Anyone who has seen the recently released second season of Netflix's hit series, House of Cards, will probably agree that it's addictive. Though some have made note of what the series gets wrong, there are some elements of the storyline that ring true. Namely the topic of tribal disenrollment, a real life issue affecting Native Americans all across the United States.
Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn't binge-watched their way through season two, we meet several Native American characters in chapters 20 and 21.
Doug Stamper travels to a Missouri casino owned by the fictional "Ugaya" Native American tribe and run by a greedy tribal chairman that has recently disenrolled an unknown number of tribal members. Leaders of the band that was booted meet with the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs because they want to be federally recognized (be seen as an Indian tribe by the U.S. government), which would allow them to be able to open a casino. Federally recognized tribes have government-to-government relationships with the U.S.
Because this storyline probably went over many non-Native people's heads, let's break it down.
Disenrollment is when a tribe decides to essentially kick tribal members out of their tribe. Not for committing a crime or for being disloyal, but because the tribal government has decided to redefine who is a member of the tribe. This usually amounts to changing the rules for blood quantum. Currently there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Each one is self-governing and determines its own laws and requirements for citizenships. In fact, many members of U.S. tribes consider themselves dual-citizens.
Back in 2008, LA Weekly spoke with John Gomez Jr., a Pechanga tribal member who had been disenrolled from his tribe, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. The tribe runs the 14-story, then $350 million Pechanga Resort & Casino.
He said that being kicked out of his tribe was not only devastating, but it was a shock, too.
"My family’s history is the history of Temecula and the Pechanga, but now, somehow, we have become traitors," Gomez told LA Weekly. "I loved my job. I loved my tribe. But growing up…I would never, ever have thought our tribe would come to this."
Some tribes require members to be at least 1/4, while others don't have a blood quantum at all, but use lineage to determine membership. (Which means you must prove that you are a descendant of someone who was once a member of the tribe.) This is the case for the Cherokee Nation, which requires that you prove target="external"that you are a descendant of "at least one direct Cherokee ancestor listed on the Dawes Final Rolls, a federal census," according to their tribal citizenship webpage.
Each tribe determines who can be considered part of their tribe because they are sovereign nations. Much like how the United States decides who is a citizen, a tribal government determines their own criteria for membership. And, unfortunately for some, those requirements can change over time leaving tribal members tribeless.
What's the reason? Well, as with the "Ugaya" tribe in House of Cards, recently, disenrollment has been related to allegations of greed by casino tribes (tribes that own casinos). The issue has been happening all across Indian Country since bingo halls and eventually casinos became a potential source of income for Indian tribes seeking a way to provide for their people.
Consider the United States deciding one day to take your citizenship away. You woke up an American and by lunch, you were stateless and without valid identification or a passport.
For many who have been disenrolled, it cuts even deeper – it's a matter of losing ones identity. For tribal members who work for their tribal government, they may lose their job or be forced to leave their home and switch schools if they live on tribal land or attend a tribal school.
For tribal governments and the remaining tribal members (who met the newly established enrollment requirements), it has meant a greater share of the money.
As the New York Times reported in 2011, "Clan rivalries and political squabbles are often triggers for disenrollment, but critics say one factor above all has driven the trend: casino gambling."
Enrolled tribal members of profitable casino-owning tribes are eligible to receive generous per capita monthly payout, known as "per caps," that are distributed to adult tribal members from casino profits.
What's worse is if you're no longer a federal Indian, not only are you ineligible to receive per caps, but you also can't receive federal benefits (like health care services and college tuition assistance).
Despite this trend, not all wealthy tribal governments are bad, as journalist and Akwesasne Mohawk, St. Regis Mohawk tribal member, Vincent Schilling said via e-mail.
"Where are the mainstream media stories of the Mdewaaneton Sioux that just recently donated $870,000 to ensure tribal members living in subzero winter temperatures would not freeze? The Mdewaketon Sioux annually give millions to other tribes nationally yet we never see this in the news."
Just like with any other minority group, not all Native Americans are the same.
While fans and critics of the show alike are getting a kick out of pointing out the incorrect minutiae within House of Cards, this Native is happy that a popular scripted series is touching upon a very real modern issue for Indian Country…and that they featured real Native American actors no less!
*Amy Stretten is a member of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia.