In April of 2003, Eddie Vedolla got the letter telling him he'd been kicked out of the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians. The tribal council informed him it was revoking his membership, and that of his 86-year-old mother, two sisters, and niece. The family was no longer eligible to vote in tribal elections, and Vedolla's niece lost her tribal scholarship to San Francisco State University. Most notably, they each would no longer receive the $2,455 quarterly dividend checks that tribe members get from California's Indian casinos.
Vedolla missed the benefits, but said he was more bewildered by having his identity denied by former friends and neighbors. "I got over the anger, but I never got over this feeling that I have in my gut," he said. "You know how you feel helpless when someone takes something from you and you can't do anything about it? It's that kind of feeling."
The experience of Vedolla and his family typifies, in many ways, that of California's Indians in the 20th century, from the era of "termination" to the era of casinos. The 65-year-old retired elementary school teacher grew up in a modest house on one of California's rancherias, the small plots of land that serve as reservations. He remembers his grandfather speaking the Pomo language with the other old folks around the house -- to the young boy, it seemed a mysterious language, full of laughter. But part of his experience was hearing from his elders that no good could come from his Indian heritage.
"My grandfather never would teach me the language," he said. "I'd ask him to teach me and he'd get kinda annoyed with me. I'll never forget one time, he said, 'You don't want to know all that. That's not what's important. What's important is to go to school ... and marry a white woman.'" Only many years later did Vedolla figure out that his elders were trying to protect him from the discrimination and brutality they had experienced.
American Indians have fought to preserve their identity in the face of many attacks. Over the past one hundred years, the opposition usually came from US government policies designed to wipe out tribes and disperse their members through assimilation. Not until recently have Indians felt the need to protect their identity from other Indians.
But casinos have brought an abrupt influx of money into California's tribes, not all of which are handling it well. Across the state, tribes have begun to kick out longtime members with a variety of tactics. Some tribal councils have cited missing birth certificates and reinterpreted membership rules to remove members from the rolls, while other tribes refuse to enroll people who feel they've been wrongly excluded for years. The exiled and excluded Indians say all the cases were prompted by the same motivation: the tribes' desire to increase the remaining members' shares of the profits from Indian casinos.
While no firm statistics exist for the number of disenrolled Indians, in 2004 the Associated Press estimated that at least 1,160 people in fourteen California tribes were embroiled in membership disputes. According to California Indians for Justice, an organization comprised of former members of fifteen tribes, more than 1,500 people have been disenrolled since gaming was legalized by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. And the problem is spreading beyond state borders: Conflicts have recently cropped up in Nevada, New York, Connecticut, and other states where Indian gaming profits have raised the stakes of tribal membership.
Since the tribes are sovereign entities within the United States, tribal members who feel mistreated by their governing councils find themselves with little recourse. State and federal courts have rejected lawsuits brought by disenrolled members, saying that membership disputes must be appealed to tribal officials -- usually the same people who made the original decisions.
This Catch-22 allows tribal councils to get away with all sorts of misdeeds, alleges Mark Maslin, who is organizing a coalition of disenrolled tribe members called the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization. "The reality is, the tribal constitutions and enrollment ordinances are just words on paper," Maslin said. "Tribes don't follow their own laws. It's lawlessness. It doesn't matter what race you are; if there are no checks and balances then the greedy people will rise to the top, because they don't play by the rules."
While California's tribes have always lacked an independent judiciary system, no one paid the situation much mind until casino profits led to the recent spate of disenrollments. "It's because of the casinos," Vedolla said. "Because of the money, that's what it's all about. Before the casinos came along, membership wasn't such a big deal. We could all be poor together."
The days of being poor together are over. According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, Indian casinos pulled in a combined revenue of $19.4 billion in 2004. California's 61 casinos accounted for about $5 billion of that total.
In the East Bay alone, four tribes have expressed casino ambitions. The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians tried to outfit Casino San Pablo with up to five thousand slot machines until state opposition forced the group to downgrade; a smaller casino with five hundred electronic bingo machines opened in August 2005. The Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians still hopes to build a casino on thirty acres along Richmond Parkway, and while federal, state, and county officials oppose the plan, city officials and the tribal chairman remain optimistic. Last summer the Koi Nation withdrew its plans for a casino near the Oakland airport in the face of county and city opposition.
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