For Native Americans, Losing Tribal Membership Tests Identity : Code Switch For nearly 30 years, Jade Unger's family was embraced by a tribe. Then, in September, everything changed when the tribe's enrollment committee said they were enrolled in error.
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For Native Americans, Losing Tribal Membership Tests Identity

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For Native Americans, Losing Tribal Membership Tests Identity

For Native Americans, Losing Tribal Membership Tests Identity

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A confederation of western Oregon Indian tribes has been pruning its membership role. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde expelled more than a dozen members in the last year, and now the tribe may expel an entire family. The family says its ties to the tribe go back a century and a half, but the tribal confederation says they do not deserve their casino-generated checks. David Nogueras of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

DAVID NOGUERAS, BYLINE: Jade Unger was 13 years old when he first heard of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Tumulth. Tumulth was the leader of the Watlala, a tribe that controlled river traffic along a key section of the Columbia River.

JADE UNGER: If you search for Chief Tumulth, you'll find that he's, you know, as some people claim, the most famous Chinookan chief that there ever was.

NOGUERAS: Learning about his ancestors, Unger began to learn about himself. He studied the tribal language, Chinuk Wawa, and learned the traditional methods of hunting and fishing. Eventually, he was enrolled at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In 1855, his ancestor, Chief Tumulth, played an early role in the confederation's founding by signing an important treaty with the U.S. government. Unger says for nearly 30 years, his family was embraced by the tribe, that is, until last September, when everything changed.

UNGER: I was actually out hunting in the middle of the woods all by myself on my tribal tag in this just beautiful, serene area of the, you know, Pacific Northwest Rain Forest. And I got a call from my auntie. And I just - I stopped and I went home.

NOGUERAS: The tribe's enrollment committee told Unger and 78 members of his family that a recently completed audit showed they were enrolled in error.

UNGER: I'm not worried about me. I know I'm fine economically. I'll make it. But there's people in my family that are going to be devastated by this, people that are dependent on their elders' pensions. There's people that, you know, are going to lose their homes.

NOGUERAS: Back in 1995, the tribe opened its Spirit Mountain Casino, and for the first time, members began to see a financial benefit. Within a few years, the tribe started to tighten its enrollment requirements. In fact, under the new standards, Unger's family wouldn't be let in today. His ancestor may have signed a key treaty in the formation of Grand Ronde, but Chief Tumulth was killed before the reservation was officially recognized in 1857. Unger says that information was well-known to the committee members who approved their applications.

UNGER: There was no error. It was very deliberate, and it was unanimously agreed upon that we had a background and we had a right to belong here in this tribe.

REYNOLD LENO: Tribes are made up of families, and families know their own history.

NOGUERAS: Reynold Leno is tribal council chairman.

LENO: And when you have people that don't kind of fit into that family-type scenario, it kind of draws a question. And I think that's what a lot of people wanted looked into.

NOGUERAS: Leno wouldn't discuss pending cases, but he says the audit was needed to correct inconsistencies in the tribal record. And while he says any disenrollments that result from that are unfortunate, he says the tribe has a constitution, and it's his job to uphold it.

LENO: It was given to us by the Supreme Court to set standards and the regulations for our enrollment, and I think people should respect that.

NOGUERAS: But both in and outside of Oregon, disenrollments are raising questions. David Wilkins is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Lumbee Nation. He estimates as many as 8,000 U.S. citizens have been cast out of native tribes over the last two decades, and Wilkins worries disenrollments could be putting tribal autonomy in jeopardy.

DAVID WILKINS: At some point, there's going to be enough clamor raised by disenrollees that there is going to be a congressional hearing, or there is going to be a Supreme Court decision that might seriously impinge on what is a true sine qua non of a sovereign nation - that is, the power to decide who belongs.

NOGUERAS: Jade Unger acknowledges he might lose his federally recognized status, but he says nobody can take away his identity as a native person.

UNGER: That's, hands down, way more important to me than any little, you know, chunk of money I might get in a per capita payment. I don't care about that. I care about my tribe. You know, I feel like I belong. We belong.

NOGUERAS: And Unger says that's the one thing he wants to hold onto. For NPR News, I'm David Nogueras in Bend, Oregon.

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