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POLSON – A group of Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal members have started a petition drive to change enrollment requirements to “lineal” descendency, opening tribal enrollment to anyone descended from a tribal member, living or dead, no matter how remote the lineage.

Enrollment criteria is by far the most divisive issue within the tribal community on the Flathead Reservation, members of the group acknowledge. But the issue must be dealt with, not put on a shelf or in the dust bin as it has been in the past, a leader of the group said last week.

“We know there will be controversy about this,” said Regina Parot. “It’s worth it, because we want to put our families back together. We don’t want them split because of blood degree, or because they weren ’t born on the reservation.”

Parot is a leader of the Split Family Support Group, based in Polson, which has been active in enrollment issues for more than a year.

The change also will assure that the tribal confederacy will maintain a viable population in the future. Demographers predict that under current enrollment rules, a drastic decline in population is inevitable within the next two genera tions, possibly even leading to extinction of the entire tribe in the not-so-distant future.

Since 1960, enrollment has been based on “blood quantum” of at least a quarter-degree of descendency.

“When we adopted the one-fourth blood quantum requirement in 1960, many federal programs were not available to our members who were not one-fourth or more Indian blood. The majority of those federally imposed blood quantum requirements have been rescinded or repealed, yet we continue to hang on to maintaining a minimum blood degree under the misconception that we will be terminated (as a tribal nation) if we eliminate the blood quantum altogether,” Parot said.

Other members of the tribal community, including several Tribal Council members and more traditional Indians, are opposed to the proposed constitutional amendment. They fear increased enrollment will inevitably lead to far-reaching changes in tribal culture and tribal values, the resource base will be diluted and traditionalist Indians will lose power once tribal membership is open to large numbers of descendants assimilated into the dominant culture, and quite likely unfamiliar with Indian language, values and culture.

“This is expedient genocide,” said Rhonda Friedlander, a Kootenai leader in Dayton active in the traditionalist movement. “We have descendants of our own who have a mixture of other Indian tribes who are excluded from enrollment, yet who are practicing our culture and traditions. It is my belief they are more deserving of enrollment becau se they are going to help us survive as an Indian culture.”

In fact, the Kootenai traditionalists have proposed that each separate tribe of the confederacy – Salish, Pend Oreille and Kootenai – have the right to determine their own enrollment criteria, and they proposed a Kootenai enrollment procedure heavily weighted toward traditional values.

The proposal was passed by the Tribal Council, but was soon rescinded because the tribes’ lawyers said that as written it was fraught with insurmountable legal difficulties, including many presented by the U.S. Constitution.

Tribal Council member Kevin Howlett of Arlee also opposes the Split Family group’s proposed referendum. He called it “suicide for the tribes,” in an article in last week’s Char-Koosta News, the official tribal newspaper.

“The adoption of this would be the beginning of the end. We’d be enrolling numbers of people less than a quarter-blood quantum. It would totally kill the membership’s resource base,” Howlett said.

He agreed that enrollment issues do need to be addressed, “especially those children who possess more than enough Indian blood (to have quarter blood quantum) but not enough of any one tribe” to be enrolled in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

But the Tribal Council has not acted directly on that suggestion, either.

The tribal constitution adopted in 1935 allows the council to change the constitution by simple majority vote. It also provides for a referendum process by which membership can amend the 1935 fundamental law.

But the bar is very high to get a referendum on the ballot. Referendum must gather, within about 90 days of submission, a full one-third of all eligible voters in the tribal electorate. The electorate is now about 3,100 members.

The Split Family Support Group, in a petition drive last year, appeared to collect more than enough signatures, but more than 100 of the names were disallowed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on various technical grounds, making their initial effort in vain.

It will be different this time, Parot said.

“ None of the technicalities they (the BIA) cited in their decision letter are included in any of the regulations that BIA provided to us. So before we start this time, we want the BIA to disclose any and all criteria so we can tell our petitioning members what will be acceptable or unacceptable,” Parot said.

The Split Family Support Group presented the Tribal Council with the referendum proposal last week, which referred it to the legal department for review. The group has also sent it to the BIA regional office along with a request for specific, detailed rules of what entails a valid petition signature. After review by tribal legal staff, and clearance by the BIA, the group will hold a series of public meetings to present the r eferendum petition to the membership and to solicit signatures to get it on the ballot. Then the secretary of Interior must call an election.

The effect of the enrollment change, if it should pass, would be to vastly increase tribal membership, but nobody k nows by how much. It could also significantly dilute some benefits, such as per capita payments that are based specifically on tribal enrollment, rather than Indian descendent.

As it is written, the proposed amendment would allow the enrollment of any descendant who was born off the reservation on or after Oct. 28, 1935, and prior to May 5, 1960. That would address the “split-family” issue in which siblings in the same family have been denied enrollment because of constitutional changes in those years, whil e other siblings enjoy tribal membership and its privileges, such as hunting and fishing rights and employment preferences in tribal government jobs.

But it would also scrap the one-fourth blood quantum requirement current since 1960. Instead, any provable lineal descendent whatever would be sufficient for tribal enrollment.

“All one has to do is prove lineal descendency from biological parents of the blood of this tribe and/or lineal descendent from any ancestors who are of the blood of this tribe,” Parot said.