Native Americans facing deregistration fight to stay with tribes
Listening to stories and learning about the Nooksack Indian Tribe has been a part of Santana Rabang’s life since she was a toddler growing up in Deming, Washington, near the banks of the Nooksack River.
She says her identity as a Native American was passed down through generations who were part of the Nooksack community.
“I have been raised in this community all my life since I was born. I know I’m Nooksack. I grew up in Nooksack. It was instilled in me,” Rabang told ABC News.
“This ancestral knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation. It’s not that plastic tribal ID card that says I’m Nooksack. It’s the fact that my great-grandmother told me I’m Nooksack.
Rabang was still a teenager when she and 300 other members of the Rabang family were de-enrolled from Nooksack in 2016. The de-enrollment movement had started years earlier when a former tribal president questioned the Rabang’s ancestral line at the tribe.
The “Nooksack 306,” referring to unenrolled members and families, were “incorrectly” enrolled in the 1980s, according to former president Ross Cline Sr. The tribe claims that unenrolled people have no lineage with Nooksack.
Now Santana and many others are still fighting to preserve their family history and their life on the reservation.
“We’re going to fight as long as we can,” Santana said. “If it gets to the point where they’re going to come in here and physically pull us out, then that’s the point we’ll get to. But we’re not going anywhere.
As part of the unsubscribe process, more than 60 people who identify as Nooksack, but have been unsubscribed, are at risk of being evicted from their homes.
The UN weighed in, expressing concerns over the human rights and legality of the deportee and urging the US government to step in and “stop” the deportations.
“We call on the U.S. government to uphold the right to adequate housing…and to ensure that it meets its international obligations, including with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples,” experts from the Upper Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. in a February 3 statement.
The Nooksack Tribe released a statement shortly after demanding an “immediate retraction” of the UN press release, calling it “false” and referring to an investigation “that never took place”.
The federal government also responded to the UN by issuing a statement saying the Nooksack Indian Housing Authority had complied with tenancy agreements and its own procedures in the eviction process.
“We also recognize the detrimental effects that evictions can have on a community, especially tenants and their families,” the department said in a news release. “Although they do not have tribal citizenship, they are members of the community, and we encourage the Tribe to treat them with dignity and respect their legal rights in the future.
The Nooksack Tribe is one of 573 federally recognized tribes that function as sovereign nations. With about 2,000 registered tribal members, the federal government has little power to meddle in internal affairs like deregistration.
The Rabangs hoped that the newly elected Nooksack Tribe President, Rosemary LaClair, might view their case more favorably and assess their paperwork with “open eyes.”
However, LaClair supports the disenlistment of the Rabangs.
“I have to stand up for the Nooksack people,” LaClair told ABC News. “I have to stand up for my children and portray the truth that Nooksack, we are humble people and we don’t have much to offer, even to our own people. The few resources we have, we have to make sure that they are secure for our future.”
“It’s not a war between the families because it’s the simple fact that they don’t have a line in Nooksack.”
But Michelle Roberts, who is also part of the Rabang family, thinks a war between the families is exactly what this unsubscription is about. Roberts believes the Rabangs are being targeted because of their family size and the fact that other tribesmen did not want the Rabangs to hold tribal council positions.
Now Roberts, who once served on the Nooksack Tribal Council before she was deregistered in 2016, is being kicked out of her home.
She has lived in her home for nearly 15 years and is fighting her eviction in tribal court. The final decision, however, could take months.
“They want to use [disenrollment] as a tool to suppress our family,” Roberts told ABC News. “Native Americans are known for their oral history, and when your grandparents say, ‘You come from a certain area, that’s who you are, that’s where you belong’, you believe them. And having to find documents to prove that it’s a little degrading.”
For Rabang, she said the most hurtful part of the process was the feeling of being stripped of her identity.
“It’s a direct attack on who I am, and my identity is who I am, how I was raised, my culture is who I am. When they try to take that away from me, it made me question myself for a second,” Rabang told ABC News.
Rabang now lives in Lummi, the tribe where his mother is from. Although she found refuge within the Lummi tribe, she is also not considered a member as she does not meet the quantum blood requirements of the tribe there.
The quantum of blood was imposed by the US government in the early 1900s as a means of defining and limiting citizenship within Indian tribes. Nooksack also uses this method to measure the amount of tribal blood in a person’s ancestry when registering new members.
Santana argued against using blood quantum to determine someone’s lineage.
“The amount of blood is not how we identify as natives,” Santana said. “It’s not the amount of blood I have in me. It’s the fact that he’s there and going through me is all that matters to me, but I’m not listed anywhere.
Robert Rabang, Santana’s grandfather, is also at risk of being evicted from the house he owns. He told ABC News he was fighting to stay in order to uphold the legacy of his mother who was part of the Nooksack Tribe.
“It’s been really stressful,” he said. “It just hurts. All of these people were our friends when we first got here, now they’re all turning their backs on us like, you know, it’s really hard.”
“I didn’t want to give up my mother’s fight. I fight for her. It could get really ugly because I’m not leaving here.
LaClair said the deregistered members had no rights to their current homes as they belonged to the Nooksack tribe. With limited space, she said they are pushing people like Robert and Michelle to leave so there can be room for the 60 or so members who are on the waiting list for housing.
LaClair said she even had to convert one of the houses on the reservation into a homeless shelter.
“Our resources are for members of the Nooksack Tribe. If we allow them to stay, we would be in conflict with our agreement with HUD. And being in conflict knowingly, we could lose our sources for all members of the Nooksack Tribe,” LaClair said.
“We’re not saying they don’t belong anywhere else. We encourage them to find their lineage where they belong.
LaClair believes now is the time to move past the scrutiny of deregistration the tribe has faced, so they can focus on providing resources to current and future members.
“The unsubscribe happened in 2016. It was a while ago and we are past it. They have had since 2016 to look for alternative housing,” LaClair said.
As president, LaClair wants to focus on economic development for the tribe to ensure there are enough jobs for its members. She also plans to invest in a cemetery, develop more housing options for tribal members, and implement initiatives to protect the tribe’s natural resources, which rely heavily on salmon fishing.
LaClair also said new member sign-ups have increased. Over the past decade, LaClair said the tribe has recruited 300 new members from Nooksack.
At his first General Council meeting in April, LaClair said he approved 20 new applications for registration.
While it’s been nearly a decade since the Rabangs have been affected by the deregistration, Santana said she will continue to fight as long as necessary to defend her family history and her own identity.
“Talking about this not only helps me on my healing journey, but I know it also helps open the door to provide a safe space for other people who are questioning themselves, questioning their identity. We are who we are because of the way we were raised and no one can take that away from us,” Santana said.