Authentic Ethnicity in Question

American Indian Health & Services Asks: ‘Are You Native
American Enough?’

by Martha SadlerPaul Wellman • Photographs by

3-Generations-of-Chumash.jpgA court case that began January 17 could
determine once and for all the fate of American Indian Health &
Services (AIHS), which is the third incarnation of a clinic first
established in the 1970s to serve Native Americans in Santa
Barbara. The case, brought by four former administrators who claim
they were fired because they were not Native American, threatens
the survival of the clinic, which provides medical care not only to
Native Americans but to everybody from uninsured workers to
Medi-Cal beneficiaries. Serious as it is, however, the lawsuit is
merely one aspect of the upheaval the clinic has been undergoing
for more than a year. By now, the board of directors accused of
setting the policy to replace non-Native-American employees has
itself been replaced for not being Native American enough.

Most of those former boardmembers are Coastal Band Chumash, a
group whose claim to Chumash identity has been a topic of hot
dispute. Not only the boardmembers but also the clinic’s Coastal
Band Chumash patients — who number in the hundreds — were
disqualified from receiving free care as Native Americans. From the
Coastal Band’s point of view, one of the bitter ironies is that
their members were named as intended beneficiaries when the
applications were made to establish the original dental clinic on
Milpas Street and both of its successors — Urban Indian Health on
mid State Street and this one, AIHS, which has been operating since
1996 in a sprawling complex of offices in the Modoc Shopping
Center. The Coastal Band played an active role in founding and
perpetuating the Santa Barbara clinic, which is one of only eight
in the state, two of which recently became referral services.

There is no question the clinic has had its share of problems,
twice folding due to financial difficulties and recently going
through a series of executive directors in rapid succession. When
Al Granados, the current executive director, was hired two years
ago, the clinic’s board of directors thought they had struck gold.
Granados had retired to Santa Ynez a couple years previously and
was beginning to get restless when he heard that AIHS badly needed
an executive director. He had spend a quarter century serving as an
administrative officer with Indian Health Services (IHS), which
monitors Native American clinics and hospitals on and off
reservations, and with that organization’s parent bureaucracy, the
Department of Health and Human Services. His skill and knowledge
outshone those of any of the former executive directors. He had
even served hands-on at other clinics. A Vietnam War-era Air Force
captain, he exuded competence and authority. And as the son of a
Washoe mother whose experiences as a young domestic worker in
Oakland illustrated the value of services catering to urban Native
Americans, his commitment seemed heartfelt.

The lawsuit, filed by the terminated employees in 2005, claims
that getting rid of all the non-Native-American employees had been
a goal of AIHS since as far back as 2003. However, it was not until
Granados came on board that it started happening. An
all-Native-American board was elected three months after Granados
was hired. The suit, however, zeros in specifically on Granados and
Maria Cordero, who was the board chair. It accuses them of
colluding in private to fire the plaintiffs — all highly paid
administrative staffers — and replace them with Native Americans.
One of the plaintiffs’ prize pieces of evidence is the undisputed
fact that during one board meeting, Cordero asked a visiting IHS
official, Urban Services Coordinator Arveda Nelson, whether
non-Native-American employees could be terminated in order to clear
the way for Native American hirees. The answer was a clear
no — employees cannot be terminated just because they are not
Native American, though Native Americans may be given preference
during the hiring process. Cordero testified that when she asked
the question about firing non-Native Americans, she already knew
the answer; she merely wanted to emphasize the point to those
boardmembers who were agitating for more Native American staff.

In sworn testimony, Granados also strongly countered the
allegation that his termination of the administrative staff had
anything to do with the board’s desire to see Native Americans in
those positions. He said he fired them as part of his overall plan
to improve the clinic’s efficiency. He replaced them with contract
services and his own, more highly qualified team — none of whom is
Native American. The plaintiffs asked for $2 million to settle this
dispute out of court, which is the amount for which the clinic
happens to be insured against personnel actions. The two sides
failed to come to terms during a court-mandated settlement
conference, so a trial was scheduled to begin January 17 in the
courtroom of Superior Court Judge James Brown.

If Granados’s motives for firing the administrative staff are
murky, the second prong in his scheme to reform the clinic hinged
unambiguously on ethnicity. The board first got wind of it last
August, when Granados announced that the clinic would have to check
the documentation of Native Americans receiving free services to
make sure they were entitled to them. Also, because the board was
supposed to be at least 51 percent Native American, the
boardmembers would have to provide federal documentation from the
Bureau of Indian Affairs that designated them to be Native
Americans. This was followed up in September with letters demanding
patients and boardmembers submit proof of their federal
certification, a standard far more limiting than the state and
local recognition that had previously been accepted.

Clients were instructed to verify their eligibility before their
next visit. Two weeks later, each boardmember received notification
that “your position has been vacated.” The only exception was
Michael Young, a documented Blackfoot tribal member, whose initials
appeared on the letter claiming that as the only federally
qualified Native American boardmember, Young had the authority to
dismiss the rest of the board and replace them with Native
Americans. Cordero, a federally certified Chumash and a Coastal
Band member, had already resigned. She could not be reached for
comment for this article.

Rosa-Uribe.jpgAfter the first set of letters went out,
boardmembers said they tried to set up a meeting with Granados but
found him unavailable to them. The day after they received the
final letter, they arranged to meet at the clinic offices. The
first to arrive were three elders — Darlene Hall, Vera Quiroga, and
Rosie Uribe — who were told to leave the premises. When they
refused, Sheriff’s deputies were called to escort them outside
while clinic staff locked the doors. A few days later, the board
met in emergency session and decided to fire Granados, figuring he
served at their pleasure, not the other way around. They marched to
the bank to remove his name from the signature cards for the
clinic’s account and succeeded, briefly, but Granados managed to
reverse the order and get their names removed. They called a
locksmith to change the clinic locks, but found he had beat them to
the punch.

