In a recent election, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde voted to amend their constitution and drastically limit tribal disenrollment. The CTGR is one of the few tribes to make a revision like this to protect its members. The new changes now mean only members who enrolled fraudulently would face disenrollment or those who were a member of another tribe when they received Grand Ronde citizenship. Cheryle Kennedy is the Chairwoman for the tribal council with the CTGR. She joins us to share the effects disenrollments can have and what the protections will mean for both individuals and tribes.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde voted to amend their constitution recently. They made it much harder for the tribe to disenroll citizens, to remove people from tribal rolls. The Grand Ronde tribe is one of very few around the country to make this kind of change. It followed a tumultuous and painful legal fight over the last decade, when 86 members were disenrolled and then re-enrolled. Cheryle Kennedy is the Chairwoman for the Grand Ronde Tribal Council and she joins me now. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Cheryle Kennedy: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Miller: It’s been a while since, on this show, we talked about the really tumultuous disenrollment of 86 members and then the legal fight that followed. Can you remind our listeners just the basics of what happened? Because it seems like this is an important context for the recent vote.
Kennedy: Thank you. Yes, we’ll step back in time a little bit. Our tribe was restored as a federally recognized tribe in 1983 and a constitution was developed that laid out the criteria for enrollment into the tribe. That constitution stayed in place until there was an amendment in 1999 that was more restrictive in enrollment and it led to what we call ‘split families.’ There were perhaps one sibling who was enrolled and the other one was now not enrollable due to the changes in the enrollment criteria. So because of that, there were a number of people who were affected and there were challenges in our tribal court on the validity of that action, their disenrollment actions. And so basically there was prevailing of the members who were tentatively subjected to disenrollment. That prompted our tribal members to express themselves in a more vigorous way on the enrollment criteria the tribe had.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what it was like, in terms of the effect of relationships within the Grand Ronde community, to have, as you noted, split families? What did that feel like?
Kennedy: It was horrible. Just a reminder that these are our family members, our relatives, people that we know. The Tribal Council of the Confederated Tribes is held to an oath to uphold all of the laws just like it is to be a citizen of the U.S. or Oregon. We, as the Tribal Council, must abide by the laws. And so the enactment of the decision making was to uphold the law. It was a very traumatizing time in our history. Above everything else, the relationship of families became separated. It was a horrible, horrible ordeal. I can’t emphasize that enough.
Miller: In the case of the 86 members who were disenrolled, a tribal appeals court did eventually reverse that disenrollment decision. Was that the end of the tensions surrounding questions about tribal membership? Or did they continue?
Kennedy: They continued because the law was still in place. Through a series, some think that there were meetings that were held last year or the year before, but it was long before then. The tribe has annually conducted face to face meetings with the membership in various areas of Oregon, including Portland, Eugene, Grand Ronde and for a period of time, we also went into Washington state, because our members are scattered. And through those forums, every time we heard about the enrollment process and the need for change, it was a very tearful time.
We had made several different attempts at amending our constitution, to fix part of what we thought was the problem and what our members described was a problem. But we were never able to achieve the supermajority of 66.6% approval for the change to the constitution. And there were several attempts again to do that. One time we got to like 63%, but not enough to get over the hurdle. So this time we thought, “well, listening to our members, let’s try this, let’s look at banning disenrollment, except for fraudulent reasons, or for dual enrollment within another tribe.”
Miller: Meaning if somebody had been found to have been a member of another tribe when they were enrolled in the Grande Ronde tribe, that would have been grounds for disenrollment?
Miller: And what is, what does ‘fraudulent’ mean? I think our listeners know what the word means, but in the context of legal enrollment, being a citizen of this sovereign nation, what exactly does it mean?
Kennedy: Well, it could be just falsifying records, putting together records, because the tribe did look at historical documents, and sometimes those might not be accurate. And while the member believes they are, they may be proven not to be accurate. That would be deemed fraud. As far as intent, I won’t speak to that because, I don’t know the hearts of people, but we do have an enrollment office that processes all applications and they do the research in background for every applicant that they see. After all of that thorough work is done, then there’s a recommendation that is submitted to the Tribal Council for approval, for enrollment into the tribe. So it’s a long process.
Miller: But is it fair to say that the vast majority of people who are currently on the Grand Tribal Rolls now, they can now rest assured that they’re not going to be kicked off?
