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A Native American tribe asks some residents to leave

Federal officials are investigating the Nooksack tribe for potential civil rights violations

George Adams, a Nooksack tribal member, signals to canoeists from Canada in Birch Bay, Wash., in July 2009. Associated Press/Photo by Elaine Thompson, file

A Native American tribe asks some residents to leave

A fight over housing is roiling the Nooksack, a Native American tribe of about 2,000 people located in the northwestern corner of Washington state. The tribe wants to evict 63 former members from their homes on Nooksack property, but the disenrolled members say the tribe is violating their civil rights. A nine-year legal battle has pitted community members against one another and raised questions about the federal government’s right to intervene in tribal affairs.

In addition to dividing neighbors, some complain the dispute is unfairly giving the Nooksack a bad name. After The New York Times ran a Jan. 2 story reporting on the evictions and questioning whether the tribe was violating former members’ rights, Nooksack member Anna Brewer said people in the local community suddenly began approaching her and her children to disparage or question the tribe, although her children are not even enrolled members. “It’s dragging the tribe through the mud,” Brewer said. “Each tribal member is affected by this.”

In 2013, the Nooksack tribal council sought to disenroll 306 members who the council said could not adequately prove their ancestry. Native American tribes typically require members to prove their tribal ancestry to a specific degree, called meeting the “blood quantum.” Enrollment brings privileges and access to tribal resources. For the Nooksack tribe, that includes five housing sites on tribal land where members who qualify can live. The Nooksack 306, as they became known, appealed to tribal court to stop the disenrollment process, leading to a drawn-out legal battle. The tribe officially disenrolled them in 2018, although a lawyer for the residents, Gabriel Galanda, argues it did so against tribal court injunctions.

Because 63 of the 306 lived in Nooksack housing, the tribal council said they had to leave to make way for tribe members who needed it.

The tribe says it is simply correcting a past error, but Galanda said the tribal council is violating their civil rights and failing to give them due process. He told me by email that his 63 clients are being evicted from 21 homes, “most of which they either own outright or hold equity in under federal low-income homebuying programs.”

Tribal chairman Ross Cline, though, told The Seattle Times he disputed Galanda’s characterization and would prove it by documentation.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked the Nooksack tribe to pause the evictions to allow time for a civil rights investigation the department has launched, but the tribe said it would proceed anyway. The first family was ordered to vacate its home by Dec. 28, but harsh winter weather caused a delay.

The U.S. government gives Native American tribes sovereignty over their own affairs, but the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 forbids tribal governments from violating certain rights in making or enforcing laws. Normally, before a tribe member can appeal to federal court, he or she must exhaust the tribe’s appeals process through tribal court. The battle to disenroll the 306 has gone through multiple appeals, with the tribal council pushing for disenrollment and the Nooksack courts initially blocking it for procedural reasons.

Anna Brewer knows people among the disenrolled, and she said the fight has been painful and divisive. “It’s like a big wound opened in the tribe itself,” she said. Still, she sees the tribe as within its rights to clean up the membership rolls. “It’s important because it’s the truth. If you don’t have lineal descent or if you don’t come from a Nooksack ancestor, or enough to meet the requirements, the blood quantum, then you can’t be enrolled.”

Brewer called the situation “a quandary for me because I’m a Christian, and I want people to be living a good life and I want them to be happy and joyful. And this is not a joyful experience. This is very hard.” But she added, “The truth hurts sometimes, especially when things haven’t necessarily been done correctly in the past.”

Despite the delay from winter weather, several of the disenrolled families have already been served notices of eviction. They expect tribal police to force them out any day.

—WORLD has updated this story to clarify the description of the disenrollment case and tribal appeals process.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.



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