Purges in Indian Country

For as far back as Clayton Duncan can trace, the maternal side of his family has belonged to the land in and around Robinson Rancheria: a federal Indian reservation near the sleepy Lake County, Northern California, town of Nice, a 107 acre parcel that resulted from the 1978 federal court case United States Government vs. Mabel Duncan (Clayton’s grandmother).  For thousands of years, the family was part of a thriving complex of cultures that white anthropologists dubbed “Eastern Pomo.” In the past 160 years or more, they have been key figures in keeping alive what remains of those cultures.

Duncan’s great grandfather, Solomon Moore, grew up in the Eastern Pomo village of Shigom, on the east side of Clear Lake.  Clayton’s grandmother, Lucy Moore, hailed from the village of Danoha, situated along an eastern affluent of lower Scott Creek, near where Highway 29 curls around Clear Lake on its way to “Kelsyville,” so named for a notorious mid-19th century butcherer, enslaver, and rapist of Indians.

The Danoha village of Lucy Moore prefigured the location of the old Robinson Rancheria, where Duncan and his siblings grew up.  It was also roughly the site of one of the most grisly episodes of genocidal violence that white invaders wrought on Northern California’s native populations during the Gold Rush era: the 1850 Bloody Island Massacre.

These are the barest details of that gruesome episode: A US Cavalry regiment under Lt. Nathaniel Lyon shot and butchered as many as 400 Pomo people in a retaliatory rampage after a group of Native people rose up and killed their brutal enslavers, ranchers Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey.  It was an incident in which the victims at Bloody Island had no involvement. The vast majority of those whose lives the US Army laid down were women and children.

Lucy Moore was present at Bloody Island on that day.  She eluded a gruesome and utterly senseless death by hiding underwater, breathing for many hours through a tule reed.  She was six years old at the time.  Clayton Duncan has lived his whole life acutely aware that his very existence is a miracle.

One of the greatest measures of redemption for the Eastern Pomo and the Duncan family was the David  vs. Goliath battle with the US government that Mabel Duncan carried out in the 1970s in an effort to restore federal recognition of the Robinson Rancheria. Congress had “terminated” the rez in 1956, as part of a legislative push to dismantle the reservation system as a whole, which was  curtailed only after the American Indian Movement arose in the ’70s.  Mabel Duncan was more than 70 years old at the time a federal judge ruled in her favor, creating a new sanctuary for her people.

Clayton Duncan became the Robinson Rancheria’s inaugural vice chairperson, helping the people who moved their secure homes, sanitation, and housing.  He has worked in countless ways to preserve and extend his people’s cultural traditions and values on the rez ever since.

As UC Santa Barbara sociologist George Lipsitz has written, however, “In its terminal stages, genocide can look like suicide.”  Nowadays, the main barriers to justice that people like Clayton Duncan face frequently come from within their own ranks.  The official power structure on innumerable Indian reservations are made up of self-interested carpetbaggers.  As many observers and supporters of traditional native people’s values have pointed out, these are often the people who have most adapted themselves to the materialistic values of the dominant society, and who are best equipped to manipulate the reservation system’s dysfunctional power relations for their own personal gain.

This situation has been fostered across several decades by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which played a heavy-handed role in shaping tribal council elections for several decades.  In recent years, it has been greatly exacerbated in areas like California by the lure of casino money.  Here in the United States of America, the Indian reservations most often operate in a manner akin to Third World totalitarian US client states.

In Robinson Rancheria’s case, one part of a family named the Andersons has maintained control of the tribal council across the past several years while administering the reservation as their own small Banana Republic, with all the trappings: coups, embezzlement, and multiple layers of graft and fraud.  Critics of the regime, most notably Clayton Duncan and his family, have been cast to the margins, excluded from decision-making or even participation in official tribal functions.

Last month, Clayton Duncan and several members of his family received letters from the  Anderson-Avila regime, known as the Robinson Rancheria Business Council, announcing that they are being disenrolled from the tribe.  As retaliation for being a politically outspoken, tradition-oriented leader of his people, in other words, Clayton Duncan is being cast out of the tribe he and his family did so much to build.

