WASHINGTON (CN) – Sixty-seven former members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe claim in federal court that the government officials tasked with protecting them stood idly by after the Michigan tribe illegally expelled them.
The plaintiffs, led by Julia Cavazos, claimed Monday that Interior Department officials are sitting on a petition they filed to compel officials to enforce the Judgment Funds Act, which they say prohibits the tribe from discriminating against members entitled to federal money and other tribal benefits.
That money, contained in an investment fund, was awarded to compensate tribal members for lands taken by the United States before it formally recognized the tribe as a legal entity.
Cavazos and the other plaintiffs say Interior Department officials, including Secretary Ryan Zinke, have failed to act on their petition to stop the disenrollments, and to reinstate those already disenrolled.
“To date, Defendants have taken no action on the Petition, and no action to enforce the clear-cut requirements of the Judgment Funds Act,” the April 16 complaint says.
The plaintiffs claim being expelled from the tribe has stigmatized them and caused them economic harm.
“It also deprives Plaintiffs of important economic benefits, including benefits funded by the Investment Fund created by statute to ensure that all members of the Tribe may share in the proceeds from federal payments to the Tribe to account for the taking of tribal land,” the 24-page complaint says.
The lawsuit, filed by Gerald Torres with Cornell Law School, names Zinke as a defendant, along with acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda II and Bryan Rice, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Torres did not respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The Justice Department and the Interior Department likewise did not respond to emails seeking comment.
The plaintiffs say they are direct descendants of the Saginaw Chippewa, which encompasses the Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River bands, and were properly enrolled in the tribe before being kicked out in 2016 and 2017.
The tribe came into legal existence in 1937 after it enacted a new constitution that incorporated all descendants of the bands, the 24-page complaint says.
But that was undermined, the disenfranchised tribal members say, when the commissioner of Indian Affairs unlawfully forced revisions to the constitution, including a residency requirement that restricted membership to those with specific ancestry tied to a particular reservation.
That excluded 85 percent of the bands’ descendants from membership, the complaint says, which led to vast under enrollment prior to enactment of the Judgment Funds Act.
The issue came to the fore after the Indian Claims Commission and Court of Claims awarded monetary judgments to the tribe in the 1970s and 1980s, which entitled many descendants disenfranchised by the residency requirement to receive funds.
Congress stepped in with the Judgment Funds Act in 1986 to halt a tribal plan to eliminate payments to individual members – which according to the complaint amount to $60,000 per year – after which the plaintiffs say the tribe seemed to understand its obligations under the law.
It opened membership to descendants of the Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River bands, regardless of whether those individuals could meet the residency requirement. The plaintiffs claim they were among the 800 descendants of the bands who applied for and received tribal membership.
According to the complaint, the tribe first tried to disenroll members under the pretext of “erroneous enrollment” in 1996, but was unsuccessful in its attempts until 2016, when the plaintiffs claim the tribe openly began violating the Judgment Funds Act.
The plaintiffs are now claiming violations of the Judgment Funds Act.
“Because the Tribe remains legally obligated by the Judgment Funds Act and the 1986 constitutional amendments to maintain the enrollment and membership status of such persons, the failure of the Secretary to enforce the provisions of the Act reinstitutes and perpetuates exactly the discrimination against Plaintiffs that the Act was enacted to prevent,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration that defendants Zinke, Tahsuda and Rice failed to carry out mandatory enforcement of the Judgment Funds Act.