Dennis Champlain’s grandfather helped win federal recognition for the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Champlain himself has danced in tribal powwows and teaches his children that they are Narragansetts.
Yet the Narragansetts say he is no longer a member of the tribe.
Champlain and his extended family are among thousands of people removed from American Indian tribes in recent years, often amid tribal squabbles or when a casino comes to town.
In Rhode Island, the Narragansetts’ removal of about 140 of roughly 2,400 members has become an issue in Saturday’s election for the tribe’s chief sachem, or leader.
Tribal officials say they have the right to decide who is a member and to prevent fraud from people angling for a share of gambling money. But many of those kicked out complain they have little recourse to fight what amounts to an attack on their identity.
"We’re in the process of a redefinition of tribal identity at its core," said David Wilkins, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and a member of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe. "It’s ramping up in a way that’s really quite frightening to a lot of Native people."
Wilkins traces most purges to four factors: internal political squabbles, stricter racial requirements for membership, punishment for gang or drug-related crime and, most often, during debates over sharing casino profits.
A 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said the federal government should not intervene in most tribal membership disputes, leaving appeals up to the tribes.
Tribal casinos generated $25 billion in revenue last year, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. Tribes often split the profits by making payments to members. Fewer members can mean a larger paycheck for those left.
But that paycheck can lure people with dubious claims of ancestry. The Pechanga Band of California said it was deluged with membership claims after it opened its casino in 1995.
John Gomez Jr., 39, a Pechanga member since childhood, was kicked out in 2004. He said gambling profits were one factor: He lost free health care and a $15,000 monthly payment. But he said he and others had questioned leaders before a tribal election.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the money, but there’s a lot of it that’s also about the politics," said Gomez, who co-founded the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization, a group that lobbies against disenrolling tribe members.
The Pechanga council has said it cut members who should never have been let in.
It’s not clear how many people have been removed from tribes in the last few years. There are 562 federally recognized tribes and tribal governments are not required to report citizenship decisions. But the number is in the thousands.
Gomez’s advocacy group counts at least 1,500 people ousted from 13 tribes in California.