A Tribe’s Bitter Purge Brings an Unusual Request: Federal Intervention
After cutting 306 people from its rolls, the Nooksack tribe is moving to evict those who remain in tribal housing. The dispute has raised questions about individual rights and tribal sovereignty.,
EVERSON, Wash. — In the snow-packed driveway of Saturnino Javier’s home, a dozen extended family members gathered last week with drums formed from cedar and animal skin, intoning the prayerful songs they had learned growing up in the Nooksack Indian Tribe.
For decades, Mr. Javier and his family have seen the tribe in northern Washington State as their people, their home. But they are now among more than 300 people who are being disowned by the tribe, on the losing end of a bitter disenrollment battle that has torn apart families and left dozens of people facing eviction in the middle of the coldest Washington winter in years.
In recent days, the tribe has mobilized its police force to begin removing Mr. Javier, who lives with his three children, and others from their tribal homes, after having already cut off educational aid, health services, financial stipends — and whatever remained of what was once an expansive sense of community.
“The main thing is identity,” Mr. Javier said last week in the stove-heated living room of the three-bedroom tribal home he has lived in since 2010, a traditional cedar-woven hat hanging from the wall beside him. “Your whole life you think you are Nooksack, and then, bam, they are saying you are not Nooksack.”
In an Indigenous community that has always championed Native Americans’ sovereign rights and independence from federal oversight, the outcast Nooksack members are so outraged that they are petitioning the federal government to intervene. The Biden administration, which made a commitment to honoring tribal self-determination, now faces thorny questions over whether it should take the extraordinary step of challenging tribal sovereignty on an issue so fundamental as how the tribe chooses who gets to live on tribal lands.
“On the face of it, for sure we want sovereignty,” said Michelle Roberts, another expelled Nooksack member who faces eviction. “But when that sovereignty is used as a tool to bully people and take advantage of the system, to kick them out of their tribe or to take any kind of services or anything away from them, then that’s when it needs to be controlled somehow.”
A tribe of about 2,000 people, the Nooksack fought for decades, starting in the 1800s, for federal recognition and rights to the territory that they had long inhabited. The tribe now has trust land and a small reservation, bringing in revenue from a casino, a convenience store and a gas station. Tribal members have treaty rights to fish salmon along the namesake river that flows out of the Cascade Mountains.
Tribes around the country have moved in recent years to trim their membership rolls, scrutinizing family trees and cutting out those deemed to have tenuous or insufficient ties to tribal heritage in an effort to strengthen tribal identity. The disenrollment fights have escalated as casinos and other businesses have brought in new revenue, development, growth and job opportunities.
For the Nooksack, whose casino has not been a big money earner, the 306 members who have been purged say their family group was singled out for disenrollment by rivals who, the outcasts say, wanted to maintain tribal leadership and access to the lucrative tribal jobs that come with a grip on power. Opposing groups in the tribe have long feuded over those issues as control has swung from side to side.
Nooksack leaders have said the expelled people are descended from a tribal band based in Canada and should never have been enrolled. None of them had direct ancestors who were included in a crucial tribal census that was undertaken in 1942, and Ross Cline, the tribal chairman, who has led the eviction effort, said the tribal leadership’s responsibility now was to preserve the tribe’s land and resources for qualifying members.
“If your neighbor picks up the fence and moves it 10 feet onto your property, do you say that’s cool, or do you put up a fight about it?” he said.
The battle comes amid an affordable housing crisis across the West. With evictions targeting 21 homes that house 63 people, those facing removal — some of them 80 and older — say they do not know where they will go, especially now, with Washington State paralyzed with unusual instances of snow and cold weather.
The federal government, which funds tribal housing programs, asked the tribe last month to halt the evictions for 30 days in order to give the government time to review the situation.
“There are extremely concerning allegations of potential Civil Rights Act and Indian Civil Rights Act violations regarding these evictions,” Darryl LaCounte, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote in a letter to Mr. Cline.
But Mr. Cline said he had no interest in waiting, saying the request would merely delay the process of making tribal homes available for those who were actually enrolled.
