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Editorial: Indian vs. Indian

Sovereignty can put tribal members at risk

Bee Editorial Staff
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Tuesday, November 25, 2003

As the wealth and influence of California's gambling tribes has grown, non-Indian reservation neighbors, patrons at tribal casinos and even local and state governments have been made alarmingly aware of how powerless they are when matched against tribal governments asserting their sovereign rights in arbitrary ways. Tribes can't be sued. They can't be required to comply with local zoning laws or state environmental, health and safety regulations. Their tribal enterprises, no matter how profitable, can't be taxed.

But non-Indians are not the only ones placed at risk by the unchecked power of wealthy tribal governments. The recent dispute between competing factions of a Butte County tribe, as reported by The Bee's Steve Wiegand, shows just how vulnerable tribal members can be too.

Seventy members of the Enterprise Rancheria tribe of Estom Yumeka Maidu literally lost their birthright the other day when they challenged their elected leaders. The dissident tribal members were voted out of the tribe because they signed a recall petition against tribal leaders. Those booted say they were given just three minutes each to defend themselves before a vote was taken. They were not allowed even to vote on their own fate.

According to experts on Indian law, the ousted tribal members have no recourse. Federal law and court decisions have made it clear that tribal governments alone have the power to determine tribal membership. In fact, determining tribal membership is the very essence of sovereignty.

When disputes arise, most tribes, particularly the small-family or clan-based bands that exist in California, have no written laws on which to base their membership decisions, nor any courts to which those challenging tribal leaders can appeal. Losers in a tribal dispute can take their case to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, but historically the BIA has refused to intervene.

Intratribal disputes are not a new phenomenon. They are noticed more because the wealth generated by Indian casinos has raised exponentially the stakes in such disputes. When squabbles escalate, those on the losing end can find themselves deprived not just of the gambling profits to which they are entitled, but also to their very identity as a member of the tribe. As the Butte County case so dramatically illustrates, the arbitrary and unchecked power of tribal governments can be a threat to the very people such governments are supposed to represent.






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