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Tribal Membership Disputes Heat Up

August 31, 1999

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. (AP) _ For 20 years, Wallace Chatfield has periodically brought a bulging collection of birth certificates and census counts to the headquarters of the Saginaw Chippewas, hoping to join the tribe he already feels a part of by blood.

While other family members, including his parents, are recognized Chippewas, he says shifting birthplace rules have long been cited in keeping him off tribal rolls.

The distinction means Chatfield can’t share in tribal benefits, which last year included $30,000 to each member from the Chippewas’ highly successful Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort.

``They are trying to keep the number of membership as low as possible,″ said Chatfield, 52, who lives on the tribe’s reservation. ``They aren’t going to let me become a member because that’s one less dollar they are going to receive.″

In tribes across the nation, experts say similar disputes are brewing, especially in those with casino riches to share.

``Where there is a big pie to fight around, that’s where you tend to find these kinds of issues,″ said Robert Williams Jr., a professor of law and American Indian studies at the University of Arizona.

In August, differing membership philosophies among the 2,500 Saginaw Chippewas boiled into a dispute that led to standoffs with police, federal intervention and lawsuits over tribal control.

Tribal spokesman Ronald Jackson, who said he isn’t familiar with Chatfield’s case, said new Chippewas won’t be designated until after fall tribal elections triggered by the membership debate.

``There’s the problem of sudden wealth, and that raises all sorts of issues about your identity,″ said Jeff Corntassel, a member of the Oklahoma Cherokee tribe and Virginia Tech law professor.

``It can pit tribal members against each other. It’s sort of like a divide-and-conquer strategy of colonial times that has been detrimental to Indians,″ he said.

Tribal membership not only entitles Indians to benefits such as education and health care, but citizenship in an Indian nation, voting rights and other cultural entitlements.

``There are people who have some sincere beliefs that tribal membership defines who you are,″ Williams said. ``It should be no surprise that people get upset with this.″

The constitutions of most tribes require a certain blood quantum _ or proportion of Indian lineage _ for membership.

Earlier this year, the Tigua Indian tribe near El Paso, Texas, banished about 10 families from the reservation after they couldn’t prove a one-eighth blood quantum requirement. An effort to confirm Tigua membership began just before the tribe distributed the first payments from its Speaking Rock casino in December 1997.

And in July, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, which operates the 4-year-old Spirit Mountain Casino west of Portland, Ore., voted to tighten membership requirements after a 40 percent increase in membership followed the casino’s opening.

The tribe amended its constitution to require that a member’s one-sixteenth blood quantum must come from Grand Ronde tribes. Before, a quantum from a combination of any federally recognized tribes was accepted.

``I think you should be a member of a tribe because of your ties to it, not because of what it can provide for you,″ said Tracy Dugan, director of the tribe’s public information office.

Robert Clinton, a judge for the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said the quantums are a bureaucratic legacy of colonialism, not an indigenous Indian policy.

Further, he said, the federally-prepared blood quantum test records are ``notoriously inaccurate because of language problems, inaccurate reporting and a misunderstanding of Indian kinship.″

And Corntassel, who calls the quantums ``silly,″ asks: ``Is someone who has a one-eighth quantum more Indian than someone who is 1/64th?″

Corntassel said tribes historically skirted rules by allowing for ``adoption″ of those who didn’t qualify under membership standards. But the move is increasingly rare, he said.

Andrew Lee, an Indian government expert at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said it remains important for tribes to continue to set their own standards for membership, despite disputes.

``This is what sovereignty is all about,″ he said.