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Isleta Demands Proof of Heritage

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    ISLETA PUEBLO— Lupita Abeita was born in a one-room adobe house in the middle of the pueblo in 1914.
    She grew up speaking Tiwa and cooking beans and red chile for the feast day of St. Augustine each September. Before he died in 1998, her older brother, Joe M. Abeita, was the leader of the pueblo's religious rituals.
    So imagine Lupita Abeita's surprise when she received a typed letter on official Pueblo of Isleta stationery this week, telling her the tribe had questions about whether she was a legitimate member— and that her $2,000 Christmas-time payment from the tribe would be held until she could prove her Isleta heritage.
    "She said, 'If they don't recognize me as a child of the pueblo, who am I? What am I supposed to do?' '' said her daughter, Juana Jiron.
    Abeita is not the only elder to have her identity as a tribal member questioned this week. Her surviving brother, Joe D. Abeita, also received a letter.
    In all, according to a member of the Isleta Tribal Council, 132 of the approximately 2,800 people listed as tribal members got letters notifying them that the pueblo was reviewing its membership rolls and that they would have until Jan. 2 to prove they are at least half Isleta in order to continue to be considered tribal members.
    Everyone who got the letter had their annual per capita payments from the tribal government withheld. The per capita payments— unrelated to the tribe's casino, but something akin to a Christmas bonus that tribal members have come to count on— were handed out Monday and Tuesday at the pueblo treasurer's office.
    The letters have caused anguish and anger among Isleta residents. Two members of the tribal council say the action was taken without the approval of the council and is illegal.
    "The money doesn't really matter," Jiron said. "My mom is so hurt. She's just devastated."
    Isleta Gov. Alvino Lucero would not comment on the letters, which were signed "Tribal Council." The president of the tribal council and the council secretary, who served on the membership audit committee and who handle the per capita payments, did not return phone messages.
    A meeting of the 12-member elected tribal council scheduled for Thursday was canceled on Wednesday.
    Council member Robin Teller-Velardez said the letter was not approved by the tribal council and should not have been sent out.
    She said the 12 members of the council appointed a four-member committee to look into performing an audit of tribal membership because the pueblo's census office had been in disarray, not because of doubts about people's blood lines.
    Teller-Velardez said that, at Saturday's council meeting, the four members of the membership audit committee presented a list of about 60 people whose membership they were questioning and a draft of the letter they intended to send.
    There was disagreement among council members about the list and the council did not approve sending the letter, Teller-Velardez said. Some members of the council wanted to review each name and make a decision.
    "To me, that letter is not legal," Teller-Velardez said. "According to our constitution, the full tribal council is the only one that can take action on tribal membership. I think the timing, the way that it was done, is just wrong."
    Council member Diane Peigler said Saturday's council meeting was not an official meeting and that no votes were taken on any matters.
    "It is totally a mess," she said.
    Teller-Velardez said she was especially upset that the identity of tribal elders, such as the Abeitas, was questioned.
    "To me, they are what made our community," she said. "Any question about their membership affects them to their hearts and their souls. They're angry, and you can't blame them."
    "The audit findings have identified some individuals that may be ineligible for tribal membership," the letter said.
    Attached to the letter was a fill-in-the-blank family tree form going back three generations and asking for documentation of great grandparents' degree of Isleta blood.
    The letter asked for supporting documentation, including birth certificates, marriage certificates and divorce decrees and court documents that would show paternity.
    In Lupita and Joe D. Abeita's case, their parents died in the 1920s when they were children and they were sent to St. Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe. Later, an uncle at the pueblo took them in to raise.
    "They know who their parents are, but they have no birth certificates that we can find," Jiron said. "They have no record of their grandparents."
    Many tribes in New Mexico and elsewhere use a one-quarter blood standard to determine tribal membership. The Isleta constitution says an Isleta tribal member must have at least one-half Isleta lineage. There is also a provision for adoption or naturalization, Teller-Velardez said.
    U.S. Census data shows the pueblo's total population as 3,166. About 84 percent of pueblo residents— 2,675— identified themselves as American Indian with no other race. Another 181 people identified themselves as American Indian, but bi- or multi-racial.
    About 300 pueblo residents said they were black, white or other races.
    Jiron's father's Isleta heritage is not being questioned, so she is still considered one-half Isleta and she got her per capita check. Her four children, who range in age from 3 to 32, would be only one-quarter Isleta if their maternal grandmother is not Isleta and their checks were also withheld.
    Per capita payments are shares of tribal funds dispensed annually in December. The source of the funds and amount of the payments vary from tribe to tribe and year to year. They can range from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. In New Mexico, proceeds from casinos are not part of the payments.
    At Isleta, the funds come from a trust account that is fed by right-of-way payments, land leasing fees, settlement proceeds and other funds.