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Cherokee enrollment quandary leads to talk of DNA testing

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is talking about moving to DNA testing as a way of verifying the blood requirement to be enrolled as a tribal member.

The tribe’s latest quandaries over its enrollment audit have led Principal Chief Michell Hicks and a number of members of the Tribal Council to point to DNA testing as the way forward when enrolling new members of the tribe.

“Going forth DNA is the only way to correct this issue. I’ve said this from day one,” Hicks said. “Council has control over the enrollment process. The chief’s office doesn’t have any control here. But that’s always been my recommendation. If we want to get it right, let’s get it right, going forward with the DNA process.”

Making DNA testing mandatory for those who want to be included on the tribe’s rolls became the focal point of discussion at a Tribal Council meeting earlier this month. The conversation ensued after two enrolled members from the Snowbird community asked the tribe to stop enrolling new members until the auditing process had been completed.

The Tribal Council received the results of the enrollment audit in October. Since that time, an enrollment committee has worked on implementing the policies and procedures that would allow the tribe to proceed with disenrolling tribal members who don’t meet enrollment requirements.

The auditors report showed that 50 people on the rolls don’t meet the blood degree to qualify as a member of the tribe. Another 303 people on the rolls can’t prove they have an ancestor on the Baker Roll, a 1920s-era federal roster of tribal members considered a litmus test for enrollment today.

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Even the Baker Roll is a contested issue. When the roll was adopted in 1924, the Tribal Council approved 1,924 names and challenged 1,222 names on the 3,146-person list.

Big Cove Representative Theresa McCoy said the audit can’t be considered complete until the council acts on the findings of the consulting firm that conducted the study.

“The process included the removal of the names of persons who do not meet the criteria for enrollment when they were enrolled, so to me, the enrollment audit is not complete,” McCoy said. “The paperwork is, the findings are, but the audit is not.”

While the enrollment audit was approved by a vote of tribal members in 2002, it was not until 2006 that the Falmouth Institute, an outside consulting firm, began its work. The Tribal Council is scheduled to vote on the policies and procedures it will use to enforce the results at its June meeting and the process could be complete as early as September.

The painstaking and lengthy audit has led some sitting council members to push for the use of DNA testing in the future.

“Let’s start doing DNA. We’ve got that technology, and we need to utilize it. Instead of putting people on that aren’t supposed to be,” said Snowbird Representative Diamond Brown.

The tribe has enrolled 157 new members, mostly infants, since last June. At its meeting earlier this month, the Tribal Council voted to pass an amendment that would prevent any new members, except those ages 0 to 3 and 18 to 19, to enroll until the audit process is complete.

One of the major issues concerning the tribe’s rolls centers on the right to per capita payments. Every tribal member gets two checks a year as a share of casino revenue. It amounts to about $8,000 a year. Per capita payments will be released to members on June 1.

Snowbird Representative Adam Wachacha said a complete enrollment audit and DNA testing were the only ways to save the tribe from repeating the painstaking review process again in the future.

“The people want the rolls to be cleaned up and unless we fix the process which we’re at, 20 years from now we’ll be in the same boat we are in now,” Wachacha said.

Hawk Brown, an 18-year-old enrolled member from Painttown, said DNA testing could make for painful realizations for some families.

“Everybody’s got skeletons in their closets. But if we want to clean this up, the people voted on it and that’s what they want to do,” Brown said. “Them things will have to brought out. Them things will have to be brought out in my own family.”

The Tribal Council will vote on the issue of whether to include DNA testing as an enrollment requirement and on policies and procedures governing disenrollment hearings in June.

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