By Maya Brown, CNN
Robert Rabang Sr. has been a member of the Nooksack Tribe in Washington State for almost 40 years — but about six years ago he was told he would be evicted from his home on tribal-managed land.
What hurt the 77-year-old the most was the attack on his family’s history.
Six years later, he and three other family members are still facing eviction from their homes surrounded by a cascade of mountains and tons of spacious land.
For his granddaughter, Santana Rabang, hearing him recount his story earlier this month was the first time she would see him cry. She said all she wanted to do was take away her grandfather’s pain.
“It was really hard for me because my grandpa is such a pillar within our family,” she said. “When I saw my grandpa break down and cry like that, I broke down and cried myself. It was hard for me because when I left that day, it felt like I was carrying my grandpa’s hurt, his sister’s hurt and his brother’s hurt.”
Rabang’s family members are among the 63 people in 21 tribal homes who are facing evictions by the Nooksack Tribal Council, the tribe’s governing body elected by tribal members. The council alleges the tribal members are no longer eligible for their homes since they are disenrolled and cannot prove their lineage.
The eviction plan highlights concerns about the federal government’s responsibility for protecting civil rights and whether it interferes with Native American tribal sovereignty. The US Constitution grants tribes the right to regulate internal affairs. However, various federal agencies have urged and called for the tribe to delay eviction plans. Tribal members began to receive eviction notices in December of last year, but the rest were stalled due to severe weather conditions in the region.
Only nine tribal households received notices, Rabang’s family being one of them, which includes his 79-year-old brother Michael Rabang, 80-year-old brother Francisco Rabang and his 74-year-old sister Norma Aldredge. Tribal leaders have announced that the eviction plan will resume sometime this month.
“This is a direct attack against who I am and how I was raised,” Rabang Sr.’s granddaughter Santana told CNN. “When you’re saying my grandpa’s not Nooksack, you’re saying his mother wasn’t Nooksack and everyone before him. It’s a real stab in the heart.”
Gabe Galanda is an Indigenous rights lawyer who is counseling the “Nooksack 63” who are all facing the evictions. He had been representing tribal members facing eviction since 2013 but was then internally disbarred from representing them by the tribal council in 2016 due to not having a tribal business license. Galanda said after seeking a tribal business license, he was told his privilege to practice law specifically at Nooksack had been revoked. He told CNN the tribal council “ignores their own laws and proceeds as they wish.”
The tribal members are planning to be evicted without due process of law, particularly having been denied the right to legal counsel that is guaranteed under Nooksack law and the federal Indian Civil Rights Act, according to Galanda.
“I’m basically practicing law in the court of public opinion and in diplomatic tribunals because these politicians have incinerated the tribe, incinerated democracy, violated due process, violated human rights and will not let me help these people save themselves from eviction,” Galanda told CNN. “They have no ability to obtain justice.”
In addition to possibly losing their homes, the 63 tribal members are also already losing tribal benefits including health services, educational aid and financial stipends.
CNN has reached out to the Nooksack Tribal Council multiple times requesting comment regarding the planned evictions.
In the past, the council has said over 200 members didn’t properly follow the rules for citizenship and are therefore not citizens of Nooksack. They said these members have not taken their “proof of lineage to the enrollment office,” but at any time they can and then become enrolled as a citizen again.
In a recent press release, Tribal Council Chairman Roswell Cline said “We encourage all those who are not qualified to enroll to move on, just as we did after disenrollment six years ago. The Nooksack Tribe will not be distracted or deterred by those who oppose our sovereignty.”
Calls of interference
Earlier this month, United Nations human rights experts called on the United States to halt the planned evictions over possible civil rights violations. The UN experts were also concerned that those facing eviction would be denied the possibility of enjoying their own culture and of using their own language in community with others.
“We appeal to the US Government to respect the right to adequate housing … and to ensure that it abides by its international obligations, including with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples,” the experts said in a press release.
In a statement, the Tribal Council said the UN’s press release was “riddled with inaccuracies” and “falsehoods” and that the UN failed to contact the tribe.
The UN is also concerned the evictions will disproportionately affect the elderly, women and children, which are “some of the vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Both the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have also urged the Nooksack Indian Tribe to delay their eviction plans.
Since last year, HUD has sent several letters to the tribe and ordered the BIA to investigate potential violations of the Indian Civil Rights Act and Bureau of Indian Affairs requirements.
Last December, the Northwest Office of Native American Programs (NwONAP) of HUD sent the Nooksack tribe a letter advising them to delay any pending or planned evictions until the BIA completed its investigation into alleged Indian Civil Rights Act violations.
“BIA respects tribal sovereignty and supports tribal self-determination,” the BIA told CNN. “Accordingly, we seek to work closely with our tribal partners to safeguard the rights of both tribes and individuals.”
The BIA’s investigation only looked at the nine of the 63 tribal members who received eviction notices and whether their planned evictions were carried out in accordance with the terms of the rental agreements and Nooksack Indian Housing Authority procedures. The investigation concluded earlier this month and found no violations.
“HUD is working to provide information regarding housing resources to families, so they are aware of potential options to keep them stably housed. HUD is working closely with the Department of Interior and remains in communication with the Tribe,” HUD told CNN.
Earlier this week, HUD informed the Nooksack tribe of the BIA’s findings regarding the nine specific individuals residing within the tribe’s rental units. “DOI’s limited review concluded that the Nooksack Tribe’s eviction process has thus far been carried out in accordance with the terms of the rental agreements and NIHA procedures,” according to an email sent from HUD to Chairman Cline.
The findings “do not preclude HUD from initiating future monitoring efforts, including with respect to any potential planned evictions of additional families,” Thomas Carney, NwONAP administrator at HUD, said in the email. The tribe still plans to evict the remaining tribal members.
The tribal members set to be evicted are requesting that HUD take all possible steps to indefinitely halt the evictions, stop police harassment and intimidation, and to assure that due process of law is guaranteed.
Decades long battle over ‘tribal sovereignty’
Following an early retirement, Michelle Roberts and her husband and son moved to the Nooksack managed land about 15 years ago. The 57-year-old wanted to be closer to her parents and for a “nice and quiet life.” The life she thought she would have turned into an almost 10-year battle over disenrollment.
In 2013, the Nooksack Tribal Council began to disenroll more than 300 members of the tribe, which led to the name of the “Nooksack 306.” The council has said the disenrolled members descend from a Canadian ancestor that wasn’t a legal Nooksack member, making them ineligible to be enrolled in the tribe. They were officially disenrolled in 2016 and 2018.
Roberts was on the council for two years prior to her disenrollment and was then removed. She believes the eviction plan is a “power grab” and the council has “abused tribal sovereignty and taken it for granted.”
The Nooksack Tribe’s Enrollment Department didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Growing up, Santana Rabang was a part of both the Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation, another Indigenous tribe in Washington State. She was 16 when the disenrollment battle began and was told she didn’t qualify to be a member of the Nooksack tribe. She then went through a transitional period where she was questioning her identity as an Indigenous woman.
“I think that they don’t want us in Nooksack at all — they just want to displace us from our traditional homelands as a whole,” she said. “I grew up with these people and even though I may not be blood related to a lot of the people on the opposing side, we all considered each other family.”
Rabang said since the disenrollment began, tension has spread among the community of almost 2,000 tribal members. “There is so much division because even if someone did want to speak out on what’s right, they can’t because they would become a target.”
Galanda told CNN the eviction plan violates international universal human rights. “The unacceptable truth is that Indigenous Americans on tribal lands do not have civil rights protections,” he said.
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