In 2011, my uncle, aunt and two cousins were disenrolled from the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe by an apparent majority vote after a year-and-a-half of politically motivated votes, debates, arguments and Council after Council meeting. It is all on film, one relative after the next defending or objecting to my uncle’s, and by proximity, his children’s tribal membership.
The story is not uncommon. My grandfather, enrolled, fell in love with a young Native American woman with a baby in her arms and adopted the child, my uncle, putting his own name on the birth certificate. It was long past my grandfather’s death before my uncle learned of his biological parentage, and in a quest to learn of his identity as an Indigenous man, he sought to find the man who was his birth father. So doing upped his blood quantum from fifty to nearly three-quarters percent, and blood quantum math matters when people begin to speak of disenrollment. On the logs as a naturalized member of the tribe, and recognized by the Elders and Ancestors as such, my uncle served as Vice Chair of the General Council for more than 20 years, bringing in businesses, raising his children among the gooseberry bushes as Shoalwater Bay Indians, on the cul-de-sac of Shoalwater Bay Drive, where he had lived his whole life.
Then it happened. My uncle was blindsided in a weekly Council meeting. Someone said, “We need to talk about this. And it’s awkward. But it has to happen. He is not Shoalwater Bay.”
Disenrollment is not an issue that plagues the Shoalwater Bay Tribe only. From coast to coast, disenrollement of members, both living and dead, has left Tribal Members feeling shaky and uncomfortable. Who gets to decide who is Tribal and who is not? Is it a matter of logs, paperwork, blood math that can be brought up at any moment by a disgruntled family in power when another family’s political position makes them unhappy? Or is it truly a move for sovereignty? In Washington state, 306 members of the Nooksack tribe were faced with disenrollment, apparently for being unable to prove their ancestry. They were informed of this over a letter, and given almost no recourse, but they continue to protest to this day. “Tribal membership completes the circle for the member’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of human life,” one court stated, as referenced in the Highland Times. For many Indigenous people, our health benefits depend upon our Tribal Membership. For others who live directly on the reservation, our ability to stay in our very homes is on the line.
My tribe voted to disenroll my uncle, two cousins and aunt, and immediately, those who met blood quantum requirements offered to adopt them back in. This effectively unseated my uncle from his position as Vice Chair of the tribe and so sickened him due to the years of ostracization and vicious personal attacks that he chose instead to move across the state.
When my aunt, who was 16 at the time, was disenrolled, she lived far from the reservation, though she had visited and sold fireworks there her whole life. She told me tribal membership was like having access to an online website she never used. Useful, but ultimately worthless. Indeed, it can feel worthless when a tribe is so willing to part with its future nation-builders.
Sherman Alexie summed up the entire situation in one tweet, refusing to parse words. He took a selfie, middle finger high, and held up a post-it note.
“Fuck your disenrollment bullshit,” it read.