A Family Says It's Greed, not Heritage, When Tribal Membership Is Questioned
- September 4, 2003
The late Virginia Timmons was among the 17 Indians still living on the Redding Rancheria when it was disbanded by federal order in 1959, one of the sad milestones of the Indian experience in California.
Her daughter, Lorena, was among the 130 original members enrolled in the tribal group after its reestablishment 24 years later, a restoration that came about partly through the efforts of her grandson, Bob Foreman.
To this day, many of Virginia Timmons' 75 descendants remember her as the cheerful woman they called "Nano." She loved the music of Elvis and used to startle guests by uttering phrases from a near-forgotten tribal language in her sleep. Many of her offspring have served the rancheria as members of the tribal council, executives of its health clinic, administrators of its educational programs or managers of its thriving Win-River casino.
By almost any measure, Timmons' family would have to be ranked among the leading clans of the Redding Rancheria, which sits on 30 acres of land in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. So one can only imagine their dismay at the movement to kick them all out of the tribal organization.
"Our history's always been here," says Carla Maslin, one of Virginia Timmons' great-granddaughters. "I think it's a crime when people start trying to take others' heritage away."
Maslin's father, Bob Foreman - the same man who was instrumental in reestablishing the tribe - is more succinct. "It's greed," he says. "Out and out, that's what it is."
Foreman, now 67, is alluding to the feature of tribal life that hangs over the so-called disenrollment case like a shroud: the disbursement of roughly $3,000 that every tribal member receives from the casino each month. Disenrolling the family, which could cut the size of the tribe to about 186 members from 261, could consequently mean an increase of about 40%, or $1,200, in every remaining member's monthly take.
"This proves the truth of an old Chinese aphorism, 'You never really know someone until you share an inheritance with them,' " says the family's Las Vegas-based lawyer, Michael V. Stuhff.
Tribal representatives say the case is not about money, but about the tribe's legitimate interest in establishing its own identity under conditions in which there just happens to be money at stake. "If the Foremans have produced any evidence other than the circumstances to suggest this is about money, I'd like to know what it is," says David Rapport, the tribe's outside lawyer.
It's unclear whether the Redding situation is a harbinger of more such conflicts over tribal membership. Only a handful of disenrollment cases have arisen in California in recent years, including a Pechanga reservation case that reportedly has been dropped. "The incidence rate in California is pretty amazingly low," says Michael Pfeffer, executive director of Oakland-based California Indian Legal Services, an independent agency providing a neutral hearing officer in the Redding case.
Still, it's only now becoming widely appreciated how burgeoning casino wealth means that tribal membership might confer not merely cultural identity but substantial financial reward too.
The challenge to the Foreman family dates to June 2002, when the tribal council received two letters alleging that Virginia Timmons bore no children. The letters, which were written by an elderly tribal member named Dorothy Dominguez shortly before her death, implicitly attacked the bona fides not only of Timmons' only child, Lorena (who was born in 1916 and died in 1995), but of Lorena's five children, their 17 offspring and the two generations that have followed.
The family contends that Dominguez, who they openly deride as an aged, bitter alcoholic, could not have had any grounds to challenge Lorena's parentage. Among other things, they say that Dominguez was 16 years younger than Lorena and therefore not in any position to know the circumstances of her birth. They contend the 10-member tribal council - which currently includes three Foreman family members - should have rejected the allegation out of hand.
Instead, an enrollment committee examined Lorena's file and determined that it included neither a birth nor a baptismal certificate. The panel asked the family to provide such documentation, even though it would have been highly unusual for an Indian born in 1916 to have had a formal birth certificate.
The Foremans delved deep into dusty family and public archives. They turned up federal Indian records, census rolls and other contemporary references establishing Lorena's lineage. They offered up pages from the Foreman family Bible recording births and deaths, all of this from a period in which there could be no conceivable gain, financial or otherwise, from fabricating such a familial relationship. They even exhumed Virginia Timmons' body, obtaining a bone sample for a DNA test that established a statistically likely maternal link between Timmons and one of Lorena's living children.
Despite this mountain of evidence, the tribe has continued to press the disenrollment case, raising the family's suspicions about its motives. The Foremans believe the chief threat to its standing, however, is not the question of documentation, but the quasi-judicial procedures the tribe has established in the matter. These include a merging of an evidentiary hearing before the tribal council with a general vote on the disenrollment by a secret ballot of all adult tribal members present later this month.
With the hearing and the balloting combined, the family fears they are being set up to lose a massively self-interested vote. Their concern is intensified by the tribe's plan to bar the Foremans from voting, on the grounds that they have a direct financial interest in the outcome.
As for the financial interest of the rest of the tribe, the council argues that it's only indirect and should not have a bearing on the general right to vote.
"They're trying to dress this up so it looks like a hearing with evidence," Stuhff says. "I'd call it a kangaroo court, but that would be unfair to Australian marsupials."
Rapport counters that the system has been in place for several years, and that it has been applied to at least one other family. (Its three members were disenrolled.) At the session, set for Sept. 27, the Foremans will have a full opportunity to present their evidence, he adds.
"The tribe enacted a procedure and they're following it in good faith," Rapport says. "If the Foremans are right and their argument is persuasive, they should win."
Family members aren't as confident that the outcome will be just.
Says Carla Maslin, whose earliest memories include the mimosa trees in the front of her great-grandmother's house and the blackberries she and the other children picked out back: "I watch my two grandchildren and know I'm looking at our future, while we're also looking at our past. I've never been involved in anything so hurtful."
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. Michael Hiltzik can be reached at golden.state@....
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