Deborah Locke: Disenrollment: My Personal Story

Tribal Citizenship Conference

Deborah Locke, adopted by a Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa couple when she was a small child, shares her heartbreaking story of how she and her adopted siblings were disenrolled by the Band decades later because they were not the biological descendants of Fond du Lac Band members and also because they did not meet the minimum blood quantum requirement as established by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Resource Type

Locke, Deborah. "Disenrollment: My Personal Story." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

Sarah Deer:

"Our final panel today is looking at the question of disenrollment. So we have a number...we have three speakers who are going to each discuss one angle or one facet of the controversial issue of disenrollment. So we have legal, personal, and traditional perspectives on this question. We have three speakers.

I'm going to start with Deborah Locke from Turtle Mountain. She is a former editorial board member for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. She also edited and wrote for the newspaper of the Fond du Lac Reservation, worked for almost three years on a legacy amendment funded project on the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War at the Minnesota Historical Society and she is currently a freelance writer for the Mille Lacs Band.

Shawn Frank from the Jacobson Law Group is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, joined Jacobson Law Group in 2002, has substantial experience representing Indian tribes, tribal organizations and entities that do business with tribes. He became a shareholder in 2003. Mr. Frank does speak regularly at lawyer's seminars on the subjects of tribal sovereignty, doing business in Indian Country, the Freedom of Information Act and the administrative appeals through the Department of Interior.

And finally Sharon Day, Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force from Bois Forte Band [of Chippewa]. Ms. Day is one of the founders of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, formerly known as the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force. It began as a volunteer organization with all of the work performed by the board of directors. They hired their first staff, Ms. Day, in 1988 and she has served in this capacity since that time. Ms. Day has received numerous awards including the Resourceful Woman Award, BIHA's Woman of Color Award, the National Native American AIDS Prevention Resource Center's Red Ribbon Award, and most recently the Alston Bannerman Sabbatical Award. She also is an editor of an anthology and a lead walker who carries the water from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior with the Mother Earth Water Walk. I'm looking forward to all their presentations, so please join me in welcoming our panel."


Deborah Locke:

"Hi, I'm Deborah. It's nice to be here today. I hope you can hear me. I received this letter dated January 6th from the Fond du Lac [Band of Lake Superior Chippewa] Reservation Business Committee:

Ms. Locke,

It's come to the attention of the Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee that you are not the biological daughter of Frederick and Anna Marie Locke and that you were in fact adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Locke. Under Article 2, Section 1c of the Minnesota [Chippewa] Tribe Constitution, only the biological children of members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe are eligible for membership in the tribe and if born after July 3rd, 1961, must also possess one-fourth degree MCT blood quantum.

There's a lot of lawyers in this room. I think most of you know that by heart.

The Reservation Business Committee has accordingly directed that disenrollment proceedings be initiated against you in accordance with MCT Ordinance #9. You have 30 days from the date of this letter to request a hearing before the Fond du Lac Tribal Court to provide evidence and argument as to why you should not be disenrolled.

Think about that.

In addition, per capita payments from the Band are being immediately suspended pending the final outcome of this matter.

Linda J. Nelson
Enrollment Officer

I was standing outside the Rosedale Target when I read that letter one cold day and I cannot even explain to you how weird I felt. I felt damn weird. The day before I was identifying with Pocahontas, today I'm a white girl. The day before I was a Band member. I had family at Fond du Lac. Today I'm cut free. I'm a white girl. I tell you, that felt a little bit weird and it also felt embarrassing. More than anything else it felt embarrassing. I thought, ‘What did I do to bring this on? I was born and I was adopted. That's all that I ever did. What...they've got Band members that shoot each other, that use drugs, that steal, that...the list goes on and on and they're getting rid of me?' I tell you, I was totally perplexed. I called my mother from my cell phone in the parking lot and told her what I'd received. She was absolutely incensed. She was very, very upset and bewildered and she started calling relatives after we hung up. So let me tell you a little bit more about my mother and my dad.

They adopted four American Indian kids in the 1950s and they had always...they wanted children. They went to Catholic Charities in Duluth. A social worker asked them if it was okay if the children were Indian. My mother is a Band member at Fond du Lac and she said, ‘Are you serious? We don't care what color they are.' Dad said the same thing and so four children came fairly quickly after that. I was the first and when I was a little girl my parents had a book that they read to all of us starting with me that was called The Chosen Baby and it was about two kids named Peter and Mary. And Peter and Mary were adopted, and what I took from that book starting when I was three years old is that being adopted is really special. Being adopted means that you are a gift to someone and being adopted means that you were chosen for a very special reason. And so I lived with that magic for a long time and most of my life believing that adoption is a good thing.

