Q&A with ‘Dismembered’ coauthors David E. Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins

Today we speak with coauthors David E. Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins about their book, Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights, published this spring. Florangela Davila, writing in Seattle Magazine, calls it “a first-of-its-kind book that looks at tribal disenrollment.”

Since the 1990s, Native governments have been banishing, denying, or disenrolling citizens at an unprecedented rate. Nearly eighty nations, in at least twenty states, have terminated the rights of indigenous citizens. This first comprehensive examination of the origins of this disturbing trend looks at hundreds of tribal constitutions and interviews with disenrolled members and tribal officials to show the damage this practice is having across Indian Country and ways to address the problem.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your field and what you do?

David E. Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins: The conflicting stereotypes about Native peoples are always an obstacle to understanding. Indians are: extinct/corporations; poverty stricken/rich; addicts/mystics; craven opportunists/naive naturalists.

People who don’t know anyone Native swing back and forth between these ideas depending on the argument they are trying to make. This reliance on racist views obscures the real work being done by Native peoples and governments. There are only a handful of Native political scientists and it’s our job to provide the best level of research and writing possible so that Native governments, and those who interact with them, have the tools and knowledge they need for effective and long-lasting good governance.

Why did you want to write this book?  

DEW & SHW: We wanted to call attention to the wrongs happening under the guise of sovereignty. Native people are very proud of their sovereign status yet, in some instances that has been used by scoundrels as an excuse, a shield behind which they destroy political opponents, enrich themselves, or take revenge for old grudges. Allowing sovereignty to be used in this way diminishes and endangers its power across Indian Country. Many are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be seen as questioning a Tribe’s sovereign authority to decide for themselves who does and does not belong to their nation. Unfortunately, this attempt to protect sovereignty through silence—hoping the issue will just go away—ends up eroding it for everyone. Our book is an attempt to bring the facts behind these shameful actions to light so that they can be discussed and addressed in the open.

What do you think is Dismembered‘s most important contribution?

DEW & SHW: We want to educate everyone about the issue of disenrollment and encourage Native people to examine and appreciate the power of citizenship and sovereignty. The people, not the government, hold true sovereignty, thus it cannot exist without human and civil rights.

The power to define citizenship is critical to the exercise of sovereignty for Native Nations. That said, the tools and the concepts utilized by many Tribal governments are those they inherited from the US Federal Government. Traditional means of governance did not include making distinctions about belonging based on blood quantum, genealogy, or enrollment records.  These are standards set by a government with the goal of eliminating or assimilating Native people.

In the 1990s, a woman who was stripped of her Tribal citizenship contacted David. He had heard of banishment—a temporary punishment for wrong-doing—but the idea that a human being could be stripped of their citizenship, their Tribal identity, was shocking. He began to keep a file on the issue. At first, the practice wasn’t widespread and seemed to be confined to a few California Tribes, but his file began to grow.

The reasons given were all over the place. Some were accused of treason for voicing disagreement at open council meetings. Disenrollement—or, as we began to call it, dismemberment—was also an efficient means of dealing with whistleblowers. If someone uncovered corruption involving those in power, the Tribe found a reason to get rid of them. Elders, children, native language speakers, former chairs, and council members—no one was immune. A common assertion was that these people lacked sufficient blood quantum or were dually enrolled in other tribes, but the problem was that record keeping by the federal government was terrible. Even the lucky ones who were able to offer what was considered official proof of their rights to belong were confronted with changing rules. No sooner did they provide what was asked than they were presented with another arbitrary road block. One family was put through the horrific experience of exhuming their great-grandmother and grandmother for DNA testing. The tests proved they belonged, but the Tribe disenrolled them anyway.

Perhaps, even more shocking than this cruelty was posthumous dismemberment– stripping the dead of their Tribal identities. It’s a very efficient means of getting rid of trouble makers or trimming your rolls. If you traced your heritage through your grandpa and those in power decided your grandpa wasn’t an Indian, then all who descended from him were automatically out.

Some people are enrolled fraudulently. In a very few instances people deliberately have lied or forged documents but these make up only a small portion of the disenrollment cases.

Cast-out people had nowhere to turn. Tribal governments said that as a sovereign nation, it was right and proper that they have the ability to define their membership, just as any other nation. Their Tribal Courts offered no relief. Those systems have come a long way since that time, but many were (and many still are) beholden to the Tribal leadership. They were unable or unwilling to rule against their own sovereign government in favor of an individual that government had decided to terminate. Judges who tried to do so were fired and replaced with those more amenable to the status quo.

Disenrollees lost their citizenship, which may just sound like a shame to most people who take their US and state citizenship for granted. US citizenship can’t be taken away and, after all, the dismembered are still citizens of their states and the US, but in reality, losing citizenship is deadly. Folks lost their health care, access to education, jobs, homes, even their family members as the process split households—one brother was in, the other was out.

Ultimately, there is no due process.  These people can be labeled and accused of anything and they have had no rights, no means with which to fight back. A few hard working attorneys, like Gabe Galanda and Ryan Dreveskracht, have started to make a real difference—they were able to prevent the disenrollment of a group of folks from the Grand Ronde Community in Oregon and are fighting for the Nooksack 306 here in Washington. That gives us hope.

How did you come up with the title?

DEW & SHW: Tribes tend to call their citizens members, a term that came from the federal government that serves to diminish the importance of belonging to a Tribal Nation. It sounds more like joining the Rotary than being part of a nation. But we felt it important to deconstruct and reuse the term. The feelings these people described were so agonizing, as though they were physically cut off from the body that sustained them. Tribal nations, too, suffered when they cut off living beings that are the true embodiment of their sovereignty. That is why we refer to these people as dismembered.

Describe the process of writing the book.

SHW: David had more than 20 years worth of stories in his file and a network of friends who had been dismembered. He had also written articles over those years. Together, we wrote more articles and began to conduct formal interviews. Marty Two Bulls, an incredibly talented political cartoonist, contributed his work. The tireless Gabe Galanda, one of the few attorneys to take on the cause of disenrollees, shared photos from a social media campaign he and Louie Gong designed to call attention to the issue.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing the book?

DEW & SHW: Perhaps the most shocking thing we learned was the amount of money outsiders were making from fomenting discord within Tribal Nations. Non-native attorneys who keep the conflicts going in order to bill more hours, outside consultants—self-professed enrollment experts—who organize seminars or directly advise Tribal leaders on ways to “clean-up their rolls,” financial advisors who calculated how much further per-capita payments would go if membership were to be reduced.

David E. Wilkins is the McKnight Presidential Professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor of American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Shelly Hulse Wilkins is a partner with the Wilkins Forum and specializes in tribal governmental relations.