Experts from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have called on the U.S. government to halt the Nooksack Indian Tribe's planned eviction of 63 former members.
“We appeal to the U.S. Government to respect the right to adequate housing,” wrote two human rights experts from the U.N. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, a special rapporteur on adequate housing, and Francisco Cali Tzay, a special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people, wrote on behalf of the 21 families who self-identify as Nooksack after being disenrolled in 2018. “We are also concerned that the forced evictions will deny them the possibility of enjoying their own culture and of using their own language in community with others.”
The evictions, initially slated to begin in late December, were pushed back following Whatcom's snow and ice storms over the holidays, and had been rescheduled for early February.
The 63 self-identified tribal members belong to the Nooksack 306, a group of individuals formally removed from the Tribe in 2018 following a bitter disenrollment battle.
“This disenrollment saga has been brewing now almost 10 years,” explained Gabe Galanda, an Indigenous rights attorney representing the 306. “It started in December 2012 ... This is a domestic Indigenous human rights calamity that, at this point, requires the Biden administration's most earnest efforts to resolve it.”
The U.N. release called on the federal government to intercede in the evictions, many of which involve elders and disabled individuals who have resided in their homes for over a decade.
The homes, according to the release, were constructed by the Tribe on land owned by the federal government with funds administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD provides funds to the Tribe for public housing through the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA).
“The [Biden] administration can pursue legal action against the Tribe and its actors to stop the evictions,” Galanda said. “The administration can also suspend federal HUD housing monies, which are monies that are underwriting these human rights abuses.”
Galanda said the administration can also conduct audits and investigations into the Nooksack Tribe's use of HUD funds.
“The press release doesn't just speak to their right to their homes and their right to security in their homes and dwellings. It speaks to their right to belong as Nooksack peoples.” — Gabe Galanda, Indigenous rights attorney
For now, though, feelings of uncertainty and fear linger for those facing eviction.
“We've been living with this not knowing what's going to happen, what the Tribe is going to do, and what they'll be able to get away with for the last 10 years,” said Michelle Roberts, a spokesperson for the Nooksack 306. “It's kind of a roller coaster of emotions ... We remain hopeful, but we still have a ways to go.”
The Nooksack Tribe requires specific documentation from individuals to be considered members. Historically, anyone with Nooksack ancestry or a parent enrolled in the Tribe could be a member. Today, though, members must be able to prove they descend from Nooksack members included in a 1942 tribal census.
Galanda says he has never seen the U.N. intervene in intra-tribal disputes where “the oppressor is tribal politicians.”
“The press release doesn't just speak to their right to their homes and their right to security in their homes and dwellings,” Galanda said. “It speaks to their right to belong as Nooksack peoples.”
The evictions were previously prohibited by the Nooksack Tribal Court, but the decision was ignored by the Nooksack Council, chaired by Roswell Cline Sr.
In January, Cline told a representative from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the evictions would proceed as planned, but that the council was open to compromise, according to an email posted on Galanda's Twitter page.
Rick George, the vice chairman of the Nooksack Tribal Council, told the same BIA officer in January that the Tribe agreed to pause current evictions until Tuesday, Feb. 1.
“I have discussed it with the Nooksack Tribal Council, and we agree to pause the current eviction proceedings,” he wrote in an email published on Galanda's Twitter page. “I am hopeful that this investigation will be the last, as this issue has been depriving deserving enrolled Nooksack Tribal members of housing for more than six years.”
Cline and the Nooksack Indian Tribe did not immediately respond to CDN's requests for comment.
Despite the Tribe's insistence, the Nooksack 306 continue to identify as members.
“It is our birthright,” Roberts said. “We continue this fight because they're trying to take away our identity, our birthright ... The [U.N. press release] was the first time that I've seen in writing that somebody has actually acknowledged the fact that there is culture behind our family.”
“They have always belonged at Nooksack,” Galanda said. “They will always belong in Nooksack, and the United Nations took occasion to not only affirm that they belong at Nooksack, but that they belong in their homes, and all of that is tremendously validating and affirming to [them].”