Duncan is a tall, well-built man who, despite being 62 and having battled cancer for more than a decade, still exudes the energy of a far younger person. He has long, raven-black hair with only patches of white strands. He is widely recognized by other regional Native people as being a leader in maintaining and promoting his people’s spiritual and cultural traditions. He has also served to an exceptionally rare degree as an emissary in creating alliances with non-Native people.

“Our people, for the last almost 200 years, have been through so much turmoil,” he explains.  “Termination is what the US government wanted. Now they’ve taught our people to do it to their own.”

One of Duncan’s closest friends is Jim Bluewolf, a non-enrolled Choctaw and former Poet Laureate of Lake County, who has lived with his wife in the Kelsyville area for a few decades.  He has written extensively on the failings of the tribal council system, including in an as-yet unpublished book entitled Skins In Shirts.

“The Bill of Rights does not exist for Native people individually,” he says.  “They are under a totalitarian system when it comes to their tribal councils, because there’s nobody the councils are accountable to.”

The Purges

On August 6th, one of the family members discovered that Tina Duncan, Clayton’s niece, had passed away at her home on the rancheria. The Duncans were gathered at the home to grieve their loss when a knock came at the door.  With Tina Duncan’s lifeless body nearby, tribal police officers handed the Duncans the disenrollment letters that the Business Council and their lawyer had prepared a few days before.

The first sentence of the disenrollment letter to Clayton Duncan’s, written in frosty legalese, reads, “Please take notice that, effective  July 13, 2012, you have been disenrolled from the Tribe and you are no longer considered a member of the Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians.”

“Only hateful, inhuman beings would do things like this,” Duncan wrote on his Facebook page in the wake of the incident.

The Business Council at the Rancheria has disenrolled numerous other members in the last few years, almost based on a narrow technicality with little actual bearing on a person’s standing in the tribe. In Clayton Duncan’s case, the legal justification is that he enrolled his children in the Navajo Nation by virtue of his previous marriage to a Navajo woman.

Bernardine Tripp, the rancheria’s original chairperson, received a disenrollment notice earlier this year.  She was, as Duncan says, “the spearhead” in securing funding to construct all of the tribe’s current homes, roads, and other basic infrastructure.

In May, a dozen Robinson Rancheria tribal members received disenrollment notices. Among them were the descendants of another widely respected member of the tribe, Leonna Quitiquit, who passed  away in her children’s home. Following the same pattern as in the Duncan disenrollment notices, Quitquit’s body was not even in the ground when the younger Quitiquits received legal notices saying that if they didn’t move and take their things out of the house, they would be arrested for criminal trespass.

Tonia Ramos, whose mother was forced from her home of 25 years in May, claims the disenrollments stem from a desire for more casino money for the remaining tribal members. Ramos also has been evicted from the tribe.  “They wanted these homes,” Ramos told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in May.

To add insult to injury, the Robinson Rancheria tribal council has also filed a lawsuit against Clayton Duncan alleging that he interfered with the rancheria’s mail delivery system. As Joseph Kitto, who serves as an attorney both for Duncan and for the other tribal members who have been disenrolled, explains,

“The lawsuit says Clayton Duncan went to the post office, convinced them he should get the mail, so that shut off mail to the tribe for three or four days and in doing that he effectively shut down the government of Robinson Rancheria. I have a letter from the Postmaster. He didn’t speak to the Postmaster at all. He complained to the post office staff because the post office boxes on the rancheria can be opened from the back, and the tribal council can open everybody’s box. It’s a crazy lawsuit, and if I have any resources to do it, I’ll counter-sue them.”

Duncan has been a persistently outspoken public critic of the Robinson Rancheria council members.  In particular, he has hosted a weekly program on Lake County’s listener-supported radio station, KPFZ, for many of those years during which he persistently describes the council’s latest abuses. As he and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the situation has noted, the disenrollment  and the lawsuit are to overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to silence him.

