Act One, I Know I Am, But What Are You?
This story is about a group arguing over that most basic thing that any group can fight over-- who should be a member. The group is an Indian tribe in California, the Chukchansi, in the middle of the state. Currently about 900 members. One of many small tribes in California, and the dispute has gotten pretty bitter. David Ferry explains just how far they've gone.
Here's how bad things have gotten with the Chukchansi. About a year ago they had an election for their tribal government-- it's called the tribal council. Four people won majorities, but the old counsel refused to step down. They disqualified the winners and changed the locks on the tribe's equivalent of City Hall, which is actually a trailer like you'd see on a construction site, but a little bigger.
So two dozen tribal members who wanted the candidates they voted in to actually take office decided to go to City Hall, the trailer, early one morning and occupy the building.
Here we go. Here we go. Here we go. Here we go. Here we go.
This is from video taken by one of the occupiers of the building. It was meant to be a peaceful takeover, although they did break a window to get inside. They made coffee, ordered pizza and walked around the trailer with homemade signs. But loyalists of the incumbents, the counsel that refused to step down, started showing up. They were angry.
Easy. Hey, calm down. Calm down.
Dude, what about that [INAUDIBLE]?
Calm down, you guys. [BLEEP]
One of the winning candidates who wasn't allowed to take her seat is Dixie Jackson. She was inside the trailer for the occupation. She thought she heard a gunshot at one point.
I said hit it, and I went down and hit the floor. Well then, I couldn't get up because, of course, I got a bad hip and bad knees.
Dixie's in her 70s. Here's Morris Read, another winner, also in his 70s.
Once they broke the windows, they started spraying in that pepper spray. And we started to have a hard time breathing. And then all of a sudden they're throwing in burning logs. I think there was two of them that they threw through the window. And our people get wet rags and papers where we could put over our mouths so we could breathe.
We're not walking out! You were voted out by 150! Walk away! You walk away!
By nighttime, the occupation had turned into a siege. A crowd of 50 people outside cut off the power to the building, and then the water. They shot more pepper spray down into the ventilation system. Dixie and Morris and the other elders crowded into a tiny bathroom in the middle of the trailer for safety.
Someone called the cops and they showed up-- sheriffs from Fresno and Madera County, and the California Highway Patrol. But they couldn't intervene, because this was an internal tribal matter. By morning, 40 people were fist fighting in the parking lot outside the trailer. Local TV crews captured the tail end of it.
In the midst of the madness, one teenager was stabbed and two people were injured.
All your people are going to [BLEEP] prison for this, too.
Two people were taken into custody. As for what caused the fighting--
This failed occupation, the election fiasco, it's all about one thing-- something called "disenrollment." That's the word Indians use for kicking someone out of the tribe. They get disenrolled.
For years now, the Chukchansi tribe has been disenrolling its own members-- dozens, sometimes hundreds of people at a time. The tribal members who occupy the trailer, the winners of the election, they wanted to stop the disenrollments-- the people outside didn't. Lots of tribes in California are disenrolling people, but the Chukchansi are sort of a poster tribe for it. Best estimates have the tribe shrinking from about 1,800 people, down to about 900.
So the tribe has cut itself in half, and almost all this has happened since they opened a casino. A big, shiny Casino with a spa, and a hotel, and a high roller club, 10 years ago in 2003.
At the foot of beautiful Yosemite Valley, there's a sound.
This is one of their ads.
Can you hear it? The sound of winning.
Let me hear that cha-ching!
Oh yeah, Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino.
The sweet sound of cha-ching!
The math is simple. If they have fewer people in the tribe, each person gets more of the sweet sound of cha-ching-- more profit from the casino. Right now each Chukchansi only gets a few hundred dollars a month in casino profits. A tribal member named Nicki Livingston told me that when her friend Nancy was kicked out a few months ago, she could see it in her payout check.
We got a raise on our per capita check after she got disenrolled.
You got more money per month after your close friend was disenrolled from the tribe?
Yeah. Me and my sisters, my two older sisters and myself, we were together when we heard that news. And we saw it [INAUDIBLE] saw it on our bank statements, and all three of us cried. It's done off the skin of someone's back.
She says the checks were around $280 per month before Nancy and several dozen other people were kicked out. She says it jumped about $380 a month after. There's another tribe just down the road from the Chukchansi, and its paid tens of thousands of dollars a month to each member. And that's because their tribe only has around 75 people.
