The perks of tribal membership are meager as well. Because of Montana's restrictive gaming laws and Fort Peck's remote location, big casinos aren't an option. The tribe's business endeavors, like the Tribal Express, a gas station and mini-mart just east of Poplar, aren't making anybody rich. Each full member gets "Christmas money" from the tribe, usually around $75 per year. Money for burial, a free pass on state income tax for those who live on the reservation and first dibs on jobs at Fort Peck are among the other benefits. Both full and associate members supposedly receive comprehensive health-care benefits, but last summer the Fort Peck Executive Board declared that the tribe's health-care system was in a state of emergency due to lack of funds.
Some fear that if the tribe eases up on enrollment requirements, it will mean even skimpier benefits for each person. They may be right. The federal government allocates money to individual tribes using a formula based on need, not membership. "Of course, if you have a larger population, you would probably have more need," says Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Gary Garrison. "But how that would play out in this age of limited budgets is a big question mark."
Those who favor opening up the rolls, however, find the economic argument unconvincing.
"We'll never have enough resources to go around," shrugs Robert McAnally, co-founder of the community college and a proponent of expanding Fort Peck's membership. "For example, you see the bigotry and hatred that's going on with big gaming tribes."
Under various pretexts, wealthy gaming tribes have removed thousands of people from their rolls in the last decade, particularly in California. Last summer, the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians kicked out 50 people because, according to the tribe, they had an adopted ancestor. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians has cast out nearly a quarter of their membership, claiming illegitimate bloodlines. And the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians has banished hundreds of members in recent years, with little explanation. Each of these tribes runs a multimillion-dollar casino, and the fewer the enrolled members, the bigger the cut for those who remain.
McAnally sees the same dynamic at work at Fort Peck, though the stakes are much lower. At a recent meeting on amending the tribe's Constitution, he supported switching to the lineal descent framework. But delegates voted down that proposal, along with others, including one that would have made associate members full members. The plan that passed was perhaps the most conservative -- the one suggesting that the blood of other federally recognized tribes be included in Fort Peck's calculations.
McAnally, a big man with the imperious air of an aging Marlon Brando, sees no nuance in the desire to restrict tribal membership. "It's all based on greed," he says.