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PD Editorial: Power, abuse in determining tribal roots

From left, Stan Cordova, Carmen Cordova-Soltanizadeh, Liz Elgin-DeRouen and Laila DeRouen have been disenrolled or threatened with disenrollment from the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.

No one is more likely to hear from long lost relatives than the man who just won the lottery.

The same is true of an Indian tribe that has or is about to earn the right to open a casino. It’s a lucrative position. Given that, tribes understandably have to establish rules, through their constitutions, to make clear who is an official tribal member and who is not.

But problems can occur when the rules are unclear and loosely applied. At worst, the situation is ripe for abuse by tribal leaders who use their gatekeeper status to maintain power or money — or both.

Staff Writer Clark Mason described one such situation in his story Monday concerning a family in the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians (“Tribal roots dispute”). The dispute has now caused the tribe to postpone the election of its board of directors indefinitely.

At issue are the backgrounds of two people: Carmen Cordova Soltanizadeh, 34, and Laila DeRouen, 29. Both are lifelong members of the tribe, but their status is in question. Why? Because they declared themselves as candidates for the tribe’s board of directors, which oversees operation of the River Rock Casino near Geyserville.

“When election time comes, we have to review every member who wants to run, in make sure they are members of Dry Creek,” said Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins in defending the practice.

One would think that a tribal members’ status would have been evaluated long ago — not just at the time he or she decides to run for office. To disenroll someone at this point gives the impression that the board is trying to block competition and stifle dissent.

Nevertheless, both Soltanizadeh and DeRouen have been notified that they could be disenrolled, meaning they would lose their tribal status — as well as their $650-a-month payments from the casino and other benefits — just as DeRouen’s mother, Liz Elgin DeRouen, 48, lost hers three years ago.

Their credentials certainly would appear to be above reproach. Both say they can trace their roots to residents of the Dry Creek Rancheria in 1915. In addition, the elder DeRouen is a former Dry Creek tribal chairwoman. Soltanizadeh’s father, Stan Cordova, 61, is a former Dry Creek tribal chairman — who also was cut from the rolls.

What makes this story all the more troubling and suspicious is that Cordova and Hopkins are first cousins. Now Cordova’s daughter is on the brink of having her status taken away and, in effect, having her family history erased.

And there will be no legal recourse. Appeals are heard only by the board of directors, which, in effect, would have to overturn itself for an appeal to succeed. As Mason noted in his story, the Bureau of Indian Affairs rarely gets involved in these disputes because of the sovereignty rights the tribes enjoy.

The best solution is for tribes to create constitutions that prevent this kind of after-the-fact nonsense from occurring. One good model is that of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who are building a casino resort near Rohnert Park. According to the tribe, its constitution has recently been rewritten so as to protect members from being disenrolled. Previously, a member’s status could be challenged but only within the first few years of membership.

Either of these approaches are preferable to a situation that allows challenges up to the moment one seeks to challenge the tribe’s authorities.

At that point, it is not about establishing ancestry. It’s about maintaining power and control, pure and simple.

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