern. "I do want tribes to step up and say, 'You're right, we don't want the federal government intruding and chipping away at our sovereignty, so we better start doing the right thing.' They should make sure to uphold it."
Others would like to utilize the Indian Civil Rights Act, passed in 1968 as a way to accomplish clean sovereign governments. The act guarantees equal protection of the law to membership and denies tribal governments the power to pass ex post facto laws. In addition, the act requires consent by tribal governments before states can assume criminal or civil jurisdiction over Indians on Indian land. When the Dry Creek board of directors proposed a new code of conduct in March 2009, one that would subject tribal members to banishment or fines if they demonstrated or picketed against the leadership, critics cried foul and claimed a violation of the Indian Civil Rights Act. The proposal was dropped after a few days.
While the recent reelection of Hopkins shows the democratic process at work, the problem of disenrollment and its possible marriage to casino growth has not been resolved. The struggle to maintain culture and identity while providing financial stability for members is a puzzle still to be worked out by tribes across California.
"It's not just the leadership. Tribal people as a whole need to stop thinking in terms of capitalism and personal gain. We need to start thinking about our communities and our future," insists Ross Cunningham. "Thousands of people were affected during the termination era and now tribes are eliminating themselves, not only because they don't know their history—but because of greed."
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