“The only crime I did against them is being Clayton Duncan and exercising freedom of speech,” Duncan says.

An Unnerving Trend

Robinson Rancheria is far from the only reservation where members are being disenrolled on a large scale, including locally in Mendocino and Lake Counties.  California, with its abundance of reservation casinos, has been at the center of the phenomenon.

On the Pinoleville Rancheria in Ukiah, more than 60 members have been disenrolled in the past few years. Members had publicly complained that they do not receive notice of tribal elections and tribal council meetings, and that their share of State gaming revenue has been arbitrarily withheld.

Members of the Coyote Valley reservation have also felt the bitter sting of disenrollment.  Eric Enriquez, an expelled member of Pinoleville, wrote in this paper this past September, “The government of Coyote Valley followed in the sinister footprints of Pinoleville’s by disenrolling large numbers of my family. Rather than honoring the very real connections among Indian families, all surviving the same trends of colonization, these governments seek to disunite, polarize and destroy the relationships.”

The Chukchansi of Madera County have led the way in California expulsions, disenrolling more than 1,000 people from the tribe in the last decade — over half of the former membership. Again, the desire to divide up casino revenues among a smaller pool of people is an overwhelming factor in that case, as in so many others.

The roots of the problem run extremely deep.  One major turning point was the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which forced all federally recognized tribes to adopt a “tribal council” system in lieu of their traditional forms of governance, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs – the federal agency with the so-called “trust” responsibility to safeguard Native people’s rights – interfering consistently for several decades to ensure that elections had favorable outcomes.

Tribal councils only began expelled members recently, though.  David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, has studied disenrollment across the country. “It’s just very unnerving and dismaying, to see that many of our tribal communities have been reduced to acting like this,” Wilkins says.  “Yet, it’s happening across the board.”

The legal basis for the trend, ironically, comes from Native people’s struggle for civil rights and cultural sovereignty in the 1970s.  Under the Supreme Court’s Santa Clara v. Martinez decision of 1978, federally recognized native nations are regarded as the final arbiter on membership decisions.  Whereas the BIA once played a heavy-handed role in administering the tribal councils, now they’ve gone to the other extreme, never intervening except in the very most blatant cases.

As Jim Bluewolf, the Choctaw author and poet who lives in Lake County, says, “Even in cases of fraud, the BIA is very hesitant about coming down and getting involved.  Only if you can prove criminal wrongdoing, and even then when it’s a felony and people go to jail you  still see people managing to hang on and keep their power.”

Although the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act presumably extended to all “persons” in Indian country, a modified version of the US Bill of Rights, the only remedy spelled out in that act is the writ of habeas corpus.  But habeas corpus has thus far not offered expelled individuals any justice.  And, since native nations are also sovereign, they can and frequently do invoke the doctrine of sovereign immunity to carry out member purges.

“I find it utterly unacceptable as both a native person and a person who is part of this United States that there is a class of individuals who have essentially no legal recourse,” David Wilkins says.

Wilkins notes that tribal councils often invoke the idea that it is traditional for Indian people to expel members to justify their decisions, which he says is contrary to virtually all the available evidence.

“These communities, such as Robinson, are really struggling in terms of their core identities,” he says. “They’ve been told enough anthropology to think they can just kick someone out based on tradition.  Historically, though, native communities were very tight-knit.  They were bonded together on deep psychic and philosophical levels by kinship, and those ties were basically irrevocable.  It was exceptionally rare for members to be expelled.”

Robinson Rancheria epitomizes many of the dysfunctions that plague parts of Indian Country. This past September 9th, Tribal Chair Tracey Avila was arrested on a felony bench warrant based on the allegation that she stole more than $60,000 from the Elem Indian Colony, whose struggles to protect Rattlesnake Island and to secure a just settlement from years of mercury mining that made their rancheria a federal government “Superfund” site are well known, and have been described extensively in this paper in the past year. The government placed them on one of the most dangerously contaminated areas of the country.

