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The Nooksack tribe in Washington is attempting to evict people from tribal homes

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Nooksack tribe in Washington state is removing dozens of people from the tribe because it disputes their ancestral ties. The move could also force them out of tribal housing. Lilly Ana Fowler from member station KNKX has more.

LILLY ANA FOWLER, BYLINE: The Nooksack tribe is based in Deming, Washington, just south of the Canadian border, surrounded by mountains and forest. Michelle Roberts is up early on this snowy morning getting ready for a hearing in tribal court. The stakes are high. The hearing could determine whether Roberts gets to keep the home she's been living in for 15 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

FOWLER: But first, she has to attend to her father, Michael Rabang.

MICHELLE ROBERTS: See, there's my dad now.

FOWLER: He lives across the street and could also be evicted.

ROBERTS: Hi, Daddy.

MICHAEL RABANG: (Laughter) Did I wake you up?

FOWLER: Rabang doesn't understand he could soon lose his home. At 80, he's living with dementia. But like his daughter, Rabang is among a group of people who the Nooksack says were mistakenly enrolled in the tribe. Roberts says for more than 50 years, she's thought of herself as Nooksack and just can't come to terms with the possibility of tribal disenrollment.

ROBERTS: I can't pack because that means I accepted it. And it's like, I'm not accepting it. I just can't.

FOWLER: Altogether, Nooksack leadership is demanding that about 60 residents who have all been making payments on their houses under a federal low-income housing program leave their homes on tribal land. The tribal court hearing Roberts is attending on this day will determine whether she, her father, and aunt and uncle, will be evicted. Rickie Armstrong is the attorney representing the tribe. At the hearing over Zoom, he tells the judge the reason the tribe is kicking these residents out is simple.

RICKIE ARMSTRONG: They did not provide proof of enrollment with a federally recognized Indian tribe.

FOWLER: Armstrong says properly enrolled Nooksack members need that housing.

ARMSTRONG: The three defendants herein are holding up the tribe from moving forward on a waiting list of 60 homeless Nooksack tribal member families. They've been doing this for over 10 years now.

FOWLER: Over the years, Michelle Roberts and others have fought to keep their homes. They've appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court and even the United Nations. In November, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told Nooksack leaders it had concerns Roberts and others were being denied a fair process. At the tribal court hearing, Roberts' aunt, Billie Rabang, says her family hasn't even been able to find a lawyer who's authorized to represent them in tribal court.

BILLIE RABANG: 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.

FOWLER: So Michelle Roberts testifies for herself and her family as best she can.

ROBERTS: Well, it takes a village to raise - to take care of our elders, and we all take care of each other here. That's why we're here, to - not only, you know, fighting for our identity, fighting for our houses, fighting for everything, anything that we can to stay together.

FOWLER: Like other Nooksack members being threatened with eviction, Roberts and her family are both Filipino and Native American, or what some call Indipino.

DAVID WILKINS: And they still treat them as second-class citizens.

FOWLER: David Wilkins is a professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who focuses on Native American issues. He says often tribal disenrollments happen due to fights over casino revenues. But he thinks discrimination is at play here.

WILKINS: In the Nooksack situation - see, there, that's where family squabbles and racism are the two major factors rather than money issues.

FOWLER: Others in the community are concerned the tribe's actions could have long-term consequences. One of them is a neighbor of Michelle Roberts and her family, Hameesh Jimmy. Sitting at a local restaurant, she says what's happening is unfair.

HAMEESH JIMMY: And I don't think that we're going to be able to heal from this. It's a huge, traumatic experience that's been going on for years.

FOWLER: Jimmy says this whole ordeal has left many Nooksack, even those not being threatened with disenrollment, feeling like their land isn't home anymore. For NPR News, I'm Lilly Ana Fowler in Deming, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SEA OF CORTEZ'S "BLUE AND GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lilly Ana Fowler
Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. Before joining KNKX, she worked for the online news organization Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. She's also worked as a producer with the national PBS show "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" and a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, Slate Magazine, Mother Jones, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. She was born in Mexico, grew up in the border town of Nogales, and is fluent in Spanish.