Kennedy: Absolutely. This is the attempt that the Tribal Council was working towards and that was really to allow the tribe to begin to heal. For the people and the families that were affected, it’s a huge relief not to worry about, “gosh, I wonder if there’s going to be some document that might surface that might show we do not have enough blood quantum to remain a member,” or “what if back in the day that individual really wasn’t my father,” just a number of issues. So it was to allow healing and for our members to have a sigh of relief and to be able to enjoy being a tribal member of, of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
Miller: Is it fair to say that this whole issue of disenrollment was even more traumatic because of the specific history of the Grande Ronde tribe, because of termination itself?
Kennedy: Absolutely. I’m an elder of our tribe, I was terminated. And for me, it meant that I no longer could receive services that every tribal member in any tribe can enjoy. Based on the treaties that were entered into back in the 1850s with the tribes of the United States of America, those treaties laid out a legal agreement, basically that they are the supreme law of the land. And they basically said that, I’ll paraphrase words, that “in exchange for your lands, we will provide you with health care, education, schools, doctors, welfare, housing, land to live on peaceably, until time immemorial, as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.”
So all of these prepaid services were enacted and we were terminated. All of the relationship with the federal government was severed in 1954, all of those services went away. The land was taken, people were displaced, scattered to the winds, so that was very traumatic. And your identity, as a person, is core to any human being and then to be told “you are no longer Indian or a Native American. You’re not that anymore. We don’t recognize you as that.” Very traumatic.
We fought back. And in 1983, all of our treaties were restored. We were now again a federally recognized tribe and the services that were afforded to other tribes were again started up for us, not to the degree possibly that other tribes enjoy, because we still do not receive public safety funds or other services that other tribes receive. We still do not receive them. So yeah, it’s been a very trying time for us, but we are persistent. We believe that there is justice, and so we continue to be hopeful. We are resilient people and very strong people and there are a lot of people who listen to us. So I’m very appreciative for that.
Miller: Well, I’m curious about that last point because the issue of disenrollment has been a national one in Indian Country. Many tribes have had very public instances of disenrollment fights or legal battles, but very few have done what you’ve done and have addressed this head on by essentially not allowing disenrollment except in very specific circumstances. Why is it, do you think, that few tribes have taken the path that your tribe has taken?
Kennedy: Again, all tribes are sovereign nations. They determine who their members are. When there is a groundswell, I would think, of the membership expressing their desires, every tribe looks at that differently. So I can’t speak for my neighboring tribe who deals with an issue in one way. I know that we are doing the best that we can in recognizing our people. Perhaps other tribes will look at what we’ve done and we certainly were open to assisting or expressing what we have done to other tribes, but to second guess why they’re doing what they’re doing, I’m not going to do that.
Miller: I want to go back to something you said earlier. I think you’d said something along the lines of that now you can start healing after the pain and trauma from the disenrollment fights of the last decade. Is that another way of saying that the wounds are still there, that they haven’t healed yet in terms of split up families and debates within the community?
Kennedy: Well, yes, there are issues. You don’t know what the issue is in enrollment until you actually get an application. And then there’s discovery of something that you weren’t expecting. And when you apply it to the rules for enrollment, there still could be a problem. There could still be a problem that a new applicant may not have the connection that they believed that they had. There still can be someone who adopted children and no one knew about it, a tribal member, that still could happen. So yeah, there are wounds that are there and I believe that our tribal members recognize that enrollment is very important and the value that it carries. So yes, there are wounds.
Our enrollment department tries to assist every member in providing them with background information that we have on our records. The one thing that I will say, that when we were terminated, the B.I.A. took all of our records and they were in charge of enrollment. When we were restored in ‘83, the bureau still had those records. The tribe had to request them. And what we found was that there were a lot of errors in those records, it was not a real scientific approach. It was just based on whoever was in the office, not to say that they weren’t trained. I don’t know that part of it, but there are still errors being discovered from when the bureau handled all of our enrollment.
Miller: Cheryle Kennedy, thanks very much for your time today.
Kennedy: You’re welcome. Thank you for listening to me.
Miller: Cheryle Kennedy is Chairwoman for the Grande Ronde Tribal Council. Members of the tribe recently voted to prevent disenrollment.
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