According to the allegation, Avila stole the money while she was working as the tribe’s bookkeeper from February 2006 to September 2008. Her principal methods, according to investigations by the Elem Tribal Council and subsequently by Lake County authorities, were to give herself over $44,000 in arbitrary pay raises and another $16,000 in paychecks and annual leave. Avila’s work record also showed she was frequently late or ill, and rarely worked entire weeks, yet still drew full wages.

In 2003, Curtis Anderson and one other tribal council member were convicted of extortion after diverting the Robinson Rancheria’s money to themselves by cutting checks to a third-party contractor, Richard Peterson, who then kicked back a portion of the payments.  Peterson, who owned a business called “Innovative Sales & Leasing” that he ran out of his home in Willits, was not conducting any work on behalf of the tribe.

Avila even lost the 2008 tribal election, yet refused to step down. Instead of forcing her out of office, the BIA,  allowed the intransigent Avila to conduct a new election, which she officially won amid a deluge of allegations of fraud and misconduct.  In 2010, Clayton Duncan’s son Chato attempted to run against her from her tribal council post, as did several other members of the Duncan family.  Avila and company simply removed their names from the ballot.  Most recently, the tribe was supposed to hold an election in June, but the council has indefinitely postponed.

Joseph Kitto, the Lower Lake attorney who represents Clayton Duncan and various other tribal members, notes that the lack of intervention in clearly criminal behavior by the Robinson Rancheria encompasses official authorities on every level.

“I’ve gone to Housing and Urban Development, I’ve gone to BIA Law Enforcement, I’ve gone to Troy Merck of the BIA, I’ve gone to Lake County DA Don Anderson, I’ve gone to Lake County Sheriff Raviro,” he says.  “Everyone agrees that this isn’t right, but nobody is willing to do anything about it.  The tribe is in a position where the individual people officially have no ability to defend themselves, where the people simply have no recourse.”

BIA officials did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

David Wilkins notes that the psychic impact on those who have been disenrolled, many of whom he has corresponded with, is immeasurable.  “Those who have been disenrolled have had their lives devastated,” he says. “These individuals feel not only tribeless, but they feel citizenless as well. They know their own extended family, which is the tribal political leadership, has cast them out. They really feel adrift on lots of levels.”

Cultural Emissary

As Jim Bluewolf, Duncan has been a leading “cultural emissary” among the native people of Northern California for at least the past few decades.  He has collaborated with Duncan on numerous projects through the years, including a thus far elusive effort to return Bloody Island to Native people’s hands.  “He’s just done countless lectures to non-native people about Bloody Island, healing, people coming together, eating right — all the interests Clayton has had. All the while, he’s been a representative of true traditional Native values.  And he’s been very consistent about it.”

One non-native person who has worked with Duncan in the past few years is Cris Melo of Glenhaven, who runs the video and media production company Posterity Productions with her husband, Mike.  “Clayton is inspiring because, in spite of all the pain he’s gone through, he’s emerged as a wonderful peacemaker,” she says.  “He’s all about bringing people together to realize a greater good.”

The epitome of Duncan’s efforts in this regard is the Bloody Island Memorial gathering that he has organized with his brother, Doug, and various other supporters for the past dozen years.  More than 1,000 people have attended these memorials near Upper Lake over the years, including a peak more than 160 people a year ago.  People from throughout the world and from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds have participated in the ceremonies.  Duncan and other native people lead ceremonies for healing and forgiveness near the site of the massacre, then allow other people an opportunity to share their own heartfelt messages about struggles for justice and the restoration of ecological balance.

Considering its intimate relationship with Duncan’s life, the Bloody Island Massacre is worth knowing in detail.

A number of Pomo Indians, primarily members of the Hoolanapo clan, had been enslaved and abused by settlers Andrew Kelsey — whose name is still attached to the town of Kelseyville today — and Charles Stone.  Kelsey and Stone had purchased a cattle ranch from Salvador Vallejo in 1847. They captured and impressed local Pomos to work as slave labor on the ranch, brutally subjugating them and abusing them at will.

