Underscore.news and Indian Country Today

The federal government is investigating the Nooksack Tribe of Washington for potential civil rights and other violations as the tribe proceeds with evicting more than 60 formerly enrolled citizens who had been among hundreds disenrolled.

The tribe is set to begin evictions on Dec. 28 of the 61 former tribal citizens and two of their enrolled children, who live in 21 federally funded homes on Nooksack tribal land. They are the last of a group of 306 who gained national attention when they were disenrolled from the tribe in 2018 and still lived on tribal lands.

The tribe says the former tribal citizens must vacate their homes because a tribal policy change in 2019 that prohibited non-tribal citizens from living in tribal housing, and that the homes in question are needed for Nooksack citizens.

The disenrolled group’s lawyer, Gabe Galanda, still contests the legitimacy of the disenrollments.

“They're being faced with losing houses that have been in their family for generations without anywhere to go,” said Galanda, a citizen of Round Valley Indian Tribes. “It's not because they didn't pay their rent. It's not because they weren't keeping their premises in some tidy fashion. It’s not because they have cars in the front yard or anything like that. It’s because they were purportedly disenrolled.”

The evictions are fraudulent, Galanda alleged, because the residents have been denied due process and, in all but one case, have lease-to-own agreements with the tribe for the federal Housing and Urban Development-assisted homes.

Galanda said many have completed the required lease period, meaning they should own those homes outright, or at least have equity in them if they haven’t completed the 15-year lease agreement. The tribe has refused to provide documentation, he said.

Those concerns have prompted the federal government to seek a delay in the evictions until an investigation can be completed.

Underscore.news and Indian Country Today reviewed letters, emails and other correspondence from the last several months, provided by Galanda, who is included in the correspondence, along with HUD, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of the Interior and tribal Chairman Ross Cline.

The Interior Department, after hearing complaints and concerns about the process from HUD, has started an investigation to determine whether the evictions would violate any federal law or the Indian Civil Rights Act. HUD has also asked the tribe to delay any evictions related to the disenrolled members until the investigation is complete.

“HUD has expressed concern as to whether the outlined actions taken by the Tribe are resulting in the individuals being denied due process or their property being illegally taken,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said in an Oct. 5 letter to the tribe announcing the investigation. “The Department takes HUD’s concern seriously and will review the situation to ensure that the Tribe is in compliance with the ICRA and Federal law.”

Still, the Nooksack Tribe has moved forward with the eviction process, claiming it hasn’t violated any laws and that those being evicted are allowed to participate in a hearing and appeal process like anyone else. Cline did not respond to an email requesting comment or an interview.

But in a Dec. 9 email to Newland, Cline said he was “concerned about potential BIA involvement in Nooksack governmental affairs,” adding that the legality of the evictions had already been cleared by various courts.

“The Nooksack Tribal members are in need of housing,” Cline said in his email. “In closing, I must ask if BIA trust responsibility resides with the tribe or with non-Indian individuals?”

The BIA didn’t respond to an email seeking additional information. An Interior Department spokesman, when asked to confirm the investigation or provide additional details, said, “Nothing from us on this.”

A HUD spokesperson, in an emailed response to questions, likewise did not provide details beyond those already contained in letters and correspondence reviewed by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today.

Disenrollment Controversy

The evictions are the most recent event in a yearslong saga that began in 2013 after tribal leaders said an elder, Annie George, was not listed on a 1942 census, among other issues, making all 306 of her descendants enrolled in the tribe ineligible for citizenship.

The “Nooksack 306” were officially disenrolled in 2018, and the 63 people now facing eviction are the last of the group still living on tribal land, Galanda said.

Galanda said tribal leaders who supported the disenrollment have stacked the tribe’s court system with judges and lawyers favorable to their viewpoints, severely limited the number of attorneys admitted to practice law in the courts on behalf of tribal citizens, fired a judge who had previously ruled in favor of disenrolled citizens, and barred Galanda and other attorneys who have sought to represent the 63 people facing eviction.

Before the court was remade in 2016, Galanda said he previously had successes in tribal court in matters involving the disenrolled and eviction attempts.

The 306 former enrollees made up about 15 percent of the tribe’s population and had historically wielded a lot of political power within the tribe, Galanda said.

In 2016, tribal leaders cancelled an election, meaning the enrollees facing disenrollment were unable to vote before being booted from the tribe.The move prompted the federal government to withhold millions of dollars in funding for the tribe and decline to recognize any decisions tribal leaders made.

In a 2017 court filing defending its decision to withhold nearly $14 million in federal funding for the tribe, the federal government called the pro-disenrollment tribal leaders, who had held onto power by not holding an election, “abusive” and “illegitimate.”

