The Bitter Purge of a Tribe Resulted in an Unusual Request: Federal Intervention.
The Nooksack tribe is evicting individuals who remain in tribal housing after eliminating 306 persons from its rolls. The conflict has prompted debates over individual rights and tribal autonomy.
A dozen extended family members gathered last week in the snow-covered driveway of Saturnino Javier's home with cedar and animal leather drums, intoning the religious melodies they had learned growing up in the Nooksack Indian Tribe.
Mr. Javier and his family have regarded the tribe in northern Washington State as their people and home for decades. However, they are now among over 300 persons being disowned by the tribe, having lost a bitter disenrollment battle that has torn families apart and left scores of people facing eviction in the dead of winter in Washington.
Mr. Javier and his three children have been removed from their tribal houses in recent days after the tribe cut off educational aid, health care, cash stipends, and whatever remained of what was once an expansive feeling of community.
"The most important thing is identification," Mr. Javier said last week in the stove-heated living room of the three-bedroom tribal home he has called home since 2010, a traditional cedar-woven hat hung beside him on the wall. "Your entire life, you believe you are Nooksack, and then, boom, they tell you that you are not."
The outcast in an Indigenous society that has long fought for Native Americans' sovereign rights and freedom from government scrutiny Members of Nooksack are furious and have petitioned the federal government to act. The Biden administration, which pledged to respect tribal self-determination, now faces difficult decisions about whether to take the extraordinary step of challenging tribal sovereignty over an issue as fundamental as who gets to live on tribal territory.
"On the surface, we desire sovereignty," Michelle Roberts, another expelled Nooksack member facing eviction, stated. "However, when sovereignty is used to intimidate individuals and exploit the system, to drive them out of their tribe or to take away any form of service or property from them, it needs to be managed in some way."
The Nooksack, a tribe of approximately 2,000 people, struggled for decades, beginning in the early 1800s, for federal recognition and rights to the region they had long inhabited. The tribe presently owns trust land and a small reserve, with money generated by a casino, convenience shop, and gas station. Members of the tribe enjoy treaty rights to fish salmon along the river's namesake, which originates in the Cascade Mountains.
Tribes throughout the country have been reducing their membership rolls in recent years, analyzing family trees and eliminating those with flimsy or insufficient ties to tribal lineage in an effort to strengthen tribal identity. Disenrollment battles have intensified as additional revenue, development, growth, and job possibilities have been generated by casinos and other industries.
For the Nooksack, whose casino has not generated much revenue, the 306 purged members claim their family group was picked out for disenrollment by rivals seeking to retain tribal leadership and access to lucrative tribe employment associated with a hold on power. Throughout the tribe's history, opposing clans have feuded over those problems as control has swung from side to side.
According to Nooksack authorities, the ejected individuals are descended from a Canadian-based tribal band and should never have been enrolled. None of them had direct relatives included in a pivotal 1942 tribal census, and Ross Cline, the tribal chairman who has led the eviction drive, said the tribe's leadership's obligation now was to safeguard the tribe's land and resources for eligible members.
"Do you say it's fine if your neighbor lifts up the fence and moves it 10 feet onto your land, or do you oppose it?" he said.
The conflict occurs against the backdrop of a widespread affordable housing crisis in the Western Hemisphere. With evictions targeting 21 properties that house 63 individuals, those facing eviction — some of whom are 80 years old or older — say they have no idea where they will go, especially now that Washington State has been paralyzed by unusually cold and snowy weather.
The federal government, which funds tribal housing programs, requested last month that the tribe pause evictions for 30 days to allow the agency to conduct an assessment of the issue.
"There are exceedingly troubling claims of potential Civil Rights Act and Indian Civil Rights Act breaches in connection with these evictions," Darryl LaCounte, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote to Mr. Cline in a letter.
Mr. Cline, on the other hand, stated that he had no intention of waiting, claiming that the request would just postpone the process of making tribal homes available to people who were already enrolled.
