A bedsheet covers a window to provide a makeshift screen for PowerPoint presentations. Boxes crammed with files cover the kitchen counter...
MAPLE VALLEY —
A bedsheet covers a window to provide a makeshift screen for PowerPoint presentations. Boxes crammed with files cover the kitchen counter and dining-room table. A safe in the living room holds sensitive documents. This is the war room of the government in exile of the Snoqualmie Tribe, decamped to the home of one of its council members.
Finally recognized by the federal government in 1999, the tribe’s fledgling government faces a showdown: As many as 60 members are threatened with disenrollment, and some, including its chairman, may be banished. Tribal members will vote on their fate Sunday.
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Bill Sweet, elected tribal chairman last May, says the feud pits family against family and threatens the golden goose that started it all: a casino under construction, just a half-hour from Seattle. To pay for it, the tribe borrowed $330 million from investors who likely know little of the drama unfolding.
The stakes are high: control of this tiny tribe of 637 members, and their casino just off Interstate 90, which promises to capture a lucrative share of the Seattle market. The venture could catapult the tribe into the ranks of some of the wealthiest tribes in the region.
Two tribal councils each claim to be the only legitimate government of the tribe. Each has issued proclamations declaring itself to be the only body that can sign checks, contracts and transact official business.
Both bodies continue to meet. Sweet and ousted council members meet in the Maple Valley home of tribal Vice Chairman Carolyn Lubenau. The others meet in the tribe’s administrative offices, where the locks have been changed, barring Sweet and others ousted in September. Each side claims the others’ elections were invalid.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has so far declined to arbitrate the dispute but has cut off further funding to the tribe. Stanley Speaks, the BIA’s regional director in Portland, said it’s up to Sweet to exert his authority as chairman.
“If he is the chairman he just needs to stand up and take charge and conduct business,” Speaks said.
Such tribal infighting has become common in California, where tribes new to casino wealth have been disenrolling members in droves, in part to save a larger share of gambling largesse for the members who survive the purges.
As tribal casinos have become a $1.3 billion business in Washington state, several Puget Sound tribes have restricted enrollment. The Puyallups have even shut out new members, other than by birth.
Some Snoqualmie tribal members who trace their genealogy back six generations say they are astonished to find their membership at risk.
As for banishment, it is the most devastating blow a tribe can strike. It eliminates tribal members’ ability to vote and enjoy government benefits, including health care and housing. But it goes much further, barring members from their tribal land and expunging their very tribal identity.
“It’s as if you are erased, like you never existed,” said Vice Chairwoman Lubenau, who faces banishment Sunday.
But Jerry Enick, honorary chief of the tribe and leader of the other group, said banishment is appropriate punishment for those running an “illegal shadow government.”
Meanwhile, Matt Mattson, tribal administrator, said day-to-day operations of the tribe are proceeding as usual. The funding for the casino is secure and it’s set to open on time in November, Mattson said.
He said the tribe is taking the membership dispute into its own hands: “The tribe has its process for discipline and will present that to the membership for a vote.”
For Sweet and other ousted council members, banishment is like “genocide.”
“How else can you call it when they are pulling you apart, and systematically tearing you apart,” Sweet said.
Sweet and other council members say they have kept quiet about the dispute for fear of destabilizing investor confidence and financing for the casino.
“I don’t want to break up the casino, but I’m left with no other way to do it,” Sweet said. “It’s the greed that’s come in, there’s no other way to get them to see it. What we have to do is get the control back.”
But the majority of tribal members, Mattson said, don’t recognize Sweet’s authority and signed a recall petition to drive him out of office. “The way the tribe sees it, Bill is just throwing a tantrum,” Mattson said.
Disenrollments are necessary because of newcomers suddenly claiming Snoqualmie ancestry, now that the tribe has a casino soon to open, Mattson said.
Tribal elder Phyllis Rose, 68, with several family members whose standing in the tribe is on the line Sunday, said the situation saddens her.
“It’s the power trip of the casino,” Rose said. “The Snoqualmie people when we were growing up was a family, we were very close.”
For tribal members facing disenrollment and even banishment, the dispute couldn’t be more personal — or threatening.
The Snoqualmies, unlike some tribes, have no tribal court to arbitrate such disputes. The BIA, other federal agencies and state government don’t get involved in tribal enrollment or banishment proceedings. Tribal members crosswise with their governments have nowhere to turn.
To Lubenau, what’s happening at Snoqualmie is an issue much bigger than her tiny tribe.
“No tribe should be allowed to do this to their people. Where does the minority go for protection?”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org