Low – Pokagon Enrollment

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Thinking about membership in an American Indian tribe, I get asked this question a lot from students in classes that I teach. Sometimes they think that anybody can become a member, or that you can pay to become a member or that you can volunteer to become a member, and I have to remind them that it’s not like being an Indian, is not like in a club. It’s not like joining the Boy Scouts. It’s a citizenship. It’s not a racial status, in my mind anyway, it’s not an ethnic status. It’s a legal and political status. It’s a citizenship. And so, I’m a citizen of the Pokagon Potawatomi Indian Nation. And so what that means is I’m a citizen of the United States, I’m a citizen of Illinois, and I’m a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. And that citizenship carries with it rights and responsibilities.

How my community decides its citizenship requirements is specific to my community. Since the United States Supreme Court ruled in Santa Clara v. Martinez, as a part of sovereign status each American Indian community determines their own citizenship rules and requirements. And so, for my community it’s embodied in our constitution that you must trace to an ancestor that was on the 1895 annuity payment rolls that were made to my community. For me, my great-grandmother and grandmother were on that annuity roll payment, that census if you will. And so it was very easy for me, besides the fact that everybody knew my grandma, knew my mom, knew me, knew my uncle, knew my cousins. I could also frankly do the paperwork pretty easily. Show my birth records to my mother, and my mother’s birth records to my grandmother, and that was it.

There’s a lot of Indian people similarly situated to me, there’s a lot of Indian people that aren’t though, that they either have to choose between tribes to become citizens of one tribe or the other. Most tribes will not allow you to be a citizen of more than one tribe. Oftentimes, too, or you know, a significant number of times, there’s Indian people that are Indian, they have family histories and oral histories that they’re Indian, they know that they’re Indian, they know what tribe they come from, they have a valid history, but they’re not able to get enrolled in a tribe. And part of that paperwork problem is the result of the diaspora that American Indian people have endured for the last several hundred years. And so there’s a lot of Indian people that should be enrolled in tribes that aren’t.

But my community has doubled in population since it became restored with federal recognition. And that’s two fold. One is that we have a large birthrate. After all, we are Catholic. And the other is that people now have a sense of a reason to join up. Frankly, when there were no benefits, particularly to being a card-carrying Potawatomi member, people didn’t feel that necessity to. People knew who you were, and so they knew you were a tribal member or not a tribal member. They didn’t worry about it. Now that there’s, you know, specific benefits, they go about the business of getting their paperwork in order. So we’ve doubled.

My community, I’m proud to say, has not been stingy about the enrollment process. They don’t create unnecessary hurdles. They, if you can prove descendancy from somebody on that 1895 annuity roll, you’re going to be able to become a member. The ladies that are in the enrollment committee, you don’t mess with them. They are very open, I mean, there’s no b.s. about, you know, “well, they could be Pokagon Potawatomi, but we don’t feel like letting them in.” No, that’s not how they play. You know, if you’ve got the paperwork that shows that you’ve got an ancestor on that 1895 roll, end of story, they’re a member. It doesn’t make any difference. That’s the way it’s always been, so long as they’re there that’s the way it’ll always be. And that’s the way it should be, and that’s the way it was intended to be.

There are tribes, that this is one of the downsides of gaming certainly, is there are some tribes that have gotten engaged and involved in controversies where struggles over enrollment and citizenship. And it seems to be that those fights, that infighting, is related to issues of decreasing membership means increased per capitas. And that’s a sad thing to see. But all of these things about gaming, about nation-building, about sovereignty, I think it’s important to remember that American Indian peoples need to be able to be allowed to work these things out themselves. We don’t need the federal government telling us what to do, we don’t need state governments telling us what to do, we need to figure out how to take care of these things ourselves.

My name is John Low and I’m an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation. I was born in Niles, Michigan, near the tribal headquarters in Dowagiac. And I grew up in that community, I [was] raised by my grandmother and my mother, who were Potawatomi. I am a lawyer. Graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1981. I returned home at the request of my elders and also because of my own sense of responsibility and desire to return home and work in a small town practice and also work as a tribal attorney on behalf of the community and did so. And worked on the process along with many, many, many others who did more work than me on the federal recognition process, which was finally successful in 1994. Since 1994, I’m a co-author of our tribal constitution. Since 1994, I’ve served on tribal council, I’ve served on several committees for the tribe, including the Traditions and Repatriation Committee and the Economic Development Committee as a coauthor of the tribal constitution.

I also subsequently took a leave of absence from practicing law and returned to school. First to get a second B.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and then a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in the Social Sciences and now am completing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan in American culture. Currently, I’m employed as a visiting professor [in the American [Indian] Studies program] at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I live in Chicago and visit often with my relatives and my friends and with my community in Michigan. While I was at the University of Michigan, I also earned a graduate certificate in Museum Studies which worked well with my subjects that I’m studying for my dissertation, but it also led to employment. I became the Executive Director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum being located in Evanston, Illinois, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native and non-Native people in both curatorial and exhibition and preservation issues.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,

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