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Nooksack Human Rights Saga Reaches Year Ten

On Ten-Year Anniversary of Nooksack Human Rights Saga, Mass Winter Housing Evictions Proceed Unabated.

Today marks year ten of a campaign to purge over 300 Nooksack members and take their homes. Evictions proceed despite the United Nations and United States each calling for a halt.

Deming, Washington – Despite calls from the United Nations and two United States agencies for an eviction halt at Nooksack, tribal politicians are proceeding to eject nine households from their homes this winter.

Nearly thirty Nooksack family members are slated to be ejected from federally subsidized, state regulated homes in northern Washington state this month. One family has already been ordered to vacate their home of 11 years by January 3, 2023.  The eviction imbroglio unfolds as the human battle raging at Nooksack reaches its tenth year today.

Three other households await tribal court rulings.  Having been denied any right to legal counsel by Nooksack authorities, the families are representing themselves pro se.  As National Public Radio reports, Billie Rabang, age 71, recently explained to a tribal court judge: “The lack of legal representation has stunted us, just I mean, we can’t, we don’t understand . . . what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Rabang and her husband Francisco Rabang, age 81, have participated in the Nooksack rent-to-own program for the last 15 years. Nooksack has barred the lawyer who has represented them and several of the other families for the last ten years, Gabe Galanda, from advocating for them in tribal administrative or judicial eviction hearings.

Each of the nine homes in dispute were privately developed at Nooksack as part of a Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) home buyership program administered by the Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC).  Starting in 2005, WSHFC awarded the lucrative federal income tax offsets to the developer of three low income housing projects at Nooksack.

As part of the consideration for the tax credits, deeds to the homes were to be conveyed to Nooksack homebuyers, including the families facing eviction, starting in 2020. Deeds have not been issued, however.  Nooksack authorities are instead taking the homes without due process or just compensation, while officials in Washington, DC to Washington state deflect and demur.

“This is no time for political hot potato,” said Galanda. “Indigenous lives and homes are at risk. Federal and state officials must be decisive. They must halt these illegal evictions.”

In February 2022, the United Nations urged the U.S. “to halt the planned and imminent forced evictions” at Nooksack.

Seven of the households were purportedly disenrolled from the Nooksack Tribe four years ago, amid a campaign to jettison over 300 tribal members that started on December 12, 2012.  But with enrolled tribal members Hameesh Jimmy and Gwendolyn Peterson’s families now among the Nooksack households facing eviction, the purge is no longer about disenrollment.

Although Nooksack politicians delayed the evictions in early 2022 and were then slowed by state judicial processes, they have recommenced the evictions in earnest.  The mass eviction effort has caused international human rights concern.

The United Nations specifically “appeal[ed] to the U.S. 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.”  Although the Biden administration has echoed the UN’s humanitarian concerns, it has stopped short of causing a halt to the evictions.

Deferring to “DOI, HUD, and the Washington State officials on this matter,” the White House explained in a March 2022 email to Galanda: “HUD and DOI have both been closely involved in ensuring that all administrative processes and regulations have been strictly adhered to. DOI and HUD continue to implore Tribal leaders to end eviction plans.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) “did implore the tribe’s leaders to stop their planned evictions,” but qualified its request with an expressed commitment “to uphold tribal sovereignty.” HUD echoed DOI’s sentiments, “asking the Tribe to stop these planned evictions” but not halting those efforts as a matter of “Federal law and program requirements.”

The U.S. State Department was even less committal in its response to the UN, explaining the federal government “continues to urge the Nooksack government to take all reasonable measures to assure that due process of law is maintained.”

This past September, HUD disclaimed “HUD does not run the LIHTC program, so HUD has no ability to enforce the homebuyer policy, contract, etc. related to that program.” But able to enforce other federal Indian housing laws, last month HUD did express concern that Nooksack is not providing “certain due process protections” to the households facing eviction. Nooksack, however, rebuffed HUD in a December 1, 2022 letter, indicating tribal court eviction proceedings against the families will proceed undeterred.

Meanwhile Washington state has thus far refused to enforce applicable state tax credit laws and covenants.  WSHFC, which administers the federal LIHTC program for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, has cited “tribal sovereignty” to justify its demurral all year. While claiming the current dispute is about disenrollment, WSHFC feigns it “does not have the authority” to prevent the evictions.

“’Tribal sovereignty’ is a political cop out. ’Sovereignty’ was the watchword of southern segregationists in the 1950s. It’s the mantra of authoritarians throughout the world today,” continued Galanda. “Federal and state officials have the power to halt these local human rights violations. They just need to show some courage.”

Despite having found Nooksack to be non-compliant with applicable federal and state home buyership laws early this year, WSHFC “does not see any utility” in reporting the matter to the IRS for enforcement either, explaining “the IRS has made clear in the past that it has no interest in intervening in issues of this nature.”  WSHFC’s own policies, however, mandate an IRS enforcement referral.

The calamity at Nooksack lays bare that Indigenous American citizens do not enjoy enforceable civil rights, including the right to live free from property deprivation without due process or just compensation.

“It’s horribly sad that the first peoples of these lands do not enjoy this country’s original promise,” continued Galanda. “Indigenous Americans are simply not afforded Bill of Rights protection for their property and homes.”

Last June, the Washington State Supreme Court became the first government entity to take procedural action, when it unanimously enjoined seven of the evictions at Nooksack. But when Nooksack proceeded with those evictions anyway, the Supreme Court Justices reconsidered their injunction, citing “difficult issues and delicate issues of tribal sovereignty.” On a Friday night in mid-September, a majority of the Justices reversed course and, by shadow docket, vacated the injunction without explanation.

As 2023 approaches, human rights violations have now marred Nooksack for an entire decade, stymying the tribe’s political and economic progress.  After driving through another western Washington tribal community and realizing “how far they are advancing,” Nooksack member Trina Cline recently observed on Facebook that “Nooksack has had little to no change in ten years or more.”

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