So that's my family background a little bit, and I'll tell you that the Fond du Lac Band was also interested in that family background starting with this letter dated July 22, 2009. The Band had sent a letter to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe asking for assistance in getting my adoption records from the state. So a letter went to the Minnesota Department of Human Services and I'm going to read a little bit about this. ‘The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe branch of Tribal Operations is inquiring of the circumstances of the adoption of...' and then it lists the four Locke children and it's signed by Brian Brunelle, Director of Administration for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. And that was followed by an affidavit dated December 23, 2009 from a Jamie Lee with the Department of Human Services at the state and she's responsible for maintaining the adoption records and in this document, in this affidavit she ensured everybody that I was indeed adopted. Here's the date I was adopted, when it was finalized, here's the case number and my name was changed from whatever to Deborah Locke on this date.

Also within these papers that the tribe had was a resolution from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe dated 1978 wherein I and my brothers and sisters were enrolled with the Band. We were enrolled with the Band because my uncle, Peter DeFoe, Sr., had gone to my mother one day and said, ‘You should have the children enrolled. They're all Indian. They're my nieces and my nephews. I recognize them as such and they should be enrolled.' And mom said, ‘All right.' So she went through with it and apparently that went without a hitch. All I know is that one day in my 20s I was told that I was enrolled. Well, I thought that was pretty cool, but I didn't really fully understand it quite honestly.

You might wonder, where did this all start at Fond du Lac? And from what I can tell it began maybe at least five years earlier, maybe longer, with a family that had adopted two non-Indian children. The woman, Roberta Smith Poloski was a Band member. Her husband was not. He's not American Indian. And they adopted these two girls and had them enrolled in 1982 and there were Band members who very much resented that. The little girls grew up with their Indian relatives, identified with American Indian culture, and were pretty much accepted as far as I knew. We were good friends with them; they lived just down the street.

So the Poloski girls were later identified as non-Indians with Band benefits and there were complaints about that that were registered with the RBC [Reservation Business Committee] starting again minimally five years before this and it might have even been 10 years. I can...I'll read this to you, this is the RBC open meeting minutes from the Brookston Community Center dated November 19, 2009.

Geraldine Savage asked, ‘What is going on with the disenrollment issue?'

Chairman Karen Diver said, ‘There has been a hearing and we're just waiting to hear on the judge's decision.'

Ms. Savage asked, ‘Why is the RBC waiting for the judge to decide?'

Mr. Ferdinand Martineau said, ‘We are following the ordinance that was done in 1988.'

Ms. Savage said, ‘It should be the RBC making the decision.'

Mr. Martineau said, ‘This is the way the ordinance is set up.'

Ms. Joyce LaPorte asked if this is going to cause a backlash.

Mr. Ferdinand Martineau said, ‘It may.'

Mr. Martineau said, ‘The individuals were enrolled under a different council.'

Ms. Geraldine Savage asked, ‘How long will it take for a decision?'

Mr. Martineau said, ‘The enrollment issue should have been easy to decide.'

Mr. Martineau said, ‘Conflict would come if the tribal court said to leave them enrolled.'

Ms. Savage said, ‘This would be a conflict then.'

Mr. Martino said, ‘But we have brothers and sisters and some of them are enrolled and some of them are not enrolled.'

Ms. Nancy Sepala asked if we are going to lose Band members because of the blood quantums.

That last question was never addressed. They went on to talk about elderly housing. I think that last question is really a key one, and that was a question that a lot more people than Ms. Nancy Sepala was wondering at that time. What would be the ultimate outcome of these disenrollments that we're starting?

So anyway, the Poloski girls had their day in court and the tribal judge ruled against them. They decided to come down to St. Paul and present their arguments to the Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Court of Appeals, and that court gave them a decision dated March 30, 2010 that said, ‘We affirm the Fond du Lac Tribal Court decision and their justification was that all children of at least one-quarter degree Minnesota Chippewa Indian blood born after July 3, 1961 to a member...' and then there's that language. So apparently the girls didn't fill that criteria. And then there's reference to the fact that ‘the constitution is unambiguous and that the children must possess a direct biological link to members of the tribe and that at least one-quarter of the applicant's biological lineage must trace to Minnesota Chippewa Indians. Applying this clear requirement to the facts at issue in the appeal is a straightforward task, but it's a task that we do with sadness.'

