A long-running dispute over membership in the Nooksack Indian Tribe, based east of Bellingham, is flaring up again after several years of relative quiet.
The Nooksack government, which began an effort nearly a decade ago to disenroll more than 300 of the tribe’s roughly 2,000 members, is moving ahead with a multistep process leading toward the eviction of certain families from their homes.
Tribal police have visited a number of families in recent weeks to deliver notices related to that process, including at least one order to vacate, stirring consternation among the families during the pandemic and holiday season, and causing their Seattle lawyer to ask federal authorities to step in.
The possible evictions of the families stem from disenrollment — involving contested questions of ancestry, rather than missed rent or maintenance, according to their lawyer, Gabe Galanda, who’s alleging civil rights violations.
As of Thursday, two U.S. agencies had asked the tribe to press pause while they investigate. The Nooksack government is closed this week, but Ross Cline Sr., chair of the Tribal Council, said in an interview Friday, “As far as I know, we’re forging ahead.”
Most of the so-called “Nooksack 306” live off tribal property, but there are 21 households with 63 people vulnerable to eviction, including seniors and children, according to Galanda. Their homes have been subsidized by federal programs, including rent-to-own programs, he says.
“We’ve got thick skin from them attacking us, but this time it just seems to have a bit more teeth,” said Michelle Roberts, 57, who along with her husband is facing eviction from the home they’ve lived in for about 15 years. “They’re getting closer to kicking us out.”
Cline says the tribe is simply taking overdue action to enforce its rules. He worries Galanda’s aggressive lobbying may be winning over federal bureaucrats and says the lawyer, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, is meddling.
“He might be Indian but he doesn’t want Indians to have sovereignty,” Cline said about Galanda.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which Galanda argues has funded the relevant Nooksack homes, has sent several letters to the tribe “raising concerns about potential violations of the Indian Civil Rights Act as well as potential HUD programmatic compliance issues,” a HUD spokesperson said this week.
HUD referred the matter to the U.S. Department of the Interior in September, requesting at that time and more recently that the tribe hold off on the evictions until after a HUD review and Interior investigation, the spokesperson added.
An Interior spokesperson declined to comment this week, but Darryl LaCounte, the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs director, sent a letter with similar points to Cline on Thursday.
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs respects tribal sovereignty and supports tribal self-determination. We are also responsible for ensuring all applicable laws and regulations are adhered to in the execution of federal programs,” LaCounte’s letter says.
“We have been notified that the Nooksack Tribe has planned several evictions … [that] may include individuals who have purchased their homes under a lease with the Tribe and may involve [HUD] funding. There are extremely concerning allegations of potential Civil Rights Act and Indian Civil Rights Act violations,” the letter continues, asking the tribe to delay for at least 30 days.
The letter adds, “We understand that some of these individuals are elderly and evicting them in the winter months could have serious effects on their health and well-being.”
Asked about the letter Friday, Cline said the Nooksack Tribe is cooperating with the agencies by providing certain materials for review. He also referred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs as “BIA — Bossing Indians Around.”
In October, in response to an earlier letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cline described the allegations raised by Galanda as baseless.
He wrote, in part: “The Tribe has spent the past years attempting to strengthen its relationship with [the Department of the Interior]. … After years of progress, the Tribe is again forced to respond to vague allegations funneled through [the department].”
Earlier episodes in the dispute made the Nooksack 306 poster children for disenrollment across the country, and Galanda a leading opponent of the practice, which can involve struggles over power and resources, and questions about culture and identity.
Federal and state authorities normally don’t intervene in tribal affairs, because federal law and court rulings recognize tribes as sovereign. But various moves by the Nooksack government led the authorities a few years ago to withhold millions of dollars of funding.
Cline says the 306 were incorrectly enrolled in the 1980s and cannot prove their tribal lineage adequately, according to the tribe’s constitution and bylaws, and were legally disenrolled by the Tribal Council. There were disenrollment proceedings in 2016, with ratification by phone poll in 2018.
Nooksack members must trace their families back to a certain group of homesteaders or a 1942 census, Cline says, contending the 306 descend from a related band based in Canada and meet neither criteria.
The 306 and Galanda still dispute the disenrollments, however, both on the merits (of ancestry and documentation) and in terms of how the decisions were made (with 10-minute phone hearings at one point).
“My grandmother spoke the language. She was one of the last cedar basket weavers,” Roberts said. “We had the upbringing.”
Galanda contends his clients are unusually vulnerable with respect to their housing, because the Nooksack government has barred him and other adversarial lawyers not employed by the tribe from representing them in tribal affairs.
“Everybody needs to have human rights protection,” he said.
Cline says he wants to put the disenrollment battle to rest once and for all.
“The Nooksack Tribe has paid dearly for what little it has,” Cline said, arguing the continued integration of the 306 could pose a threat to the tribe’s cohesion. “In a way I guess you could call it genocide, making the blood thinner and thinner,” he said.
Complicating things, some families facing eviction include both enrolled and disenrolled members.
“I just canceled Christmas to save money” for possibly needing to move, said Saturnino Javier, 47, who received a 14-day notice to vacate on Dec. 13.
The tribe previously sought to evict one of the 306, but multiple lawsuits brought by Galanda held the housing matter in limbo for years, while the lawsuits were pending in U.S. courts, says Cline, who was elected in 2018. Those lawsuits were dismissed earlier this year on jurisdictional grounds.
“It was like dominoes falling, one after the other,” Cline said. “That cleared the way for us to start the eviction process. … I think all [the households with disenrolled members] will eventually be facing eviction.”
Only enrolled members are certified for tribal housing, according to the Nooksack government. Police delivering notices is “standard procedure” for the tribe, and there are opportunities during the decertification and eviction process for people to contest their cases, Cline says.
Galanda and his clients say the police visits — some outside business hours — are unnecessary and intimidating. They say the opportunities to contest their cases are window dressing.
“I want to say these are courtesy meetings,” Roberts said. “We don’t have any due process because we can’t have any representation.”
The HUD connection is crucial, Galanda contends, saying almost all the homes in question were developed as rent-to-own residences, which means his clients should own their homes or hold equity. Cline objects to that characterization and says documentation will demonstrate he’s right.
In recent weeks, Galanda has sought intervention from multiple agencies, even submitting an appeal to the “special rapporteur for adequate housing” at the United Nations. “I’ve been begging for help,” he said, describing the dispute as approaching a “breaking point.”
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