Chukchansi officials usually deny that disenrollment has anything to do with casino money. They say all they're doing is correcting the membership rolls. Getting rid of the people who don't belong in the tribe. But Reggie Lewis, the tribal chairman who refused to step down when he was voted out of office, said to me, sure money has something to do with disenrollments, but why shouldn't it?
We don't have that much to share. We've got tribal members who are living in gutted out trailers with no sanitary facilities, without power. And then we have people who are trying to take advantage of being a tribal member when they're not entitled to be in.
This is the sound of my producer putting the microphone away as we're talking to a Chukchansi woman who'd agreed to be interviewed, but was so worried about repercussions that she kept going off the record or going silent. By the time I got to her, I was used to this. So many Chukchansi refused to talk, or agreed but then backed out saying that they were too scared. I asked this woman, who didn't want her name used, what people are scared of.
In my opinion, most of them are afraid because they either have members, loved ones or themselves that are employed.
How many people do you think you know who've been fired from the casino?
What's happening in the silence after my question is she's pointing at the microphone and shaking her head no. This woman had already been disenrolled, and she still didn't want to talk. She has family members who work at the casino. And like everyone else we met like that, she took it as a given, rightly or wrongly, that they might be fired if she spoke out.
The tribal council appoints the people who oversee the casino. There aren't a lot of jobs in this part of California. And the tribal council's very powerful-- in the community, and in the casino.
Disenrollment could mean serious financial hardship. When you're part of the tribe, you get a bunch of services. So on top of losing the monthly casino payout, people who are disenrolled also lose subsidies for child care and housing. Older members lose more-- a $300 monthly food stipend and extra cash to cover utilities. So no surprise there's now this culture of paranoia in the tribe. The anti-disenrollment folks are sure that some people who seem to be on their side are really spies for the other side.
I was talking to Morris Reed and Dixie Jackson, the ones who were elected to the tribal council but never seated. They're the ones who hid in the trailer choking on pepper spray. And Dixie said that at one point they tried to get tribal members to sign a petition supporting them, calling for an end to disenrollment. She said it went nowhere.
Even our own family says that they don't want to sign. Because then their names will be on the list that we support you, and therefore we will be subject to retaliation.
Dixie said one of her daughters had been fired from the casino two weeks earlier. She suspected it was retaliation against her family for occupying the trailer and opposing the tribal council. A casino spokesman told me the firing was not political.
As Dixie was telling me about all this, the phone rang. We were sitting around Morris's kitchen table. Morris answered it, and it was actually for Dixie.
Yes, she is. Do you want to talk to her? Somebody wants to talk to you.
Dixie didn't talk long. It was about another daughter who still worked at the casino.
They walked the other one out today.
They walked my daughter, the other daughter that was director of floor games.
They walked her out just now.
Your daughter was just fired?
The casino said this firing was also unrelated to the family's politics.
Bryan Galt saw how the disenrollments got started, and he's one of the few who saw it from the inside. He worked in the Chukchansi Enrollment Office, the office that decides who's a member and who's not. Back in 2003, when the casino first opened, the enrollment office was really just a room, he says, with six file cabinets and a computer. But it was where the tribe stored all of its documents on everybody's ancestry. Before the casino was built, you just needed a birth certificate and some proof that you're a lineal descendant of a Chukchansi.
I don't think you can imagine a more messed up filing system. Because it had been years of just people just shoving stuff in the files.
You were there though. Was the enrollment committee about letting people in, or was it about kicking people out?
Well initially it was to help straighten out the records because they in such disarray. And then the casino opened, and then it started to become a head hunting expedition. Find out how people can be disenrolled.
Bryan says that mandate came from the top, the tribal council, but he didn't agree with it.
My committee, we refused to take action against anyone who was already enrolled because we didn't think it was fair. You're going to what-- tell 80-year-old ladies that they're going to have to go to the National Archive and find information that no one had ever told them they needed for the last 15 years? They're enrolled-- just leave it at that.
So we argued for the next two years about this. Have you ever seen a JerrySpringer episode? You'd go to monthly meetings, and that's how it was.
There was no DancesWithWolves type mentality. I hate that movie for that reason. They show the wise old tribal chief, you know, that's all I have to say, and everyone's polite to each other through the whole meeting. And I'm like, I don't know what meeting those guys are at, but I've never been to one of those.
This is a small tribe, remember. Everyone knows everybody else. And everyone thinks they know who's pushing to disenroll people.
There's a family called the Wyatts, and there's another called the Ramirezes. The Ramirezes actually filed a lawsuit last year, arguing that they are the only legitimate members of the tribe-- just their family. The case was thrown out. I reached out to members of both families, but no one agreed to speak on tape.
