Disenrolled from the Nooksack nation, families fear eviction

Twenty-six disenrolled Nooksack citizens live in federally funded housing. The tribal council says those homes are for enrolled citizens only.

Michelle Roberts in her home in Deming, Wash.

Michelle Roberts in her home in Deming, Wash., on Monday, June 6, 2022. The Nooksack tribal council is demanding she and others leave tribal land. The council has been disenrolling families and is trying to evict citizens from their homes on the reservation, including elders who have lived in them their entire lives. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

As a young girl, Elizabeth “Libby” James was placed in a residential school in British Columbia with her sisters, Louise and Emma Rose, in the late 1920s-early 1930s, according to their family’s oral histories. Missing home and desperate to flee the abuse they saw and experienced there, they jumped from a second-story window and ran away. When they finally made it home, their family decided to move so their children wouldn’t be taken from them again. 

Almost a century later, in 2016, 306 of their descendants have been disenrolled from the nation they called family: the Nooksack Indian Nation. The disenrolled became known as the Nooksack 306. Now, 26 of them, ages 3 to 86, are facing eviction from seven homes on tribal lands. The Nooksack tribal council argues that the housing they are living in is for tribal members only.

Michelle Roberts, 57, is Libby’s granddaughter and one of the disenrolled 306. Now an elder and a family matriarch, she is shuffling all the papers, scanning all the necessary documents for each family member to get to their attorney, organizing the family, talking to the media and even peacemaking within the family. 

Money and power

When the push to disenroll 305 of Roberts’ family members began, Roberts had just been elected to the Nooksack tribal council, where her cousin Rudy St. Germain also sat. Her family has a history of leadership within the tribe. Her cousin, Narcisco Cunanan, served the council as vice chair and then chair for about 12 years until he was replaced by Bob Kelly in 2010.

Roberts enrolled in 1993, after her dad and grandma were enrolled in 1983. She moved to the reservation in 2007 with her husband so they could retire close to her family. With more of the family living on the reservation, their voting power grew. With voting power comes leadership positions, and with leadership positions, especially for a nation with a casino, comes money. Money and power are the reasons many of the Nooksack 306 believe they were targeted for disenrollment. 

“I wasn't really a political person,” Roberts said. “It was never my intention to come up here and and get into the political pool, but there's stuff that needed to be done and the family asked me and some of the people around here trusted me and said, ‘You know, if you run, we would support you.’” 

Roberts took her oath of office in March of 2012. A year into Roberts’ council tenure, Kelly started his inquiry into her family and began claiming they were not Nooksack—they're Canadian. By January 2014 she and her cousin were removed from the council. 

Indigenous rights attorney Gabe Galanda wears a bracelet for the Nooksack 306, which he dons anytime he is working on something related to the case. (Grant Hindsley/Crosscut)

Threats to judicial independence

Council elections were supposed to have taken place in February 2016, but were stalled by the council to prevent the Nooksack 306, who were facing disenrollment, from voting. Tribal Court Chief Judge Susan Alexander ruled that the tribe could not prevent them from voting while they are still members of the tribe. Alexander was crafting a request to compel elections, but was fired before she could issue it. The National American Indian Court Judges Association decried Judge Alexander’s termination as “a clear threat to judicial independence.” 

Kelly later told The Bellingham Herald, “The actual reason that we fired her was that she had waived the tribe’s sovereign immunity on an issue that wasn’t even before the court and without a hearing.” Alexander addressed this claim in a memo to the Herald explaining that the tribe never requested a hearing, and that “If I exceeded my authority, then that was a proper subject for reconsideration or for appeal.”

By 2018, the Nooksack Tribal Court of Appeals observed that "the rule of law on the reservation, at least within the scope of this case, has completely broken down” after efforts to require the Nooksack court clerk to accept pleadings filed for the Nooksack 306 failed. Efforts to hold the court clerk in contempt also failed because tribal police refused to arrest the clerk. The police chief was then also found to be in contempt during this time, but that decision also made no difference. The court’s refusal to accept any of the Nooksack 306’s pleadings had a huge impact on the Nooksack family's ability to have their cases heard in Nooksack tribal court.

“They're working backwards,” Roberts said. “That's why it's so hard to accept because we know that they've made all these changes just to target us to make it look like we won't qualify.”

