Nooksack Elders Battle Outsiders
DEMING, Wash. (AP) _ The tiny Nooksack Tribe, after fighting the government for more than a century to reclaim land taken away in the 1860s, is under siege again _ at least, according to some members.
And this time, some tribal elders want the government to step in.
Former Tribal Council member Rozalda Roberts contends the Nooksacks have lost control to a clan of outsiders, the Rabangs, a 200-member family of mixed Filipino and American Indian descent.
Roberts, 66, and other elders claim the Rabangs used lax membership rules in the 1980s to infiltrate the 1,449-member tribe, based by the Canadian border 90 miles north of Seattle. Since then, they say, Rabangs and their supporters have climbed the ranks of tribal government, and corruption and drugs have put a stranglehold on the tribe.
``Where is the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Where is the help from Indian Health Services? Where is the help from HUD?″ asked Roberts.
The government has taken an interest in drug and corruption allegations.
Federal prosecutors allege Rabang family members _ including former Tribal Councilman Robert Rabang Sr. _ took advantage of loose immigration rules for Indians and their family ties with the Squ’ay Indians in Canada to run bundles of cash north and duffel bags full of pot south.
Some 20 people have been indicted, mostly members of the extended Rabang clan. Several pleaded guilty earlier this year to reduced charges, and others are awaiting trial.
In addition to the drug case, two tribal leaders pleaded guilty this year to misusing federal funds. Another investigation is underway into possible embezzlement of more than $300,000 in federal Housing and Urban Development funds.
And published reports have said the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle is considering organized-crime charges against Nooksack leaders _ an unprecedented move against a tribal government. Such charges could result in a federal judge taking over day-to-day Nooksack operations.
A U.S. Attorney’s spokesman in Seattle would not comment.
Tribal Chairman Art George, who is not a Rabang, bristles at the investigations.
``This tribe is not run by organized crime,″ he said.
Rabangs claim the charges only implicate a small number of a very large family, and they say their critics are just bitter over losing control of the tribal government.
``They used to be on the council, they used to run the housing, they used to run the liquor store and they used to run the smoke shop, and they don’t do that any more,″ said the highest-ranking Rabang, Tribal Vice Chairman Narcisco Cunanan.
But Ivan George, 67, a Nooksack Pentecostal minister said that the drug charges are only the most visible one of the problems related to the Rabangs. The more serious problems are growing corruption in tribal government and preferential treatment for Rabang family and friends, he alleged.
``We can’t even penetrate our own leadership to find out what’s going on,″ George said.
``They’ve pretty much taken over all the programs in the tribe,″ said Jeannette Peters, 34.
``When you go to complain about anything, you talk to the same people all the time,″ said her mother, Myrtle Neevel, 67. ``You talk to (Rabangs), then you go to council, you talk to them again. They’re such a big family, they just never run out.″
Cunanan says his grandmother was a full-blooded Nooksack who married a Filipino man. He maintains that the Rabangs are legitimate tribal members.
Critics say the grandmother’s family was related to the Nooksack only by marriage.
Roberts said that when she was on the Tribal Council in 1996, an enrollment audit intended to prove the Rabangs were not Nooksacks was dropped when more than 100 angry Rabangs confronted the council.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs will not get involved in the membership question because tribes set their own enrollment standards, said BIA deputy regional director Karole Overberg in Portland, Ore.
Although they would like federal help, the elders are uncomfortable with the idea. The government forced the Nooksack off their land in the 1860s and sent them to live with another tribe. The Nooksack didn’t regain their own, separate reservation until 1973. Their main source of income is a small casino.
``We’re just such a very small tribe and we’re really struggling. We don’t need this,″ Roberts said. ``But on the other hand ... we don’t want this to happen to our children, our grandchildren.″
On the Net:
Bureau of Indian Affairs: http://www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs.html
Nooksack Tribe: http://www.doi.gov/bia/pugetsnd/nook1001.htm