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Setting the enrollment record straight: Cowlitz Tribe continues discussion about 'lost birds'

From the Marissa Heffernan's five favorite stories of 2021 series
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Cowlitz tribe drum line

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe drum line performs at the groundbreaking ceremony of ilani's new hotel next to the tribe's Ridgefield casino in April.

Joe Miller can trace his Cowlitz ancestry back to his grandfather, but despite two decades of trying, he’s not an official member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe under the current enrollment rules.

The problem of “lost birds” — Cowlitz people who are not on the official tribal roll — is one the tribe has discussed for years, Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Dave Barnett said, but a change to the rules would require a constitutional amendment.

“It’s been upsetting to me,” Miller said. “It’s hard to fully put into words how upsetting it is.”

Barnett said he thinks a hardship amendment to allow for enrollment of those who missed the first window is “the right thing to do.” In the 2021 campaign for tribal chairman, both candidates — Barnett and then-interim chairman Philip Harju — mentioned the need to update enrollment policies so all eligible Cowlitz can enroll.

“In cases where certain families have everyone enrolled except for one sibling, OK, what happened there? You need to look at it,” Barnett said.

Closing the rolls

When the tribe was seeking federal recognition, which it got in 2000, Barnett said they were required to close the membership rolls so the government could verify the genealogy of each member.

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“There were people who hadn’t updated information, or the tribe had, in some cases, lost information for people who were at one time enrolled, and they found out later they weren’t included when the rolls were closed in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” Barnett said.

After getting federal acknowledgment, the Cowlitz Tribe had to choose how to enroll future members. As sovereign nations, all Native American tribes in the U.S. set their own enrollment rules.

Some use blood quantum, which sets a certain percentage of Native American blood that a person has to have. Others, like the Cowlitz, now use lineal descent, in which currently enrolled members pass membership on to their children.

Barnett said he feels a blood quantum requirement was historically the government’s way of trying to phase tribes out of official existence. As people married outside of the tribe, even if it was to a member of a different tribe, eventually their children would no longer meet the blood quantum. The minimum is typically 1/16 Native American blood.

A lineal descent method avoids that, but then what happens to someone like Miller, who can trace his family back, but missed deadlines and cannot enroll? Other tribes address that with hardship enrollment policies, which allow those who can prove membership to enroll later than normal. The Cowlitz amended their constitution in recent years to allow people to enroll who are up to 19 years old who were adopted out of the area and did not know about their parentage.

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“We’re already having a tough time providing for our members, especially during COVID, so whatever we can do to help that and at the same time doing the right thing, too,” Barnett said. “Doing the right thing is probably the most important — righting the historic wrongs.”

Split families

Miller has been working on the enrollment question for years, he said, because to be excluded “separates you from your culture” and from “justice and benefits that were meant as compensation for agreements that affected all Cowlitz people, not just the ones who filed certain paperwork during modern times.”

He has two aunts, an uncle and multiple first cousins who are members of the tribe, but he and other members of the family who all share the same ancestry are not. Miller said that’s because they missed the original application window.

His mother, Terese Miller, said when the call to apply went out, she had five boys at home, was working full time as a nurse and was not aware how quickly she needed to get in the applications.

“You had to do an application for each person and by the time I was going to get them in, they said ‘oh, it’s closed already,’ ” she said. “It was a super short window.”

She said to be enrolled now, if a vote were to allow that, “would open up a part of my life we haven’t had, a belonging.”

“We’ve always been proud of our heritage and grew up knowing about it, but it would be different to be officially part of the tribe,” she said.

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Miller wrote a long letter to the tribe outlining his position when he heard they would be voting on enrollment, but said he suspects they have been getting similar letters from other lost members for years and may already be familiar with his views.

“We all talk at the dinner table,” Miller said. “I’m not alone.”

Hardship amendment

Barnett said Tuesday there is “currently no vote taking place on any issues about enrollment,” and the process to do so likely would take a year at a minimum.

“There has been discussion over the last couple years, and I’m one who has participated in that discussion, about a hardship enrollment policy by which Cowlitz Indians that were not enrolled through no fault of their own” could be enrolled, Barnett said.

The definition of hardship would be up to the tribe to decide, he added, and anyone who wanted to enroll would still need to meet the linage requirement of being descended from an aboriginal Cowlitz member.

“There may be a questionnaire or survey going out to our membership to see what their thoughts are about this before the policy is drafted up,” Barnett said.

He anticipates the policy would need to be “very strategic and limited, to not open the floodgates for other Natives that are not Cowlitz to enroll.”

The tribal office often gets calls from descendants of other local tribes who have blood quantum requirements, Barnett said, because they do not meet the quantum anymore and are looking to join another tribe to be an enrolled member.

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“It’s paramount for the tribal leadership to protect the membership of the tribe and also carry out the will of the people,” Barnett said, so before any action the tribe needs to make sure to follow “due diligence to ensure that benefits and things that are available to tribal members don’t get diluted to the point where there’s nothing left.”

In an Oct. 21 livestream on the No Cowlitz Left Behind YouTube page, Barnett asked for opinions on a hardship policy and said he was working on language drafts. Multiple people used the live chat feature to call for work on an amendment. Some wanted a case-by-case vote for anyone who applied, while others simply wanted the tribe to “help our lost birds.”

Others said they knew of many people who had missed the enrollment window, or parents who had not enrolled but whose children wanted to enroll.

Some concern was voiced about casino payments and other benefits, like COVID-19 relief sent to tribes by the federal government, as that is divided among enrolled tribe members.

The Miller family has contacted the tribe several times by letter and email, Joe and Terese Miller said, and while they have gotten responses from the tribe in the past, Terese Miller said she was never encouraged by them.

“I didn’t think that was going anywhere,” she said, but she doesn’t feel there are so many “lost birds” that it would cause problems to enroll them all.

Barnett said current tribal membership sits around 4,500, and he doesn’t have an estimate of how many eligible but unenrolled members might be out there.

Terese Miller said she feels like she “really let my children and grandchildren down,” but at the time, she was “swamped and overwhelmed.”

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Moving forward

Barnett said in his opinion, the “best thing leadership can do is provide the tribe with as much information as possible to make an informed decision on whether that hardship policy is voted in or not,” but added that he’s “just one person and one vote.”

“We’re focused on doing the right thing and being careful when we move forward with things so it’s a matter of respecting the will of the people and following up on that,” he said.

Miller said while he would prefer to see enrollment always available to those with Cowlitz ancestors, at the very least he would like to see a one-time solution that makes up for the flawed enrollment process of 2000 that “urgently needs to be corrected to include the entire cultural group.”

If the tribe felt that further restrictions were needed, then there should be a hardship process that allows people to enroll any time, subject to a review of pre-defined criteria, he added.

“I only have one ancestry and I can’t change it,” Miller said. “It’s never going to go away for me.”


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