Complicated evictions

Roberts was shocked about how swiftly things changed. “This community was very close, kind of intimate because we're such a small tribe too,” Roberts said. She pointed outside her dining-room window to a building just a short walk from her home. “We have a community building down there. The casinos would host a community breakfast and everybody would come and share a meal, talk, and socialize. Our families are so huge we'd have a lot of parties too. If there was a birthday or Easter or something, we'd always have a big [party] down at the community center for all the families to come. Everybody's welcome and everybody showed up. You didn't have to have an invitation. There was no exclusion. It was all very close.”

Roberts and her family are now mostly isolated from the tribe, but she says they still have one another. Her father, aunties, uncles and cousins don’t want to lose the support system they have created, facilitated by living in homes walking distance from each other. 

The seven households facing eviction were supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Native American housing dollars as well as federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC) assistance. After a 15-year tenancy, they are supposed to receive the deed to their home. By 2021, most of the seven LIHTC homes had been in the program at least 15 years, some much longer, yet none of the heads of households received deeds to the homes. 

The Washington State Housing Finance Commission would typically enforce the rules of this federal “rent-to-own” program, and could possibly have intervened in this case. The WSHFC did tell the Nooksack housing agency that it was out of compliance with federal and state LIHTC laws, but on March 11 director Steve Walker said he won’t stop the evictions. 

A lawsuit filed against the WSHFC on March 16 asserts that the state agency neglected to maintain proper oversight of the low-income housing program. 

WSHFC communications manager Margret Graham told Crosscut, “The commission is sympathetic to the situation these individuals are facing, but their disenrollment lies at the heart of the tribe’s authority and well outside the commission’s jurisdiction.”

Graham’s response echoes that of HUD and DOI, which have called for an end to the evictions but refuse to take any action, citing Nooksack sovereignty or self-determination. Washington state has called the evictions a “federal issue,” and the White House deflects to the departments of the Interior and Housing and Urban Development. Even after the United Nations called for action against the evictions, no action was taken. 

“Regarding the two volunteers with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights: we have yet to hear from them,” said Tribal Chair Ross Cline Sr., in the press release. “They never contacted Nooksack. They never investigated the facts. They never even published a report. They posted a press release riddled with misinformation. We repeat our request to the United Nations to support the sovereignty of all nations, including the Nooksack Tribe. These two Special Rapporteurs did not visit Nooksack, did not speak with the Nooksack people, and they do not seem to understand or respect the sovereignty of Native American tribes. We again demand a full retraction.”

Homes in Michelle Roberts' neighborhood, where her other family members also live, in Deming, Wash., on Monday, June 6, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/ Crosscut)

Indigenous human rights

Wilkins believes Indigenous people should be the most protected class of citizens in the country, because they have three layers of citizenship: as American citizens, citizens of their state and of their sovereign nation. 

“And yet it's our Native citizenship that makes us the weakest in terms of our own identity from the federal government's perspective,” Wilkins said. “If my rights as a Lumbee are being violated by my tribe, I'm going to first go to my tribe to try and get that resolved internally because I support tribal sovereignty. But if I feel that the tribal court is not going to provide a fair and honest hearing for me, I should have the right as a citizen of the state and the federal government to step outside of my tribe.”

Wilkins believes that most Indigenous peoples wouldn’t attempt to seek state or federal support out of allegiance to their own nation, but that the option should be open when proven human rights violations occur. He believes state and federal avoidance is yet another calculated action in a long history of forced assimilation tactics. 

“The federal government intervened and interfered throughout history in tribal membership matters,” Wilkins said. “The federal government has now stepped back completely, and is allowing the disenrollment epidemic to continue to sweep on because it really suits the interests of a lot of U.S. politicians.”

Renters v. homeowners

In April, the Nooksack Indian Nation filed a response to the housing lawsuit against state housing authorities. The tribe claims the families facing eviction are renters who were never given a tenant purchase option. “Tenants seek injunctive relief which would maintain their continued illegal occupancy upon Tribal lands and prevent the Tribe from utilizing its lands as the Tribe sees fit,” the response said.

Elile Adams, a citizen of the Lummi Nation and sister of Cathalina Barril, one of the disenrolled 306, worked for Nooksack Indian Housing Authority (NIHA) from 2006 to 2011. In an August affidavit, she rebuffed claims by the Nooksack Indian Tribe that those facing eviction were simply renters by detailing her work for those participating in the federal LIHTC program at the Nooksack Indian Housing Authority. “The tenant/homebuyer was told by me that their homes would be conveyed on the 15-year anniversary date of when it was occupied,” Adams wrote in the affidavit. 

