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Moment of tribal truth

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In a vote to be held in January of next year, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will decide whether or not to ease membership requirements.

Proponents of an amendment that would relax the criteria from the current one-quarter blood requirement to simple lineal descent hoped to hold the election sooner. Under the banner of the Split Family Support Group, proponents successfully gathered 1,108 signatures last June to qualify their ballot measure, which was approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in mid-September.

But last week U.S. District Court Judge Don Molloy rejected the group’s request for a December vote and sided with the BIA, which had proposed a January date. The BIA and the Split Family group differed over whether a 90-day deadline from petition approval to vote applied in this case, but Molloy ruled that waiting another month wouldn’t cause harm either way.

In effect, the amendment would open membership to the tribe’s entire family tree, not just to people with the equivalent of at least one full Salish, Kootenai or Pend Oreille grandparent. Proponents of the change argue that the current method has created “split families,” since prior to 1960 tribal membership was based on birth place, not blood relation. In 1959, for example, anyone born to a tribal family within the borders of the reservation was enrolled regardless of blood quantum.

Actually, the first occasion of split families occurred in 1935, says Regina Parot, co-chair of the Split Family group. At that time children born in Missoula hospitals were denied membership while siblings of the same lineage who were born on the reservation were granted membership. But that split was resolved with a clause granting enrollment retroactively to anyone with one-fourth blood quantum.

At the beginning of November, Parot and the Split Family group asked Molloy to intervene and force a December election, arguing that a combination of members heading south for the winter and bad travel conditions in January would drive down voter turn-out. Another group, the Flathead Indian Reservation Defense Organization, supported the BIA and argued that the election should take place only after members had had enough time to consider a demographic report commissioned by the tribal council, which is due at the end of the month.

The Defense Organization also warned that membership based on lineal descent would create “tenuous” blood connections, erode tribal involvement by members, and further diminish shared values.

In effect, lineal descent would threaten the tribe itself, they told the court: “Under the lineal descendancy concept that would be implemented under the proposed amendment, the concept of self-determination for Indian tribes is reduced to nullity.”

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