This Article considers recent disputes over membership decisions made by American Indian tribal governments. Since Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, Indian casinos have flourished on some tribal reservations. Some argue that the new wealth brought by casinos has increased fights over membership as tribes seek to expel current members or refuse to admit new members. It is difficult to discern whether there are more disputes over tribal enrollment as a consequence of gaming or whether such disputes are now more public because gaming has brought tribes to the forefront of U.S. culture. What is clear is that enrollment disputes are receiving increased attention, resulting in calls for some change to address what many perceive as a fundamental unfairness in tribal decision making.
Aggrieved members’ attempts to resort to federal or state court are blocked due to a lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction, standing, and because of the tribes’ sovereign immunity. Activists and courts have sought to change this, seeking to curtail the tribes’ sovereign immunity, expand federal court jurisdiction to permit oversight, or otherwise impose U.S. law on tribal membership decisions. Scholars are divided, with some arguing for the abrogation of immunity or sovereignty, while others argue that the tribes’ decisions are sacrosanct. Still others argue over how the tribes should define membership—contending that it should be based on cultural identity, political participation, blood quantity, or even DNA.
This Article argues that the focus should instead be on solutions that come from within the tribes. For too long the tribes have suffered from the imposition of legal and cultural norms that do not reflect their identity or culture. Because a tribe’s right to define its membership lies at the heart of its sovereignty, the solution is more, not less, sovereignty for the tribes. To remedy the impasse, I propose that tribes create separate independent judicial bodies, or an intertribal appellate court that would provide independent review of tribal membership decisions.
Suzianne D. Painter-Thorne, If You Build It, They Will Come: Preserving Tribal Sovereignty in the Face of Indian Casinos & the New Premium on Tribal Membership, 14 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 311 (2010).