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A tribe’s bitter purge brings an unusual request: federal intervention

For decades, Javier and his family have
seen the tribe in northern Washington 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 mobilised
its police force to begin removing 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,” 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 honouring 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, scrutinising 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.

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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, tribal chair, 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 neighbour 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 paralysed 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, director of the Bureau
of Indian Affairs, wrote in a letter to Cline.

But 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,” Cline said. “Just before Easter, they would say it’s not
a good time to move. Or July Fourth. Pick any day close to some holiday or bad
weather.”

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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 BIA is ‘Boss
Indians Around,’ ” Cline said. “They have been doing that throughout the entire
history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Tribal enrolment 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 prioritised
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, Cline cited that ruling.

“I am concerned about potential BIA
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 George’s daughters moved to
the Nooksack tribal area in Washington 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 edge 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 Javier, were
subsequently indicted on federal drug charges.

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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 impacted 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.

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, Galanda said, although Cline disputes the terms.

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,” Cline said. “They chose to ignore it or hoped it would go away.”

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.

Javier is first in line. He has been
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, Javier noted the
location of 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.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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