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Battle for control of Dry Creek Pomos

Laila Elgin DeRouen, right, arrives Monday at the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians' office north of Santa Rosa for a hearing to challenge her pending disenrollment. She was accompanied by her attorney Tony Cohen and her mother, Liz Elgin DeRouen.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 12:26 p.m.

A struggle for control of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians played out Monday in Santa Rosa as two candidates for tribal office challenged their pending disenrollment.

The candidates, daughters of previous tribal leaders who themselves were disenrolled four years ago, appealed to the five-member Dry Creek board of directors to reverse the decision to kick them out of the tribe.

"It's a political thing. There's no reason I should not be qualified to run," said Laila Elgin DeRouen, who was informed in October she no longer qualified for tribal membership after declaring her candidacy for secretary-treasurer of the board.

"What I presented was the truth," she said after emerging from her appeal hearing at the Dry Creek administrative offices off Airport Boulevard. "They should never have questioned my membership to begin with."

Disputes over membership in tribes have increased since Las Vegas-style gambling was legalized on Indian lands in California a dozen years ago.

They have flared up periodically among the about 1,100 members of Dry Creek Rancheria, who opened their River Rock Casino near Geyserville in 2002.

At stake is an about $650-a-month payment each adult tribal member receives, along with eligibility for medical, educational and housing benefits.

For those who have been booted out despite tracing their lineage back for generations, they say they also face a painful loss of their cultural identity and heritage.

To drive home her legitimacy as a tribal member, DeRouen on Monday wore to the hearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of her great-grandfather, Alfred Elgin Sr., who was living on the Dry Creek Rancheria when it was established in 1915.

She also wore a traditional Pomo dance skirt and rabbit fur headdress adorned with "flicker" feathers and abalone shells.

DeRouen, 29, and Carmen Cordova Soltanizadeh, 34, a candidate for tribal gaming commissioner who also is facing disenrollment, both argued their case to the board of directors in separate closed-door sessions.

Although both women invited The Press Democrat to their hearing, Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins said it was a "private matter." He did not allow a reporter and photographer to remain in the room.

Later he said it was necessary to enforce confidentiality guidelines that govern the board.

He said the hearing "has everything to do with family background and grandparents, including some name-calling that goes on."

Hopkins said the board of directors made no decision Monday on the appeals but wanted to deliberate further.

"We'll try to complete it within 10 days," he said.

The question over the women's legitimacy as tribal members led to the indefinite cancellation of the November tribal elections in which Hopkins was running for re-election as chairman.

The two women and their supporters complain Hopkins and other tribal leaders are holding onto power by selectively disenrolling rivals.

But Hopkins and tribal administrator Gus Pina said there is an automatic vetting that takes place for any candidate for office.

"It's not an intimidation factor," Pina said. "It's a fact of life if you're going to run for office, you have to show you have a right to represent the tribal membership."

But DeRouen's mother, Liz Elgin DeRouen, said automatically reviewing each candidate's eligibility for membership only began when she ran for re-election as chairwoman against Hopkins in 2004.

She subsequently was expelled from the tribe along with more than 30 other longtime members.

In essence, the tribe's articles of association state members must be descended from someone who was living on the rancheria when it was established in 1915 and cannot have been a member of another tribe.

Dry Creek board members expelled Liz DeRouen because they said she was enrolled in the Manchester-Point Arena tribe, which she denies.

Soltanizadeh's father, former Dry Creek Chairman Stan Cordova, was expelled in 2009 because his mother is a member of the Round Valley Tribe in Covelo.

The two women charge that the Dry Creek enrollment committee and directors are re-interpreting membership guidelines to say there was a break in their family lineage and all of their predecessors must have been members of Dry Creek.

They say they are legitimate because they can directly trace their lineage to someone who was on the 1915 census roles and never have been affiliated with another tribe.

They also say the board has been vague about the exact charges and has not provided them with evidence upon which their disenrollment is based, so they can't adequately defend themselves.

There is often little legal recourse for dispelled members. The federal Bureau of Indian Affair rarely gets involved in membership disputes because of tribal sovereignty issues.

But Tony Cohen, a Santa Rosa attorney representing Laila De-Rouen, said individual Dry Creek directors could be vulnerable to a lawsuit alleging violation of the women's rights under the Indian Civil Rights Act adopted by the tribe.

"They're acting out of the scope of authority, so they no longer have tribal immunity," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com

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