A dispute over enrollment is dividing members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.
A number of Grand Ronde citizens are fighting for their future in the tribe, as it holds hearings this month that could lead to the disenrollment of 79 people from one family. That’s sparked an unusually public debate.
This month’s tribal council in Grand Ronde began with a prayer. In a recording of the meeting posted online, Councilwoman Cheryle Kennedy gave thanks and prayed for blessings of health and wisdom.
Kennedy said, “We just pray that all of our hearts will come together and that we would be able to do and make the decisions that you see that are right and fitting”
That line had particular resonance for 35-year-old Jade Unger at the back of the room.
After the invocation, he and a handful of others played traditional drums in a song of prayer.
Like many members, Unger doesn’t live in Grand Ronde. He lives in Vancouver on the ancestral lands of his people, the Watlala. He says while he’s long attended cultural events, he only recently started attending council meetings after learning that he and his entire family were at risk of being disenrolled.
Unger said, “I was actually out hunting in the middle of the woods, all by myself, on my tribal tag, in this beautiful serene area and I got a call from my auntie and I just stopped and I went home.”
A certified letter was delivered to his house. Unger’s cousin, Mia Prickett received a nearly identical letter at her home in Portland.
Mia Prickett explained what the letter said, “Dear Mia, an enrollment audit was recently performed to verify that all tribal members records are complete and in accordance with enrollment requirements … and also to establish a historical record of our tribal membership.”
After the tribe was officially restored back in 1983, one of first acts of the new tribal council was to ratify a new constitution. That document formalized the requirements for membership.
Initially, applicants, among other things, needed to have a relative on one of the rolls or records of tribal membership prepared by the U.S. Department of the Interior prior to restoration.
And as the tribe grew, so too did calls from within the membership to tighten enrollment requirements. In 1999, tribal members passed the first of two constitutional amendments restricting enrollment.
And in 2011 the tribal council authorized an audit of the tribe’s enrollment records for its more than 5,000 members.
Prickett read the letter, “The enrollment audit indicated that you were enrolled in error, because at the time you were enrolled, you did not meet the lineal descent requirement ….”
Tribal Council Chairman Reynold Leno says the audit was done both to correct inconsistencies and to provide a certified record of tribal history. But he says more importantly, it was performed because the membership wanted it done.
Leno said, “Tribes are made up of families and families know their own history. And when you have people that don’t kind of fit into that family-type scenario, it kind of draws a question. And I think that’s what a lot of people wanted looked into.”
Leno declined to address specific cases, in part because of confidentiality.
Mia Prickett says when her family first applied for membership in 1986, it could only prove its connection to one man, a man who also happened to be an important figure in formation of the original Grand Ronde Confederation in 1857.
Prickett said, “There are 79 descendants of Chief Tumulth. We’re all enrolled at Grand Ronde and we’ve all received letters.”
Tumulth was the leader of the Watlala band of Cascade Indians. Prickett says the tribe controlled lands on both sides of the Columbia River from Cascade Locks to present day Portland and Fort Vancouver.
In 1855, he was one of a number of chiefs to sign what’s known as the Treaty of the Kalapuya.
Tumulth ceded the lands of his ancestors to the United States, in exchange for protection, payment and a new permanent home for his people.
The Treaty with the Kalapuya is the largest treaty now claimed by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. And in recent years the tribe has referenced that treaty to try and influence public policy decisions on the lands ceded by Tumulth.
A video, released when the tribe was fighting an effort by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to open a new casino in the Columbia Gorge, mentions Tumulth by name.
“The people of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde are people of the Columbia Gorge. Our history is here. Our ancestors are buried here,” the video narrator says.
It features a number of Tumulth’s descendants, including Marilyn Portwood.
Portwood now faces disenrollment herself. She says Tumulth was never on the rolls at Grand Ronde because he was executed by the U.S. Army before he could get there.
Portwood’s family provided OPB with a copy of a letter signed in 1986 by the members of the enrollment committee. They unanimously recommended that her relatives be enrolled, based, among other things, on Tumulth’s signature on the treaty.
Portwood said, “If everything was just fine over 20 years ago, we’re mystified about why…what are they trying to change the rules or are they second guessing all those people that enrolled us?”
We asked the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde to either verify or refute the authenticity of that letter. OPB has not heard back.
If the current enrollment committee recommends disenrollment, the tribal council would need to approve that decision for it to become final. The council has already stripped more than a dozen people of their membership for issues related to overlapping enrollment in another tribe.
In Grand Ronde, disenrollments can be challenged in tribal court, but that’s about it.
David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Lumbee Nation explains why there aren’t lawsuits, “Tribes can’t be sued because they have sovereign immunity.”
He says tribal disenrollments were practically unheard of until the mid-90s. Although accurate numbers are tough to come by, he estimates that between 4,000 and 8,000 U.S. citizens have been cast out of native tribes over the last two decades. Each case is different, but he says disputes over money often appear to be a contributing factor.
Jade Unger says his entire family was enrolled before the tribe opened its Spirit Mountain Casino. And he says while he doesn’t like to focus on the potential financial impact disenrollment would have, it is real.
He says seniors would lose their elder pensions. Students would lose financial aid. And everybody would lose their health care and their annual share of the casino’s profits.
Unger said, “To me, the bigger loss for myself is the, you know the cultural part. The spiritual part, that will always be a part of me. But to not be recognized, to basically become an outcast and to be banished having done nothing wrong, it just tears me up.”
Grand Ronde council member Toby McClary says he feels for those who face disenrollment, but he supports the audit, in part because he swore an oath to uphold the tribe’s constitution.
McClary said, “Nobody’s trying to say that any of these people are not Indian. All we are saying is that there may be some concerns with whether you meet the criteria of being a Grand Round tribal member.”
Chairman Leno says while the audit is complete, the review is ongoing. More letters could go out, but just how many, he can’t say.
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, OPB has received money from the Grand Ronde’s charitable foundation, the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, to support local programming.