So Renee and Robin were disenrolled and they complained to the RBC that there were other people who were still enrolled who were also adopted including those Locke kids who were just down the street. And so the RBC took that charge pretty seriously and started its investigation, and I've just read to you some of the documentation that they were working with. What happened to me? Well, after that very fateful day when I received the letter, I was working as their editor and I went to work and made a couple of calls and discovered that not everybody agreed that that disenrollment action was a good idea and that made me feel pretty good. In fact, there were a few people who were rather upset at the Fond du Lac Band when the news of this got out. I don't think it was a groundswell. I don't think that...nothing like that happened, but there were a few key people who mean something to me who didn't like what happened and they had some good advice, including names of attorneys throughout the state who I should contact to get some advice from and so I did. I made phone calls and discovered that I should request a petition date. I'm sorry I'm not a lawyer, I can't get into too many of the legalities, but I do know that it wasn't long after that before we did set...we sent documentation and asked for a hearing. And then I had to wait quite awhile before that hearing date actually came up.

But in the meantime, again I was in this odd rather limbo-like state. I knew some details of my adoption. I knew that my biological mother was from Turtle Mountain. I had seen documentation from the county, St. Louis County, which said that my...the name of my father had never been released. There was no reason for us to presume he was not Fund du Lac. The only description and information I ever learned about my father was that he was tall and he liked to hunt and fish. Well, now that covers about 98 percent of the men at Fond du Lac, although not all of them are that tall, but there could be a tall one out there somewhere. So they all like to hunt and fish and he was athletic, so that was all very interesting, but it didn't tell me a whole lot. It didn't tell me whether or not he was in fact a Band member.

What happened from there is this. I was urged to find an attorney, I couldn't. I called everywhere I could think of to get someone to take the case. Finally, Tim Aldridge did and he was an attorney at Bemidji all the time, had done some work for a couple of bands and Tim agreed to take on the case. The reason these lawyers said 'no' was because there was no precedent. They didn't know what they were getting into and they weren't quite sure how to win it. I'm sure the list goes on and on and on. But my mother went into her savings to pay for the retainer, which absolutely broke my heart, but I didn't have many choices at the time and I think this is true of a lot of people who are included with me. What I heard is from 20 to 40 people at Fond du Lac got that letter and I was the first one to go through with a trial or a court hearing, which says that I was the only one who paid the money that it required. That's an advantage tribal courts have. They know that the people who they represent often don't have the money to pay for an attorney. I think that's one of the worst tragedies of this story.

Anyway, I went ahead, I had this great lawyer and when we got the hearing date, he and a couple of other...quite a few people were sort of involved with this and giving me various kinds of advice. They put together a summons and complaint and I filed it and things were quiet for awhile and then we had our...and I hired the attorney and we had our initial hearing. That went okay. I'm not even quite sure...that was just to see what information...discovery, that was discovery. And then we set the date or the hearing date in the tribal court offices or the tribal courtroom, whatever that's called. And I argued that or my attorney argued with me a number of things and here's what I can tell you from the complaint.

He cited the Indian Civil Rights Act and he said that that states that, ‘No Indian tribe in exercising powers of self-government shall deny to any person within this jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws or deprive any person of liberty or property without due process of law.' Again you're wondering, property, yeah, that little $400 a month payment that I was getting was very useful. That was cut off with absolutely no notice whatsoever. That's just the beginning of what was cut off. I was informed of a -- this goes on -- now this is my voice. ‘I was informed of a pre-hearing conference set for May 18, 2010, but have not received the documents that will be used against me. I request...' and here's B, ‘I request the honorable court to scrutinize the purpose of the disenrollment attempt as to procedural and substantive due process. The January 6th letter sets forth vague information that an adoption is used as the basis for the disenrollment. I may be entitled to enrollment apart from the adoption allegation moreover admitting tribes have the right to determine membership.' Those were the two strongest arguments I think from this document. It also says, ‘My specific allegations alleging lack of due process justifying injunctive relief are as follows...' I was told and I remember this phone call, I was told in a telephone call by a court employee that I would only be allowed to look at the evidence against me at the time of the hearing without prior notice of what may be used against me and B, the pre-trial hearing was set prematurely without a scheduling hearing, a discovery period and without adequate time to be allowed for me to prepare a meaningful case based on the merits. Defendants failed to give a fair warning of the nature of the case. This goes on for maybe another couple of pages. It's signed and dated May 17, 2010.