Saturnino Javier, one of the Nooksack 306 facing eviction, also formally responded to the Nooksack Indian Tribe’s claims that he was a renter, not a homebuyer, with proof of housing agreements and a signed LIHTC lease that he believes has placed his home in the LIHTC program since 2008.

Since he was disenrolled, Javier tried to transfer ownership to his son, Saturnino Javier, Jr., who is still a Nooksack tribal citizen, so his family would maintain eligibility for their home; but, “For what can only be described as malice, NIHA will not accept transferring the head of household status to my son despite it being allowed,” Javier wrote. 

Nooksack leadership did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Cathalina Barril in her home in Bellingham on Monday, June 6, 2022. The council disenrolled Barril and evicted her from her home. The Nooksack tribal council says she and other citizens were mistakenly enrolled in the tribe and aren't entitled to housing. (Amanda Snyder/ Crosscut)

Loss of legal advocacy

Indigenous rights attorney Gabe Galanda, a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and founder of Indigenous rights law firm Galanda Broadman, was contacted in March 2012 by a family from the Nooksack 306. He had started his law firm just over a year earlier, but decided not to accept their calls because he believed that tribal enrollment, or disenrollment in this case, is Nooksack’s prerogative as a sovereign nation. 

Eventually he agreed to meet with a delegation from the family and they changed his mind. “These women are Nooksack. This is insane. I took on the case, and I've been fighting for them ever since,” Galanda said.

Through multiple injunctions, Galanda was able to block the council from disenrolling them until 2016, when the opposing counsel, Nooksack Tribal Attorney Raymond Dodge, Jr., had Galanda disbarred from practicing law within the Nooksack system. Any other attorney who did not represent the tribe and support its disenrollment efforts was no longer allowed to practice law in Nooksack courts. 

The Nooksack court of appeals later overruled his disbarment because he hadn’t been given proper notice. In response, the tribal council formed a supreme court, which consisted of the tribal council, and vacated the decision of the court of appeals. “It's so destructive and hurtful, not just to these relatives, but to tribal courts in general,” Galanda said. 

A new Tribal Court Pro Tem judge, Charles Hostnik, has now enforced a rule that blocks Galanda from helping his clients write their court papers. 

Galanda contacted the only two attorneys on the Nooksack Tribal Bar Current Advocates List' to inquire if they could represent his clients, but both declined because they are employed by the tribe. Galanda was able to obtain representation by Northwest Justice Project for two low-income households. The other five households remain unrepresented because the tribe will not license any new attorneys not in line with their eviction efforts. 

“I've been shouting this from the rooftops for six years now,” Galanda said. “How can you expect these relatives, some who cannot read legalese very well, some elders who have dementia and don't even know what's happening, how can you expect them to possibly contend with this if they don't have a lawyer?”

Michelle Roberts holds a basket made by her grandmother in her home in Deming, Wash., on Monday, June 6, 2022. Roberts is both Filipino and Native American. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Last hope

The Washington Supreme Court decided in mid-September it would not hear the Nooksack 306 eviction appeal. With this decision, Galanda worries there may not be another opportunity to challenge the evictions in state court. Now their case heads back to Nooksack tribal court, where Galanda is barred from practicing law and all previous appeals from the disenrolled have been rejected. 

“There's no way to even get a ruling on their fundamental rights like we've been fighting for 10 years,” Galanda said. “It’s not as if they’ve had their day in court and it was decided they weren’t [Nooksack], or someone decided they didn't own their home. They don't even get a day in court.”

The hope the families may have had to hold on to their homes was largely diminished by this ruling. But Galanda says he’s not giving up. He holds out hope that the Tribal Court Pro Tem Judge will halt the evictions or not allow his clients’ homes to be taken without compensation. 

Roberts is concerned that it may come down to a physical removal of her family soon, which has her on edge. Roberts grew up understanding the trauma and violence that her grandmother Libby and others endured, but never thought she would experience the violence of assimilation practices in her lifetime, especially by her own people. 

“I don't wish this upon anybody, to be treated this way by their own tribe, with their own people…” Roberts’ voice shakes and trails off a bit before she continues, “The ultimate goal is to get rid of disenrollment nationwide. Stripping people away from their identity and where they belong has to stop.”

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