The membership rolls at some Northwest tribes are swelling much faster than growth in the general population. Some of that increase is due to a high birth rate among American Indians. Also, rising prosperity from casinos and other businesses is luring Native Americans back into the fold. However, fast growth has strained the fabric of some tribes, while others wish they had more.
This story starts with a demographic puzzle. Take the rate of natural increase of the population. It is about one percent per year. That's births minus deaths.
Then compare that to the growth rates of Northwest tribes over the past decade. Depending on the tribe, it can be twice or three times as high. So what's going on here?
Enrolling in a tribe is not like immigrating to another country. It's also not like joining the Elks Club. Tribal citizenship is based on blood lines.
The swelling membership of the Tulalip Tribes based near Everett, Washington is a point of pride for tribal member and state representative John McCoy. He says improved health care and an above-average birth rate are at play.
"We're living longer," McCoy says. "Our babies are surviving birth."
McCoy says another reason for growth: more jobs on reservations, led by tribal gaming. "So we have our peoples coming back from other states. They're coming home because there is an economy."
These new tribal members were already eligible, but for whatever reason they didn't enroll before. At Tulalip, it adds up to a 22 percent growth rate over the past decade. Some other tribes are much higher.
And some of those have felt the need to tighten enrollment criteria to control burgeoning growth. The biggest motive appears to be financial.
For example, western Washington's Puyallup Tribe currently pays each enrolled man, woman and child $2000 per month in profit sharing. Members of the Puyallup Tribe voted to clamp down on new enrollments in 2005.
Like the Puyallups, the Grand Ronde Tribe in western Oregon operates a successful casino. Grand Ronde tribal members have revisited their enrollment standards three times since 1999. The most recent election was a couple months ago. Tribal members voted to keep strict enrollment standards in place.
Before the vote, tribal member Dee Edwards posted a tearful YouTube video about how technicalities in the rules split her family and cut out her grandchildren.
"Kaya is the one who came to me and asked why they won't let her be an Indian when we were at the last meeting," Edwards says in the video. "I tell her she is an Indian. I tell her it doesn't matter, but we all know it really does."
Former tribal councilmember Andy Jenness of Eugene taped that video. He favors a looser standard that wouldn't split families.
"The amount of growth that is acceptable to me is that of natural birth and the tribe growing at the natural rate, whatever that is," he says. "If that means I have less in my per capita check, so be it."
But other members wrote letters and posted online to warn about opening the "floodgates" of tribal membership. Over the years, people have complained about "tribal jumpers" or "roll jumpers". These are parents or children whose heritage includes connections to multiple tribes. "Jumping" refers to relinquishing citizenship in one tribe to switch to a richer one.
If too many people do that though, it can dilute the profit sharing checks or strain services at the tribe everyone wants to get into.
The late 1990s to early 2000s saw the peak of transfers to wealthier tribes, according to people in tribes which lost members such as the Skokomish or Nez Perce.
There are other tribes where growth has petered out, for example, the Colville Confederated Tribes in northeast Washington. There, the issue is that enrollment is "flat lining" according to tribal councilmember Ricky Gabriel.
He's proposing a referendum to relax the blood requirement in the tribal constitution so more children of mixed marriages can enroll. "I've had a lot of very positive (reactions)," he says. "The elders are extremely happy about this. They're pushing hard. They're seeing their grandchildren not be able to be enrolled."
Enrollment in the tribe currently requires a minimum of one-quarter Colville blood. But when you have intermarriage, it dilutes the Colville blood. It takes just a couple generations for that to become a problem. The proposed referendum would change the rules to count any Indian blood toward the minimum.
Across the Cascade Range, enrollment standards have been the source of bitter disagreement at the Snoqualmie Tribe. Citizenship there requires a minimum of one-eighth Snoqualmie blood. In 2008, right before its casino opened, the tribal government reviewed its rolls and kicked out dozens of its citizens, including Carolyn Lubenau.
"You just go to the mailbox one day," she say, "and here's a letter: 'We have considered requests by members under one-eighth Snoqualmie blood...'"
At her dining room table in Maple Valley, Washington, Lubenau re-reads her banishment letter. She says her blood is more than one-eighth Snoqualmie. She says the decision to kick her out was incorrect and unjust and adds her ancestors would've been appalled by the whole thing. "You know my grandmother and great-grandmother, they probably didn't even know fractions. They didn't know what a fraction was," Lubenau says. "Everybody was equal. Everybody helped each other. Everybody was treated the same."
Lubenau supports changing the enrollment standard to lineal descent and getting rid of blood quantums altogether. The Tulalips and Puyallups are examples of other tribes that have already done that.
Who decides enrollment? Indian Country Today provides this answer:
Tribal Nations are the only recognized arbiter of belonging to or being a member of a tribe. No other agency or arm of any government has that responsibility, other than the particular tribe to which a person claims to belong.
Every tribe has its own membership criteria; some go on blood quantum, others on descent, but whatever the criteria, it is the tribe's enrollment office that has final say on whether a person may be a member. Anyone can claim Indian heritage, but only the tribe can grant official membership.
Previous coverage: "Native American Intermarriage Puts Benefits At Risk" (Wyoming Public Radio)
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