September 13, 2005
Court declines to decide who is an Indian
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. court backed the
sovereignty of Indian tribes on Tuesday ruling that four
siblings whose father is a member of a tribe with a successful
casino may not use the federal government to secure membership
of the tribe.
The four, Kathy Lynnette Lewis, Larry Paul Lewis Jr., Chad
Elliott Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis, sued the federal government
to have its agencies order the Table Mountain Rancheria tribe,
which operates a casino near Fresno, California, to admit them
tribe's requirements for membership as lineal descendants with
a quarter degree California Indian blood.
Indian heritage may make an individual eligible for tribal
membership, a potentially lucrative proposition if a tribe
shares casino profits among its members.
Tribes may establish their own membership requirements.
Many set as a standard that a person have least one Indian
grandparent or one great grandparent. Others among the 562
federally recognized tribes require links to members on tribal
membership roll in past generations.
Citing a lack of jurisdiction, a federal district court
previously dismissed the siblings' lawsuit. A panel of the U.S.
9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court, noting
it could not allow the siblings to "do an end run around tribal
immunity" with an order to the federal government to direct the
tribe to accept them as members.
"These doctrines of tribal sovereign immunity were
developed decades ago, before the gaming boom created a new and
economically valuable premium on tribal membership," Chief
Judge Mary Schroeder wrote in the panel's unanimous opinion.
"Courts have held that immunity bars suits to force tribes
to comply with their membership provisions, as well as suits to
force tribes to change their membership provisions," said
While the court said the claim by the siblings to
membership appeared to be a strong one because their father is
a recognized member of the tribe, it ruled that "their claim
cannot survive the double jurisdictional whammy of sovereign
immunity and lack of federal court jurisdiction to intervene in
tribal membership disputes."