“They don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians to Indians.”

Donald Trump (testimony on Indian gaming, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, 1993)

Recent headlines surrounding Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native ancestry help shine a spotlight on the issue of cultural appropriation. Despite not having documented proof of Native American lineage or any tribal affiliation, Warren insisted she was Cherokee, while at the same time failing to meet even the federal standard of one-quarter degree Indian blood (a requirement for most tribes).

It appears she also used this self-professed minority status professionally, listing her race as American Indian when registering with the State Bar of Texas in 1986. These instances of cultural appropriation for personal enrichment are not unlike any other claim of Native ancestry to gain what is meant for legitimate Native Americans.

The success of gaming operations on reservations across America gave rise to cultural appropriation, with thousands claiming to be Native American once tribes began distributing their wealth with members. My uncle used to say, “There was a time when nobody wanted to be Saginaw Chippewa. Now they all want to be.” His observation followed an avalanche of membership applications that crippled our tribal enrollment office and put in-motion legal challenges that have plagued the tribe for more than two decades.

The Saginaw Chippewas: Subversive Genealogy & Stolen Trust reveals a cultural appropriation that emerged during the height of Indian gaming, fueled by the initiation of per-capita payments (i.e. the sharing of casino revenue with tribal members). The tribe’s portfolio – once exceeding a billion dollars – faced serious challenges under a strain of erroneous and collateral membership that reached into the hundreds.

What was once meant to lift Native Americans out of poverty became a modern-day gold rush, with reservations overtaken by opportunists and others of less-than-admirable intentions. The old adage “There was a Cherokee princess in our family…I’m part Native American” took on new meaning; as tribes with gaming operations experienced a surge in membership, yet enrollment spikes remained absent from those without casinos.

  • What is the origin of collateral membership in the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe? An enrollment practice that would lead to near-depletion of the tribe’s futures trust.
  • Was there a modern-day swindle? Very much like the Great Lakes lumber barons who took advantage of the Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River Bands.
  • Or is this simply a quest to belong? To right the wrongs of the federal government and determine membership as a sovereign nation, free from colonialism.

As a descendant of the first Saginaw Chippewa tribal treasurer, I sought answers to these questions, and with the help of tribal elders learned a true behind-the-scenes story from those who were there.

A little background…

Note: This revised blogpost was first published April 29, 2009 on My Native Life, and re-blogged by Turtle Talk (the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University of Law blog).

Saginaw Chippewa Citizen on Disenrollments

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council had the unfortunate task of deciding the fate of an undetermined number of people when faced with a disenrollment motion March 17, 2009.

It was, and has always been an issue of legality ignored too long. Allowing those not-entitled to membership by diluting and convoluting Enrollment Ordinance 14 has led to intentional or otherwise fraud and mistake.

Those who have been allowed membership despite not being legally-entitled, are now faced with the harsh and scary reality of not only losing benefits, but an identity they believed was based in historical record. But records are not the rule-of-law when absolute criteria are outlined and inclusion very specific.

Constitution and By-Laws of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, approved May 6, 1937.

The membership criterion of the Saginaw Chippewa were determined over 70 years ago, and redefined 23 years ago; in the founding and amended tribal constitutions of 1937 and 1986.

Amended Constitution and By-Laws of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, approved November 4, 1986.

In these documents, membership is defined as all persons at-least one-quarter degree Indian blood who descend from 1883, 1885, 1891 and 1982 rolls. However, several administrations blatantly disregarded these rules and erroneously enrolled hundreds, at-times inserting annuity rolls considered wrought with fraud into the ordinance; thus, resulting in diminished integrity of the membership roll.

In a letter to at-large members dated March 27, 2009, District Three (off reservation) Representative Michelle Stanley mistakenly stated this was a matter “that has plagued the tribe since the mid-nineties,” when in-fact the question of who is and isn’t Saginaw Chippewa has been debated since the early 1980’s; following monetary awards known as Dockets 57, 59, 13E and 13F of the Indian Claims Commission and United States Claims Court.

At a July 10, 1985 U.S. Senate Hearing (1106, 99th Congress), tribal attorney Thomas L. Wilson testified “2,379 individuals who took monies that were available, were not qualified to be members of an Indian tribe in this country.”

Hazel Elbert (on behalf of the Department of the Interior) also confirmed $16 million was distributed to 4,134 persons, of which only 891 were Saginaw Chippewa tribal members. Almost 700 of 3,200 descendants who received monies were children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of enrolled members, but ineligible for tribal membership.

Also, important to note is a statement published in the record from council member Lorna Kahgegab, expressing the tribe’s objection to sharing the awards with any descendant group.

The reason S.1106 is so important in this debate is because many facing disenrollment possibly base their membership eligibility in taking part in the distribution of the docket monies; failing to understand the difference between constitutionally-based member, and descendant.

There are instances where an individual is noted as “Non-Indian” (not-eligible) in Docket 57 records, yet years later listed on membership rolls and collecting full benefits (from per-capita to employment hiring preference) meant for members.

Rather than adhere to membership criteria, these individuals were allowed to sidestep long-established constitutional-based requirements (including an application deadline), and are now faced with disenrollment proceedings before the tribe’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

Stanley also inferred the disenrollment motion “never would have been addressed if not for per-capita,” however the controversy surrounding the docket monies predate her deflection.

Furthermore, quoting the November 21, 2007 Appellate Court Opinion, “to place ourselves into the heart of Native American jurisprudence by healing, restoring balance and harmony, accomplishing reconciliation and making social relations whole again” may be full of good intentions, but is not an acceptable argument for ignoring constitutional law.

Had tribal councils followed the very constitution they swore to uphold, we would not be in this unfortunate disenrollment situation today.

And rather than repeatedly amend an enrollment ordinance to the point of it containing more pages than the tribe’s most-important document – its constitution – we must follow the original criteria before addressing the needs of those not-entitled to membership.