In the fall of 1849, Kelsey forced 50 Pomo men to work as laborers on a gold seeking expedition, and only one or two men returned alive.  Stone and Kelsey beat and even shot Pomo men and raped Pomo women. The wife of Chief Augustine, an important figure in the local tribe, was raped, and the tribe responded with an attack. Augustine’s wife poured water onto the two men’s gunpowder, rendering it useless, then warriors, including Pomo men Suk and Xasis, attacked the house at dawn, killing Kelsey with an arrow. Stone jumped out a window and tried to hide in a stand of willow trees, but Augustine found him and killed him with a rock. Then the Pomo men took food back to their  families.

What we might refer to as a “death squad,” had the incident happened at a safe emotional remove in another country, organized soon after.  It consisted of a 1st Dragoons Regiment of the United States Cavalry under General Nathaniel Lyon, who at that time was still a lieutenant, and Lieutenant J. W. Davison, formed to retaliate against the Pomo.

They came upon another group of Pomos on Bonopoti, or “Bloody Island,” and slaughtered almost the entire population of the island, including women and children. Some of those killed were relatives of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake and Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California. Estimates of the number of people killed on the island vary between 60 and 400. The army then killed 75 more Indians along the Russian River not far from Ukiah.

As someone whose culture was based around the waters of Clear Lake, Clayton Duncan’s grandmoher, Lucy Moore, had grown up playing a game where she learned to stay under water for extending periods of time by breathing through tule reeds.  When the death squad arrived, the parents instantly thought to tell their children to play this game.

At the Bloody Island Memorial gathering that Clayton Duncan organized earlier this year, speaking of his great-grandmother’s survival against overwhelming odds, “At six years old, she weighed not much more than one of the cannon balls that tore through the people like a boulder though  willows. Crouching beneath the water beside the bank she sipped air through a reed to maintain her life. Above her, an old world was ending, washed in blood.”

There remain a strong possibility that his disenrollment will be overturned if there is enough of a public outcry, according to both Duncan and his attorney, Joseph Kitto.  Duncan filed an official appeal of the decision.   Meanwhile, he is hosting a public meeting for those interested in supporting him and his family at the KPFZ studio in Lakeport at 1 p.m. on Saturday, September 1st.  It is likely, according to Kitto, that Duncan’s children’s membership will be restored.

“Here he is, the grandson of Mabel Duncan, the main plaintiff in the case Duncan vs. US Government, which got the tribe restored in the first place,” Kitto says.  “And they’re trying to kick him out of the tribe. How embarrassing is that?”

Duncan minces no words when describing his own thoughts on the shortcomings of the tribal leadership.  “These people they call tribal leaders, I don’t see them out there singing, I don’t see them out there dancin’, I don’t even see them even organizing anything to make it happen so that we can have that medicine back, that balance back, that we enjoyed traditionally.”

He continues, “They treat the tribe’s treasury like their own personal ATM. But there’s elders out here who need help! There’s elders out here who need food, man! They need help with their bills.  And these people don’t care. The ancestors are watching that you don’t care. Wohunaka is watching that you don’t care. Traditionally, a tribal leader is not a tribal leader until he or she establishes themselves as a servant to the people. That’s when we call you a leader.”

It’s a status that Clayton Duncan has earned, as have countless members of his family before him.

He has touched the lives of thousands of other people on the California North Coast, and throughout the world, who would surely agree.

(To support Clayton Duncan, write to the BIA at 650 Capital Mall, Suite 8-500, Sacramento, CA 95814 or call (916) 930-3680.)

Will Parrish writes for CounterPunch and the AVA. He can be reached at wparrish[at]riseup.net.)


Will Parrish is a freelance investigative journalist based in Northern California.  His web site is www.willparrishreports.com. Follow him on Twitter @willparrishca.