My English name is Marisa Cummings. I am Buffalo Tail Clan of the Sky People. I am Omaha. I am the eldest granddaughter of the eldest Buffalo Tail Clan Woman, Eunice Walker Mohn. My great-grandfather, Charles Amos Walker, was the first chairman of the Omaha Tribe and served on tribal council for over 25 years. He was an honorable man and received $7 a week for serving on the council for his people.
This is my heritage, Umoⁿhoⁿ.
Umoⁿhoⁿ is the way indigenous Omaha people call themselves, and my Umoⁿhoⁿ identity is inseparable from my family history. I have been enrolled in the tribe, meet the official criteria for enrollment, and possess the official government documents to prove it.
Even so, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska’s tribal council and enrollment officer have stated that I have been removed as a tribal member (though I have yet to receive official documentation of my expulsion, a removal known as “disenrollment”).
They claim that the basis for my disenrollment is due to “blood quantum,” a measure of tribal affiliation based on ancestral bloodlines. Blood quantum was an idea introduced to North America by Europeans, and many federally recognized tribes today use some combination of lineal descent and blood quantum to determine membership.
My great-grandfather Charles Walker, was certified 4/4 (“full-blooded”) Omaha according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1961. At some point in time—according to the tribe’s bookkeeping—someone changed his blood quantum to 31/32. His siblings have the same mother and father, yet they have 4/4 blood quantum. Why the difference? I suspect that the Omaha Tribe is using blood quantum as a weapon of retaliation and exclusion against those who fight against political injustice and advocate for fiscal responsibility within the tribe. It is retribution against me.
The date March 7, 2018, was a pivotal moment for my tribal status and identity. That’s when I requested a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) for my children. Although my children are not enrolled, they would still qualify for a CDIB. That’s when I learned from Laura McCauley, the tribe’s enrollment officer, that she was doing an audit on my family and a few other families.
She also informed me that my great-grandfather, Charles Walker, was missing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ documentation from 1961 that showed his blood quantum to be 4/4 Omaha. She had him listed as 31/32 Omaha blood. I informed her that I have a copy of the archival document, and I then emailed it to her. Concerned, I then drove from Sioux City to the Enrollment Office in Macy, Nebraska, to meet with her and provide a physical copy of the missing documentation.
I was told that a CDIB and enrollment were the same thing—which is not true—and she could not provide me with a CDIB for my children. She instead wrote me a letter showing their 1/8 blood quantum. A CDIB, however, is a completely separate document from tribal enrollment.
On Sept. 14, 2018, I was informed by tribal employees that the tribal council was meeting to disenroll my family. Since the enrollment officer had previously mentioned “reviewing” my family, I took it seriously. My sister, Andrea Cummings, traveled to the enrollment office and requested more information. She was provided with a copy of Tribal Council Resolution No. 18-91, which declared the rescinding of Resolution No. 15-199. We were not provided the resolution that was rescinded, and the tribal meeting minutes are not public.
The document that we received made no mention of any individual disenrollments. In fact, no names were named in the document. Then, the enrollment officer told my sister we were disenrolled, but she refused to provide any letter or documentation of disenrollment.
Feeling desperate, I posted on Facebook about the vague Resolution No. 18-91 and my unexpected disenrollment. I received an outpouring of support from Omaha people online. I received countless messages and emails from others telling their own stories of incorrect blood quantum and fears of retaliation.
On Sept. 21, 2018, the tribal council issued a statement that they had discarded the 1985 supplemental base roll and are only considering the 1964 base roll, a listing of tribal members characterized to be “true and accurate” by Resolution No. 18-91. While the base roll referenced by the Constitution of the Omaha Tribe (as of Aug. 17, 2015) is the 1961 membership rolls, the omission of the 1985 supplemental roll has serious implications for hundreds of enrolled tribal members; it is mass disenrollment without notification.
On Dec. 4, 2018, my sister again visited the enrollment officer who first told us we were disenrolled. On this occasion, she said we were not disenrolled because the tribe’s constitution has no disenrollment policy. We were, instead, “declined membership.” It remains unclear how one can be declined membership after being enrolled with a tribal identification number. But that is my current status.
I believe that my rejection from the tribe is retaliation for my working with the FBI when I served as Chief Tribal Officer of the Omaha Tribe (I held the position from March 2015 to September 2016). I believe that current council members are angry and retaliating for their family members pleading guilty to embezzlement of Contract Support Cost Funds from Indian Health Service (the division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services responsible for providing medical and health services to members of federally recognized Native American tribes and Alaska Native people). I did present financial documents to the FBI after I received a subpoena. I complied with the federal legal process.
On Sept. 22, 2016, the U.S. Attorney General’s office announced that a federal grand jury had indicted former Omaha Tribal Council Chairman Amen Sheridan, former council members Forrest Aldrich, Tillie Aldrich, Jeff Miller, Doran Morris Jr., Rodney Morris, and Mitchell Parker, along with former Omaha Tribe employees Jessica Webster and Barbara Freemont. The indictment alleged that the defendants “converted and misapplied $388,792.44 by causing the issuance of bonuses or incentives to themselves and several other tribal employees on account of the claim filings.” Over the course of September and October 2018, they were all found guilty.
These crimes do not reflect Omaha values. Likewise, my experience being disenrolled, or “declined membership,” exhibits a twisted value system that is not the traditional way of our people. Omaha traditional ways of being are rooted in family and kinship relationships.
Before we were a people defined by blood quantum, we had a system of clanship. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, treaties, or the reservation system, the Omaha tribe’s pre-colonial society was organized according to 10 clans (five belonging to the Earth and five belonging to the Sky). As stated in my introduction, I belong to the Buffalo Tail Clan of the Sky People. Kinship relations through these clans continue to exist today, providing another extension of family and belonging for Umoⁿhoⁿ people.
Omaha people were traditionally inclusive; large families and extended relatives were intentional and healthy. It was common for the Omaha to intermarry or perform adoption ceremonies to form political alliances and confederacies. Omaha people did not racialize our membership until the idea was forced upon us by the overwhelming colonial-settler society. New laws and policies of the United States were based in race and intended to defraud the original people of this land. The goal was to rid the landscape of the “Indian Problem” and the federal government’s treaty obligations to the original (sovereign) people of this land.
The idea of race and blood quantum was useful to U.S. colonialism because inevitable intermarriage over generations would “breed out” the original people of this land. Blood quantum caused social, political, cultural, biological, and legal implications for all Native people in the U.S. Now, our own people have not only adapted to the settler-colonial mentality, they have used it as a weapon to seek vengeance and hurt our own people. There is no use of blood quantum other than for the destruction of our people.
Sovereignty in relationship to the U.S. federal government allows tribes or nations certain powers, one of them being to determine their own membership. Each tribal nation has the ability to do so with their own cultural way of being. The Omaha Tribe’s enrollment is defined by “membership” in Article II of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska. While I meet the criteria for membership according to the constitution, my official documents have been altered, reducing my family’s blood quantum.
There is currently a climate of fear-based leadership among our people. In order to remedy many of the issues the Omaha tribe faces, we must take a good look at who we are and who we want to be. Constitutional reform would give the power to the Omaha people to decide the values and laws of their nation, while holding their governmental body accountable, requiring a strategic plan, and demanding fiscal transparency for a positive future. It is time to start thinking and acting like a nation—and that includes looking at legitimate citizenship versus club membership.
For more information about the sovereignty of Nebraska’s federally recognized tribes, visit the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (indianaffairs.state.ne.us).
This article was printed in the March/April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.