MASHPEE — Twin 20-year-old sisters are taking Wampanoag tribal leaders to court after they were removed from the tribal membership roll.
Kayla and Kaitlyn Balbuena are suing the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Enrollment Committee in Tribal Court after the committee removed them from the tribal roll about a month ago.
“We don’t want to sue our tribe,” Kayla said, “but we just want to fight for our rights back.”
The Balbuena sisters filed the lawsuit on Sept. 15. The sisters, who live in East Falmouth, argue that the tribe’s enrollment department placed them on a pending list and have taken away their rights as tribal members based on hearsay and falsehood.
The enrollment committee and Rita Lopez, the enrollment department director, did not respond to a request for comment. Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, vice chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Letters obtained by the Times from the committee allege that the twins’ father, Lorenzo Balbuena Jr., is not their biological father. The committee had requested a DNA paternity test to prove that the sisters are the daughters of Balbuena, a tribe member who died two years ago.
The enrollment committee is comprised of five tribal members appointed by the Tribal Council who serve terms of three years, according to the tribal enrollment ordinance. The committee’s duties include maintaining the official membership roll of the tribe, reviewing and processing applications for enrollment and enforcing tribal enrollment laws.
According to its ordinance, it is policy of the tribe to require genetic testing only as part of an initial application for tribal enrollment and other scenarios, including, if there is probable cause to believe that a birth certificate has been altered to reflect an incorrect father’s name or other evidence of fraud or mistake in connection with paternity.
Any person whose enrollment application is denied has the right to appeal, according to the ordinance. The enrollment ordinance also states that “no one shall be subjected to DNA testing to determine membership solely on the basis of rumor and/or hearsay.”
Kayla and Kaitlyn found out that they had been removed from the tribal roll and placed on a pending enrollment list when they tried to sign up for COVID-19 relief that the tribe offered to its members. Someone messaged them on Facebook letting them know, Kayla said. The enrollment committee did not tell them in advance.
Lorenzo Balbuena Jr., was a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. He was a fisherman and harvested quahogs, Kayla said, and he worked security during powwows.
Lorenzo’s name is on the sisters’ birth certificates, and he lived with them their whole lives until he died, Kayla said.
The sisters became members of the tribe in 2000 when they were both a year old. They both have their tribal cards and enrollment IDs, and they have been very involved in tribal activities, Kayla said. They taught dance classes for the tribe in preparation of powwows and are champion dancers of the Eastern Blanket and the Fancy Shawl, she said. They also voted in a tribal election.
“We had kids our age talking about us,” Kayla said. “We used to teach the dance class there. It’s sad because now the kids who look up to us now think ‘they’re not native.’”
Kayla and Kaitlyn also have three brothers, and none of them have been removed from the tribal roll. Their mother, Elizabeth DeBarros, said she thinks it is because of the color of their skin.
“They are dark. That’s all it is really,” said DeBarros, who is part of the Cape Verdean Club.
To qualify as a member of the tribe, Kayla said, one of your parents has to be Native American and you must show family genealogy. A parent must go to the tribe, show their child’s birth certificate and sign their child up to be on the roll.
The enrollment department claims the twins’ birth certificates have been altered, DeBarros said.
“I don’t know how you alter it,” she said.
When the twins were born in Falmouth Hospital, DeBarros said, Balbuena was in the Barnstable House of Corrections at the time. He was allowed to come to the hospital and see them, and he signed the birth certificates before he left, she said.
DeBarros said the issue has been ongoing for years.
In 2015, the enrollment office sent a letter saying that it received notice fromBalbuena stating that the sisters are not his biological children. The enrollment committee requested that the twins perform DNA testing with Balbuena to determine paternity.
“We called them and told them, ‘I’m not doing a DNA test because I know who the father of my children are,’” DeBarros said.
The committee then dropped the issue, she said.
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In February, the enrollment committee sent another letter saying the office again received notice from Lorenzo Balbuena stating that Kayla was not his biological child. The committee asked that she perform a DNA paternity test with someone named Sylvester Dickerson.
“I don’t even know who this man is,” DeBarros said. “It’s one person who said it was (the father), and they just took it upon themselves to run with it. … These people that make false accusations, there is no proof.”
Kayla and Kaitlyn are waiting for a court date to be determined, she said.
“It’s hurtful that the tribe is saying this,” Kayla said. “We’re just sick of it and all that. We just want our name cleared and our rights back.”
“I’m just fed up,” Kaitlyn said.
Follow Jessica Hill on Twitter: @jess_hillyeah.