So, we waited again and it wasn't until I'm thinking, yeah, by late December I was really wondering when are we going to be getting some sort of a decision from the judge and an order arrived or was sent to my attorney on January 22, 2011 and it said this, it said, ‘The issue was whether the petitioner met the tribe's membership requirements when the decision to enroll was first made.' In other words, did that initial RBC and did the officials with MCT just make a simple mistake back in 1978 when they permitted this to go through. And the judge's order also said this, ‘Petitioner's request for hearing did not set out the reason she believed she should not be disenrolled, but stated that she understood the fact that she was adopted was the reason for her disenrollment. She requested documents leading to the decision to proceed with the disenrollment.' The order also said that I provided a document from my biological mother that showed I had enough Indian blood to be enrolled and it also said the Band argued that an enrolled adoptee must be born to a member of the MCT. The judge also referred to the letter from the St. Louis County Adoptive Services that stated my biological parents were each American Indian and although the judge did say the document named my father, it didn't. His name...that name has never surfaced. The order says that, ‘Though I am perhaps of Chippewa descent...' That's the word she used -- 'perhaps.' ‘Perhaps she's of Chippewa descent, it's not enough information to conclude that I met the requirement of MCT membership.' And consequently the disenrollment was approved.

So I received that information, my attorney and I talked a little bit about it. I talked with these other attorneys who had been involved and they all said that, ‘You cannot give up at this point. You have to appeal this. You've got to go to St. Paul to Bandana Square and talk to these judges,' and that means of course I need to hire another attorney because by this time Tim Aldridge had left his practice in Bemidji. I thought, ‘What's this going to take? I have to go to my mother again and borrow from her savings for what may be another losing case and I have to try and find an attorney, most of whom don't even want to come anywhere near me. And what else do I have to...I have to get up in the morning for how many months ahead, each morning, and deal with this thing.' I cannot even begin to describe how this weighs on a person. I can't even tell you how it just turns you upside down, not only me, my siblings, my mom who was elderly to begin with, my extended family and friends. And I didn't realize how much it had affected them until I had heard a rumor through my brother that we were suddenly all to be reinstated. And I told one of my friends whose husband is a Band member and she started crying and so I realized that this is something that is really touching a lot of people in a lot of different ways.

What I heard from one of the attorneys is this, he said, ‘Membership is a right. If you are born to an MCT parent...' and no one proved that Deb was not born to an MCT parent... ‘Fond du Lac and MCT shifted the burden of proof to me after more than 30 years following an open enrollment process.' Those were the words I heard from one of the attorneys. In the meantime, personally what was going on, my youngest brother David has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He is living in Tucson right now. He has been for quite a few years. The $400...he cannot work. He can't. He has a...he's got a disability that will not permit him to function very well. He's about 12 or 13 years old emotionally and in every other way. So he's in Tucson and he gets the same letter that I did. He goes to my mother and he's crying on the phone. He's already torn up his ID and all of his papers and anything that ever had anything to do with Fond du Lac. He's very distressed about this thing and my mom of course is very distressed about it and what are we going to do about David now -- because that piece...that puny little $400 a month was basically all he had and some food stamps. So my mom and I started paying his bills that year and he' heart goes out to him because he lives in like this world of confusion. There's so much he doesn't understand and it is not his fault that he doesn't understand it. Anyway, in December of 2010, David got a letter that he would receive a check for $4,800, which is a year of casino dividend payments. The letter said he was getting a lump sum because he filled the annual dividend form incorrectly in January. He never got one. What he got in January was the same letter that I got. I reminded my brother that I got the same letter he did in January a year earlier about disenrollment proceedings.

So where does this leave us and where does it leave me? It leaves me with a lot of confusion about what I call 'cultural competency,' because in the course of that year and a half of trauma, one of the first things I was told was that in Ojibwe history and culture adoptees have the same status as biological children, that it had been that way for hundreds of years and that you truly were a chosen baby. I was also told that the tradition of adoption...that adoption meant that children were called to the Band for a very special role and that included the Poloski girls, excuse me, but it did. The Poloski girls as well as me and my three siblings all fell under that blanket. For some special reason, the Creator placed us with this Band. We were babies, we didn't have much say about it, but that's what happened and what I learned from these attorneys, who actually were culturally competent and kindhearted and everything else you would look for in an attorney, and I'd never met people like this in my life, but wow they were good. Anyway, a sidebar.

What I had hoped for through this proceeding and somewhere buried in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution was something that said that traditions matter and that the fate of children matters and that when you get to be in your 50s and 60s, people don't pull the rug out from under you the way they pulled the rug out from under me and my family. My mother had a good solution early on. She said, ‘If the Band wanted to change something, they could have grandfathered all of you in and said, 'From this point forward this is the way it's going to be.'' And I think that would have been a good solution, but of course they didn't think of that. It was just too easy to say, ‘Well, maybe Renee or Robin are making a point.' I don't even...I can't even speculate where they were coming from on that. I don't... was it a cost savings? I don't think it was that great a cost savings, 20 to 40 people. I still see myself as a 'chosen child' and I really wish the Fond du Lac Band was Ojibwe enough to understand what that means. Thank you."

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