"They would have stated it was too hot to move last summer," Mr. Cline explained. "Just before Easter, they would advise against moving. Alternatively, July 4th. Choose any day that is close to a holiday or has inclement weather."
Mr. Cline stated that the federal government was poised to enter a struggle that should, in all fairness, be decided by the tribe without outside interference.
"An evocative term for B.I.A. is 'Boss Indians Awaiting,'" Mr. Cline explained. "They have been doing that for the duration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' existence."
Disputes over tribal enrollment have frequently erupted into national discussions. In 2007, the Cherokee Nation voted to deny tribal citizenship to descendants of Black people who were enslaved by the tribes because they did not match the tribe's "blood" requirements.
Later, a court determined that the so-called Cherokee Freedmen should enjoy all tribal citizenship rights under an 1866 treaty that awarded citizenship to Cherokee slaves, and the tribe's Supreme Court effectively amended the tribe's Constitution last year to grant descendants rights.
However, courts have often placed a premium on tribal sovereignty. In a historic 1978 Supreme Court decision, the justices barred a lawsuit challenging a discriminatory ordinance adopted by the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, noting that resolving such issues in federal court "would be inconsistent with Congress's aim of maintaining tribal selfgovernment."
Mr. Cline highlighted that ruling in a communication to federal officials last month.
"I am concerned about possible B.I.A. engagement in Nooksack governmental matters," he wrote to Bryan Mercier, the bureau's regional director.
The agency declined to comment on its letter requesting a 30-day delay in the Nooksack eviction proceeding.
The issue of the family group singled out for disenrollment dates all the way back to a woman named Annie George, who grew up in the Matsqui area of British Columbia, where her descendants say the dispersed Nooksack tribe had one of its communities. In the 1980s, two of Ms. George's daughters relocated to the Nooksack tribal region in Washington State and became members. Members of that extended family are those who have been disenrolled and are now being pursued for eviction.
The George descendants were not on the tribe's fringe; over time, family members attained political prominence, including places on the tribal council. Their adversaries accused them in 2000 of seizing control of the tribe and transporting drugs from neighboring British Columbia. They petitioned the federal government for intervention, and numerous members of the extended George family, including Mr. Javier, were later charged with federal narcotics offenses.
Around a decade ago, a new election resulted in a change in power. The 306 disenrolled members think their ouster is a continuation of a long-simmering feud.
Gabe Galanda, an attorney for the disenrolled members and a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, stated that the case posed issues of due process, legal representation, and civil rights. According to him, the impacted families lack legal representation in tribal court since the tribe has prevented him and other legal representatives from participating on their behalf.
Mr. Galanda stated that the plea for federal participation in the Nooksack case was not an attack on sovereignty, but rather an acknowledgment of the government's moral obligation to prevent tribal leadership abuses, including withholding federal financial assistance if necessary.
The stakes are particularly high in light of the current eviction threats, Mr. Galanda explained, because some of those facing eviction have lease-to-own arrangements under which they have created years of equity, although Mr. Cline disputes the terms.
Mr. Cline stated that such properties were intended for legitimate tribal members only. Those currently facing eviction have been warned for a long time, he explained.
"These individuals were aware four years ago that this was occurring," Mr. Cline stated. "They opted to disregard it or thought it would vanish."
Mr. Cline stated that the eviction procedure for six families was scheduled to begin within days; he added that more than a dozen additional households would be removed later.
Mr. Javier takes his place at the front of the line. He has been looking for an apartment in which he might be able to relocate if the tribe leadership's threatened eviction occurs next week.
Bellingham, the county's largest city, has seen a substantial surge in housing expenses in recent years. Elderly residents facing eviction think they will have difficulty finding affordable housing on fixed incomes.
Mr. Javier noticed the location of Mr. Cline's residence just a few doors down the street from his front yard.
"The most difficult part for me is growing up with all these folks," he explained. "It's been fascinating to watch them devolve from buddies to folks who simply ignore me. It's harrowing."