One person who's supported disenrollment for years is Reggie Lewis. He's the tribal leader you heard from earlier who refused to step down after the election. He says the disenrollments are necessary because of the weird history of the tribe. The Federal government disbanded them in 1958, along with lots of other California tribes. And when they started up again in the 1980s, he says they were in a rush. That they didn't really know what they were doing.
For a long time, our tribe was looked that as kind of a joke as far as membership. Because they were saying oh yeah, the Chukchansi tribe, that's a country club. You can go up and join. They just knew that they could get in.
And so he says they had to make a lot of hard choices. He told me he even voted to disenroll his own cousins-- he had to.
They are my cousins, but they didn't have any Chukchansi in them. For years they thought that they were Chukchansi. We thought they were Chukchansi. When the research was done, we find out that no, they were not even Indians. They were white people.
The fact is, even tribes that aren't disenrolling people have a hard time figuring out how to decide who's in the tribe. What's important-- blood line? DNA? Language? Land ownership?
In California, tribes were hunted down and forced to disband. To abandon their land and their language. There was lots of intermarriage. Records were lost. It's a mess.
So the Chukchansi settled on a set of arcane rules based on land ownership and ancestry to determine who could stay in their tribe. If your family had Chukchansi ancestry but no one got a land grant from the Federal government long ago, you were given a one-year deadline to get in your paperwork. If you didn't make the deadline or the extension, you were disenrolled. If you're one of the luckier families that was deeded land, for you there's no deadline. But your ancestry gets combed over and scrutinized for any hint of non-Chukchansiness.
This is the letter I got right here.
This is Irene Cordero. She got a letter recently from the tribe telling her she was disenrolled because her grandfather Jack Roan had in some official documents said he was Chukchansi and in some others said he was Pohonichi. Irene says what's the problem? He was both. But the tribe kicked her out along with about 70 members of her family, including her mother Ruby.
She's the oldest Chukchansi there is now. Last one passed away last week, I think.
We couldn't confirm that Irene's mother was the oldest Chukchansi. We also couldn't find a Chukchansi that was older.
She'll be 90 in January.
And she's a native speaker of the language?
How many native speakers are there around?
There are actually more like six.
Disenrollment letters all end with a line saying the tribal council's decisions are final and not appeal-able to any state or federal court. There's nowhere to go to say but wait, this woman speaks Chukchansi. Doesn't that count somehow? Irene can't take this to the US courts or the Bureau of Indian Affairs and expect any help, because each tribe operates like it's own separate country. And for the Chukchansi, the tribal council's the final authority.
A few months after the tribe disenrolled Irene's mother Ruby, one of the last remaining native speakers, they gave a million dollars to a local university for the study and revitalization of the Chukchansi language.
Honorable tribal council, the enrollment committee's prepared to present evidence as to why the respondents are not eligible for membership.
This is a recording of a disenrollment hearing. It's actually Bryan Galt's disenrollment hearing. He's the guy who worked in the enrollment office and fought against the new mandate to kick people out. He ended up defending his own membership in the tribe in 2006, three years after the casino opened.
These hearings are closed to the public, and to the rest of the tribe, too. Bryan recorded this secretly and then posted it online. What's most striking is how much time is devoted to asserting and reasserting that this whole process is legal, and it's being done according to the tribe's constitution and its ordinances. Everyone's just following the rules.
But anyone who is sitting there about to be disenrolled knows that the tribe, as its own sovereign nation of about 900 people, can change those rules at any time. So that there wouldn't be hearings to disenroll someone like Bryan, who in fact has Chukchansi ancestry. Which the tribe acknowledges during the hearing to kick him out.
For his great great grandmother Mary Galt. From the committee I'd like to indicate that Mary Galt is of Chukchansi Indian blood, four quarters.
So not only does he have a full-blooded Chukchansi relative, Bryan's family actually got land from the Federal government more than a century ago. But the problem is, the council decides it's the wrong kind of land. So in the end, the thing that does him in is the he just didn't get his paperwork in by the deadline.
October 22, 1988, through April 3, 1990. Therefore, the enrollment committee requests that James Bryan Galt is not eligible for membership pursuant to the tribe's constitution, and therefore requests that he be disenrolled.
The same day Bryan found out he'd been disenrolled, he lost his job as a beverage manager and web director for the casino. The casino spokesman told me the firing had nothing to do with his disenrollment.