The federal government went on to call the disenrollment of the Nooksack 306 a “sham,” saying that tribal leaders had schemed to cancel the 2016 election to seize power and disenroll the more than 300 members.

The federal government restored its recognition of the tribe’s government in 2018 after it held a special election, despite concerns raised of fraud and irregularities. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the disenrollments because the tribe had sovereign immunity in the case, with the court affirming the tribe’s right to determine how it defines citizenship.

Ultimately, the evictions are the last step to cement the power of the current pro-disenrollment leaders and supporters in tribal affairs, Galanda alleged.

“This entire thing has been a play for basically … sustained political power,” he said.

The tribal chairman said in an Oct. 13 letter to Newland that the complaints about the evictions come as the tribe has worked to repair its relationship with the federal government “following years of frivolous complaints by certain parties aimed to discredit the Tribe, its Council, and its staff.”

“After years of progress, the Tribe is again forced to respond to vague allegations funneled through (the) Department,” Cline said. “As a final note, the Tribe values its relationship with its federal partners, and takes the Department’s concerns seriously.”

Federal Government Concerns

HUD notified the tribe in a Sept. 1 letter that it had heard reports that the tribe had refused to provide documentation to some tenants of HUD-assisted, lease-purchase homes who had made all of the required monthly payments needed to take ownership.

The agency also told the tribe that it was obligated to provide annual statements to tenants of such HUD-funded housing programs that include purchase balances and equity information. In addition, HUD, according to that letter, requested that the tribe delay any evictions until the concerns could be addressed and litigation completed.

A HUD official then wrote Newland on Sept. 14 to request that the Interior Department look into the complaints. According to the letter, HUD had concerns that the disenrolled tenants threatened with eviction weren’t provided proper due process by the tribe, that the tribe wasn’t providing requested documentation to the tenants and that the tribe may be illegally taking homes from tenants who own them and have made all required payments under rent-to-buy agreements.

“This determination will assist HUD in its efforts to ensure that families assisted under HUD programs are not subject to unlawful evictions, and to ensure that the Tribe is carrying out its HUD grant programs in accordance with Federal law and program requirements,” Heidi Frechette, deputy assistant secretary for Native American programs, wrote.

The Interior informed the tribe of an investigation on Oct. 5.

In an Oct. 13 response letter to the complaints and concerns, Cline told the BIA that all tenants facing eviction have the right to a two-step appeal process before reaching an eviction determination hearing in court. Furthermore, he said, the tribe had no records of any requests made for an “accounting” in 2021 — seemingly referring to claims that the tribe had not provided former enrollees facing eviction with records relating to their rent-to-own agreements and payment history — and had no recent records of any appeals being filed over eviction notices or other negative housing actions.

Even after a phone call from a BIA official to Cline and other Nooksack leaders last week to push the tribe to postpone its actions, Galanda said it appears the tribe is moving forward with the evictions. Later that night a Nooksack tribal police officer served one of the 63 former enrollees with an eviction notice, he said.

HUD also made another appeal, its third, to the tribe last week to delay its eviction processes, according to an email from a HUD official shared with Indian Country Today.

Galanda also last week sent an “urgent appeal” to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, seeking to have that organization intervene, review the situation and ask the Biden administration to immediately take steps to halt the evictions.

Since he’s unable to practice in Nooksack courts, and because so few defense attorneys are licensed to practice in Nooksack courts, Galanda said he doesn’t expect to obtain injunctions delaying the evictions. While there are other courts where he could pursue action, those filings would have to come after evictions, he said.

What’s Coming Next

In the meantime, any of the 63 who are kicked out of their homes will face a “dire situation,” Galanda said.

He said they will likely struggle to find an affordable place to live, especially given recent flooding in the area. The timing of the evictions — during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and amid a surging COVID-19 pandemic — make the situation harder, Galanda added.

The first former tribal member set to be evicted on Dec. 28 is a 49-year-old man who lives with his spouse and three children in a home he has occupied for 11 years. Galanda said other clients have grievance hearings scheduled for the same day.

Many of those slated for eviction have lived in the same home for decades, some up to 35 years, Galanda said. Several are elders in their 70s and mid-80s, living with old age or disease that will make moving even more challenging, he said.

Generations of the same family have grown up in these homes, and generations of these families continue to share the same home, he said.

“They desperately want and need to stay in their homes,” Galanda said. “This is beyond inhumane and grossly unjust.”

Lead photo: More than two dozen members of the so-called “Nooksack 306” gather at the law offices of Galanda Broadman. The group was disenrolled from the Nooksack Tribe of Washington, and the remaining 63 still living on tribal lands are facing evictions starting Dec. 28, 2021. Photo by Michelle Roberts

This story is co-published by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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ContributorChris previously covered tribal affairs in the Pacific Northwest for Underscore and ICT. He is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and descendant of the Leech Lake Band...