The legitimacy of Coastal Band members’ claims to Chumash
identity has been a topic of controversy ever since the band’s
official formation in 1969. A paper published last year by
anthropologists Brian Haley and Larry Wilcoxon refers to the
Coastal Band as “neo-Chumash,” offering them as a prime example of
ethnicity as a political, emotional, and even imaginative
construct. The core members of the Coastal Band are documented
descendants of the original colonizers and settlers from Mexico in
the 1700s, Haley and Wilcoxon assert. They have always been a
tightly knit clan, according to the anthropologists. Depending on
the era and the individual’s social status, clan members have been
variously referred to in the historical record as Mexican, Indian,
Mestizo, Mulatto, Spanish, White, Mexican American, Chumash, and
now, neo-Chumash.

The group includes numerous lines descended from a soldier born
in Baja California named Mariano Cordero, the paper continues.
While some of the Cordero descendents married Chumash and had
children, others didn’t. According to Haley and Wilcoxon’s study,
the Coastal Band indiscriminately includes both, as well as Santa
Ynez Band descendants and others who happen to have been living in
the area when the Coastal Band gave itself that name and started
distributing membership cards. Its beginnings may have had some
economic motivation, and some emotional motivations because in the
late 1960s being Native American carried social status.

Ernestine De Soto has long been regarded by anthropologists as
the ideal Chumash descendant because she has certain ancient
Chumash mitochondrial DNA passed down through the maternal line and
because her mother was a documented native speaker. A devout
Catholic, De Soto has often taken positions in opposition to the
Coastal Band Chumash, especially regarding their practice of
reconstructed Chumash traditional religious ceremonies and their
claims to Chumash remains from anthropological digs. Even she,
however, concedes that her family grew up in the same neighborhood
with the other old families who now call themselves Chumash. While
she persuaded her older sister to tear up her Coastal Band
membership card, De Soto recounted with considerable amusement, her
nephew refuses to do so.

Until now, the clinic had always used very inclusive guidelines
for providing free service to Native Americans. Declining to take a
stringent anthropological stance, the Indian Health Service Manual
published on the IHS Web site defines beneficiaries of urban Native
American health clinics so broadly as to include any “Indian of
Canadian or Mexican origin recognized by any Indian tribe or group
as a member of an Indian community entitled to care within the
local service area,” and further defines them as someone who
“actively participates in tribal affairs,” someone “regarded by the
community in which he lives as an Indian,” or “any other reasonable
factor indicative of Indian descent.”

It is clear where Granados comes down on the question of the
Coastal Band’s Chumash identity. As far as he is concerned, he
said, everybody should be entitled to free healthcare, but the
reality is that such resources are limited and the Coastal Band is
using resources that should go to certifiable Native Americans.
Santa Barbara is also the only urban clinic in the state that still
offers its services for free to Native Americans regardless of
their ability to pay. He said he wants to institute a sliding fee
scale for all patients — even for Native Americans. One of his
purposes, he said, is to ensure that urban services are available
to descendants of the Santa Ynez Band, which is a federally
recognized tribe.

Al-Granados.jpgIn addition, many Native Americans from
other tribes live in Santa Barbara. Granados said he would love to
expand to Ventura where many needs go unmet, and that he would like
to fill the board with high-powered executives and public officials
in order to increase its private fundraising capacity. While all of
this sounds quite crisp and professional, the long-term fate of the
clinic is problematic, if only because a Native American’s
descendants are entitled to the federal funding that supports urban
clinics for only two generations after he or she leaves the
reservation. And as for that federal funding, President George W.
Bush’s 2007 budget cut all funding for urban Native American
clinics, but Congress later restored it.

“It would be very easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, oh my God, it all
lines up,’ ” said former boardmember Martha Jaimes. “This guy was
sent in to destroy the clinic. But do we want to do that, or do we
want to stay focused on what to do with our own people?” She and
others in the community particularly regretted the loss of services
to Coastal Band elders, including van service to bring them to the
clinic and monthly get togethers.

Some of the Coastal Band Chumash have been traveling over the
hill to receive medical care at the Santa Ynez Chumash Reservation,
which operates on a sliding scale, takes insurance if clients have
it, and also provides all of its Native-American-oriented extra
services for free to Coastal Band Chumash, according to the
receptionist. “What is at stake is our Indian-ness,” said one
Coastal Band member. “What helps is that our cousins recognize
us.”

Last December, about 60 Coastal Band members gathered at Las
Positas Park for an annual Winter Solstice/Christmas gathering.
Organized by former boardmember Rosie Uribe, it was a sedate dinner
during which children, parents, and grandparents from several
families celebrated their heritage with Chumash prayer and song.
Children ceremoniously conferred handmade Chumash gifts to elders.
Santa Claus did not make an appearance, as he had in previous
years, because Uribe said she was trying to make the event more
solstice-oriented, but the children received Christmas stockings.
The crowd included people whose mitochondrial DNA marked them as
genuine genetic Chumash descendants, others with no such markers
but whose children and great-grandchildren were raised to observe
Chumash traditions, and still others who are simply Santa Ynez Band
descendants. The extended family included college professors,
environmental activists, daycare providers, and a young man named
Black Bear whose face was adorned with Polynesian-style markings
including a stylized whale’s tails on his forehead. Like their
island brethren, he explained, Chumash are people of the Pacific
Ocean. It would seem that the Coastal Band Chumash’s sense of
ethnic identity transcends — fortunately for them — the Bureau of
Indian Affairs’ definition of an Indian.

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