Bitter tribal purge leads to unusual demand: federal intervention
EVERSON, Wash .– In the snow-covered driveway of Saturnino Javier’s home, a dozen extended family members gathered last week with drums formed from cedar and animal skin, singing the prayer songs they they had learned growing up in the Nooksack Indian tribe.
For decades, Mr. Javier and his family have considered the tribe of northern Washington State to be their people, their home. But they are now among more than 300 people who are being disowned by the tribe, on the losing side of a bitter opt-out battle that has torn families apart and left dozens threatened with eviction in the middle of winter on colder in Washington in years.
In recent days, the tribe has mobilized its police force to start expelling Mr. Javier, who lives with his three children, and others from their tribal homes, after already cutting education aid, services health care, financial allowances – and all that was left of what was once a vast sense of community.
“The main thing is identity,” Javier said last week in the stove-heated living room of the three-bedroom tribal house he has lived in since 2010, a traditional cedar-woven hat hanging on the wall next to him. “All your life you think you’re Nooksack, and then, bam, they say you’re not Nooksack.”
In an Indigenous community that has always defended the sovereign rights of Native Americans and their independence from federal oversight, the outcast members of Nooksack are so outraged that they are calling on the federal government to intervene. The Biden administration, which is committed to honoring tribal self-determination, now faces thorny questions as to whether it should take the extraordinary step of challenging tribal sovereignty over an issue as fundamental as how the tribe chooses who should live on the tribal lands.
âAt first glance, of course we want sovereignty,â said Michelle Roberts, another expelled member of Nooksack who is at risk of expulsion. “But when that sovereignty is used as a tool to intimidate people and take advantage of the system, kick them out of their tribe or take away any kind of service or whatever, then that’s when he has to. be controlled in one way or another. “
A tribe of around 2,000 people, the Nooksack fought for decades, starting in the 1800s, for federal recognition and rights to the land they long inhabited. The tribe now has land in trust and a small reserve, generating income from a casino, convenience store, and gas station. Tribe members have treaty rights to fish for salmon along the river of the same name that flows out of the Cascade Mountains.
Tribes across the country have moved in recent years to downsize, examine family trees, and remove those deemed to have weak or insufficient ties to tribal heritage in an effort to strengthen tribal identity. Struggles against unsubscribing have intensified as casinos and other businesses generate new revenue, development, growth, and employment opportunities.
For the Nooksack, whose casino has not been a big source of revenue, the 306 members who were purged say their family group was chosen to be deregistered by rivals who the outcasts wanted to maintain tribal leadership. and access lucrative tribal jobs. that come with a grip on power. Opposing tribal groups have long argued over these issues as control shifted from side to side.
Nooksack leaders said the deportees were descendants of a tribal band based in Canada and should never have been enlisted. None of them had direct ancestors included in a crucial tribal census that was carried out in 1942, and Ross Cline, the tribe’s president, who led the eviction effort, said the responsibility of tribal leaders was now to preserve the lands and resources of the tribe for eligible members.
“If your neighbor picks up the fence and moves it 10 feet on your property, do you say it’s cool, or do you fight about it?” ” he said.
The battle comes amid an affordable housing crisis across the West. With evictions targeting 21 homes housing 63 people, those facing eviction – some 80 and over – say they don’t know where they will go, especially now with Washington state crippled by cases unusual snow and cold.
The federal government, which funds tribal housing programs, last month asked the tribe to suspend evictions for 30 days to give the government time to reconsider the situation.
“There are extremely concerning allegations of potential violations of the Civil Rights Act and Indian Civil Rights Act in relation to these deportations,” Darryl LaCounte, 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 only delay the process of making tribal homes available to those who were actually registered.
âLast summer they would have said it was too hot to move,â said Mr. Cline. âRight before Easter, they were saying now is not a good time to move. Or July 4th. Pick any day close to vacation or bad weather.
Mr Cline said the federal government was preparing to engage in a fight that should rightly be the hands of the tribe without outside interference.
âA very old term for BIA is ‘Boss Indians Around’,â Mr. Cline said. “They have done this throughout the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
Tribal registration disputes have already degenerated into national debates. In 2007, the Cherokee Nation voted to remove tribal citizenship rights from descendants of blacks who had been enslaved by the tribes because they did not meet the âbloodâ requirements established by the tribal constitution.
A court ruling later concluded 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 Tribal Supreme Court effectively changed the last year the constitution of the tribe to grant rights to descendants.
But the courts have largely favored tribal sovereignty. A landmark 1978 Supreme Court ruling blocked a lawsuit challenging a discriminatory law passed by the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, with justices writing that resolving such disputes in federal court “would contradict the purpose of Congress to protect tribal self-government. “
In an email to federal officials last month, Mr. Cline cited the decision.
“I am concerned about the potential involvement of the BIA in the government affairs of Nooksack,” he wrote to the office’s regional director, Bryan Mercier.
The office declined to give details of the letter it sent requesting the 30-day deadline on the issue of Nooksack’s eviction.
The issue of which family group was chosen for deregistration dates back to a woman named Annie George, who grew up in the Matsqui region 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 signed up as members. Those who have been deregistered and are now targeted for deportation are members of this extended family.
George’s descendants were hardly on the outskirts of the tribe; over the years, family members gained political power, including tribal council positions. In 2000, their rivals accused them of requisitioning control of the tribe and drug trafficking from neighboring British Columbia. They called on the federal government to intervene and several of George’s extended family members, including Mr. Javier, were subsequently charged with federal drug charges.
Power changed again in an election a decade ago. The 306 unsubscribed members believe the effort to oust them is an extension of this long-simmering rivalry.
Gabe Galanda, an attorney representing unsubscribed members and a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, said the case raised questions about due process, legal representation and civil rights. 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 by tribal leaders, denying them where necessary. federal financial benefits.
The stakes are especially high with the current eviction threats, as some of those facing the loss of their homes have capital leases under which they have accumulated years of equity, Mr Galanda said, although that Mr. Cline is contesting the conditions. .
Mr. Cline said these properties were meant to benefit only legitimate tribesmen. Those now targeted for deportation have long been warned, he said.
âThese people knew four years ago that this was happening,â Mr. Cline said. “They chose to ignore him or hoped he would go away.”
Mr Cline said the eviction process had to take place within days for six families; more than a dozen other families will be wiped out later, he said.
Mr. Javier is on the front line. He has been trying to find an apartment he can move to if the eviction takes place, as tribal leaders have promised, perhaps next week.
The county, where Bellingham is the largest city, has seen a dramatic increase in housing costs in recent years. Older residents facing eviction fear they will struggle to find housing they can afford on a fixed income.
From his front yard, Mr. Javier noted the location of Mr. Cline’s house 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. âJust to watch them go from friends to people who just ignore me. It’s just heartbreaking.