Tribes across the country are watching these mass disenrollments by the Chukchansi and others, and they're just flabbergasted. Here's David Wilkins. He's a Lumbee Indian, and a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.
I get shocked every time I read any CountryToday and see that another tribe, usually it's out of California, that has decided that they're going to disenroll another 22 families.
Wilkins is one of the few people who studies disenrollment.
Disenrollment is occurring now in some 17 states. It's occurring in at least 30 tribes in California. I can't find a definitive number on how many native individuals have formally been disenrolled.
I see figures ranging 4,000 to 6,000. But it's difficult to find accurate data because, like I say, tribal governments are not going to be forthcoming with this information. The Bureau of Indian Affairs refuses to share this information because they say that it's a tribal internal matter. And so as a scholar, as a researcher, I'm frustrated and embittered because I can't find the accurate data to get the word out about what we're doing to ourselves.
Wilkins told me other tribes are watching the Chukchansi and others disenroll their members with no consequences and so they're trying it, too. And he said something that I'd heard from a lot of Indians. We were almost wiped out by other people. And why are we now whittling ourselves away through disenrollments?
And this is what I find most frustrating when I have to say that we really are involved in depopulating ourselves. And at this point we can't blame the Federal government, we can't blame the state that we're in. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and try and explain this to ourselves.
With the Chukchansi, a lot of the tribe's members thought disenrollment was OK as long as it was happening to other people. They never thought it would happen to them, so they didn't stand up against it. Even the current opponents of disenrollment, the four people elected to the tribal council who never got a chance to take their seat, they used to sit on the council years ago. And when they did, they presided over hundreds of disenrollments themselves.
At this point, no one feels safe. Even Reggie Lewis, the tribal chairman who refused to give up his seat in the election. Even he can imagine a future council trying to kick him out.
The reason will be whatever they want to say, because they will be the ultimate say so. It doesn't matter what is right or what is wrong. I have the documentation to show that I am from this area. I have established a special relationship with people that are in the Wyatt and Ramirez family.
He's talking about the two families in the tribe that folks say are staunch supporters of disenrollment-- the Wyatts and the Ramirezes.
I cut timber for 40 years and I got Mike Ramirez jobs. I worked with Mike. His father used to come up and get drunk with my father. I went over and had beers with his father and my father.
His sister was married to one of my cousins. And they lived right next door to me on my allotment on top of the hill here in Coarsegold. And so I know that I have established close ties with these guys over the years. And if they want to say that I'm not a member and they want to kick me out, that's on them.
Meanwhile at the casino, things aren't looking too good. Another tribe is planning to build a competing casino just 30 miles down the road. And Reggie Lewis told me the Chukchansi casino is still $250 million in debt from its construction.
About a year and a half ago, it missed a payment on that debt. He says they might miss another this month. He told me that if they do miss that payment, members of the tribe might not get their payouts or benefits.
The tribe has gone through all this heartache. It's on track to disenroll the majority of its members. If the point was to generate a higher payout for everyone who remained, that might not be panning out.
David Ferry in Oakland. Coming up-- whispering, it's not just for libraries anymore. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
ThisAmericanLife, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. Bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Tribes. Stories of people who believe they are part of these big groups that may or may not necessarily want them. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program.
This winter, in the throes of my seasonal depression, I fell down an Instagram rabbit hole, and before I knew it, half of my Instagram feed was videos of people playing with slime. Slime, if you haven’t encountered it on any of your social feeds — or at a child’s birthday party — is a strange, mushy semi-solid that can be made easily with Elmer’s glue, borax, and water, plus a mess of strange sequins, colored dye, and commentary. Slime is so popular as a craft project among teens and preteens that stores are struggling to keep Elmer’s glue on the shelves.
But Slime achieves its highest calling — and reaches its largest audience — as the subject of mesmerizing videos on Instagram. In real life, slime is a sticky, gooey, watery, semi-solid mush, but through the lens of a camera phone, it’s enchanting — colorful, sparkly, and loud. In the foreground of a typical slime video, a hand removes the colorful goo from its container and smushes it, creating holes and gaps — eliciting a gentle smacking sound before folding it over itself and starting again, in a theoretically infinite loop of recreation — pushing and pulling the substance apart.