“Last summer they would have said it was too hot to move,” Mr. Cline said. “Just before Easter, they would say it’s not a good time to move. Or July 4th. Pick any day close to some holiday or bad weather.”
Mr. Cline said the federal government was preparing to take on a fight that should rightly be a matter for the tribe to decide without outside interference.
“A very old term for B.I.A. is ‘Boss Indians Around,'” Mr. Cline said. “They have been doing that throughout the entire history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
Tribal enrollment disputes have previously escalated into national debates. In 2007, the Cherokee Nation voted to strip tribal citizenship rights from the descendants of Black people who had been enslaved by the tribes because they did not meet “blood” requirements established under the tribe’s constitution.
A court ruling later found that the so-called Cherokee Freedmen should have all the rights of tribal citizens under an 1866 treaty that granted citizenship to Cherokee slaves, and the tribe’s Supreme Court last year effectively altered the tribe’s Constitution to grant rights to the descendants.
But courts have largely prioritized tribal sovereignty. A landmark 1978 Supreme Court ruling blocked a lawsuit that challenged a discriminatory law adopted by the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, with justices writing that settling such disputes in federal court “would be at odds with the Congressional goal of protecting tribal self-government.”
In an email to federal officials last month, Mr. Cline cited that ruling.
“I am concerned about potential B.I.A. involvement in Nooksack governmental affairs,” he wrote to the bureau’s regional director, Bryan Mercier.
The bureau declined to elaborate on the letter it had sent seeking the 30-day delay on the Nooksack eviction issue.
The question of the family group singled out for disenrollment goes back to a woman named Annie George, who grew up in the Matsqui area of British Columbia, where the dispersed Nooksack tribe had one of its villages, her descendants say. Two of Ms. George’s daughters moved to the Nooksack tribal area in Washington State in the 1980s and enrolled as members. Those who have been disenrolled and who are now targeted for eviction are members of that extended family.
The George descendants were hardly on the periphery of the tribe; over the years, the family members gained political power, including positions on the tribal council. In 2000, their rivals accused them of commandeering control of the tribe and smuggling drugs from nearby British Columbia. They appealed to the federal government to intervene, and several of the extended George family members, including Mr. Javier, were subsequently indicted on federal drug charges.
Power shifted again in an election about a decade ago. The 306 disenrolled members believe the effort to oust them is an extension of this long-simmering rivalry.
Gabe Galanda, a lawyer representing the disenrolled members and a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, said the case had raised questions about due process, legal representation and civil rights. The affected families do not have lawyers to represent them in tribal court, he said, because the tribe has barred him and other legal representatives from appearing on their behalf.
Mr. Galanda said the request for federal intervention in the Nooksack case was not an attack on sovereignty but a recognition of the government’s moral obligation to prevent abuses of tribal leadership, through withholding of federal financial benefits if necessary.
The stakes are particularly high with the current threats of eviction because some of the people facing the loss of their homes have lease-to-own agreements under which they have built years of equity, Mr. Galanda said, although Mr. Cline disputes the terms.
Mr. Cline said such properties were intended to benefit only legitimate tribal members. Those now targeted for eviction have long been on notice, he said.
“These people knew four years ago that this was happening,” Mr. Cline said. “They chose to ignore it or hoped it would go away.”
Mr. Cline said the eviction process was scheduled to proceed within days for six families; more than a dozen other families will be removed later, he said.
Mr. Javier is first in line. He has trying to find an apartment where he might be able to move if the eviction takes place, as the tribal leadership vows it will, possibly next week.
The county, where Bellingham is the largest city, has experienced a dramatic increase in housing costs in recent years. Older residents facing eviction fear they will have trouble finding places that they can afford on fixed incomes.
From his front yard, Mr. Javier noted the location of Mr. Cline’s home just a few doors down the street.
“The hardest thing for me is growing up with all these people, you know what I mean?” he said. “Just to watch them turn from friends to the people that just ignore me. It’s just heartbreaking.”