Slime videos are part science, part meditation, and part art form. They’re also a business. Slime creators have hundreds of thousands of followers, and sell their slime on Etsy for money. @Slime.Bun, one of my favorites, has more than 200,000 followers; @slimequeeens has almost 700,000. It’s an industry dominated by teens who started making their own slime just because they loved it — and starting selling it to enable their habit. Alyssa J., a 15-year-old slime creator whose mother preferred that she keep her last name secret for privacy reasons, just started her slime account in August 2016. She says she saw tutorials on Pinterest, and that it “just looked fun,” so she decided to start an account herself. Alyssa’s account, @craftyslimecreator, now has 431,000 followers.
Alyssa makes her slime and slime videos in her free time, after school and her homework is done. Sometimes, she spends more than 20 hours a week making slime in her room. And she has to, in order to maintain her brand. She uploads three videos a day — and, of course, all of them need a new slime and an edited video. “The only reason I sell slime is so I can make more slime,” Alyssa says. But some users sell their slime for pretty good money: 13-year-old Theresa Nguyen — who has about the same number of followers as Alyssa on Instagram, where she posts as @Rad.Slime — told Money magazine recently that she’s making about $3,000 a month. Alyssa isn’t making that much. Her slimes sell almost at cost: $7.57 for butter slime, $6.60 for teal confetti with big beads, $12.41 for jiggly, blue slime.
But the question why is a bit more difficult than the question how much. None of the teen creators I spoke with could enunciate exactly what it was about slime that appealed to them. Alyssa J. makes slime because she loves it. “It’s a way to express yourself in a different way. It’s just fun to listen to and see all the creations,” she says.
That pairing of sensory enjoyment — to see and to listen — came up with every teen I talked to. “I just love it for some odd reason,” says Carlie, a 12-year-old slime fan who recently started making her own slime. She did specify that for her, the appeal was “the sound and feeling of it.” For Donna Boyd, a 17-year-old from Harrisburg, Virginia, slime is therapeutic. She’s never purchased slime, or made it herself. She just watches hundreds of videos from her five favorite accounts over and over again. “It honestly just makes me happy and de-stresses me,” Donna told me. “I suffer from anxiety, and slime videos help me a lot during panic attacks.” She says she gets lost in them after watching a few, going into a kind of meditative state. One teen I spoke to, Rachel M., told me she spends “at least 15 hours a week” just watching slime videos and playing with slime. She has only bought two slimes herself, but she loves them and says, “I need them.”
In this way, slime videos fall broadly into the uniquely internet genre of film that focuses on providing sensual experiments, instead of telling a story or providing a tutorial. There’s a community of people who make and watch videos of people mixing paints, for example, and another for woodcutting, and artists manipulating clay on the wheel. One of the most reliably popular genre of videos on the internet is “unboxing,” in which people take electronics or other products out of their boxes. Last year, the link-sharing site Digg had a viral hit with “The Most Satisfying Video in the World,” a video compiling images of smoothly working machinery and other oddly soothing clips.
The most famous genre of sensual video is probably Auto-Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, the term used to explain the phenomenon of full-body response to sounds — everything from whispering and scratching to pages turning and Bob Ross. ASMR has firmly planted itself in internet culture; a Reddit subgroup on the topic has 125,000 followers, and ASMR YouTube creators (like ASMRrequests) have half a million followers. “When I watch a slime video, it triggers a sharp shiver that starts in my neck, runs down my back, and ends with a gentle, pleasant buzzing in my head,” Isabel Slone wrote in a piece for Hazlitt about her obsession with the medium. But they’re not quite the same: As Slone writes, “Slime isn’t easily identifiable as an ASMR trigger because the appeal is primarily visual rather than auditory.”
And, indeed, other sensual videos don’t hold quite the same appeal as slime does for its enthusiasts. “I only really like slime videos,” Donna says. The same goes for Rachel, though she says she also likes watching unboxing videos because those are relaxing.
But if slime is the thing, why watch other people play with it instead of making and playing with it yourself? “This may sound weird, but I think the difference is the control,” Donna tells me. “In a video, I can’t decide what they do, which kind of adds to the satisfaction of it.” Watching someone else ply and poke and squish slime together is calming. It’s easy, as the repetition washes over you, to lose track of yourself and your worries; the video becomes a momentary escape from quickly moving, anxiety-inducing social-media feeds. All slime videos are somewhat the same: A colorful slime gets poked, prodded, maybe even cut, and then reformed and squashed back together again. But — like praying or meditating — they allow a brief suspension of the self, in an environment founded entirely on the self’s constant construction and reconstruction. “It doesn’t matter what it’s used for,” Alyssa told me near the end of our interview, dragging out “used” so that it sounded like the most absurd request in the world for a giggly, blue goo to have a purpose. “It’s just slime. Get it?”