Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who Decides Who Counts as Native American?

In the fall of 2012, a 48-year-old fisherman and carver named Terry St. Germain decided to enroll his five young children as members of the Nooksack, a federally recognized Native American tribe with some 2,000 members, centered in the northwestern corner of Washington State.

He’d enrolled his two older daughters, from a previous relationship, when they were babies, but hadn’t yet filed the paperwork to make his younger children — all of whom, including a set of twins, were under 7 — official members. He saw no reason to worry about a bureaucratic endorsement of what he knew to be true. “My kids, they love being Native,” he told me.

St. Germain was a teenager when he enrolled in the tribe. For decades, he used tribal fishing rights to harvest salmon and sea urchin and Dungeness crab alongside his cousins. He had dozens of family members who were also Nooksack. His mother, according to family lore, was directly descended from a 19th-century Nooksack chief known as Matsqui George. His brother, Rudy, was the secretary of the Nooksack tribal council, which oversaw membership decisions. The process, he figured, would be so straightforward that his kids would be certified Nooksacks in time for Christmas, when the tribe gives parents a small stipend for buying gifts: “I thought it was a cut-and-dried situation.”

But after a few months, the applications had still not gone through. When Rudy asked why, at a tribal council meeting, the chairman, Bob Kelly, called in the enrollment department. They told Rudy that they had found a problem with the paperwork. There were missing documents; ancestors seemed to be incorrectly identified. They didn’t think Terry’s children’s claims to tribal membership could be substantiated.

At the time, Rudy and Kelly were friends, allies on the council. At the long oval table where they met to discuss Nooksack business, Rudy always sat at Kelly’s right. But the debate over whether Rudy’s family qualified as Nooksack tore them apart. Today, more than four years later, they no longer speak. Rudy and his extended family refer to Kelly as a monster and a dictator; he calls them pond scum and con artists. They agree on almost nothing, but both remember the day when things fell apart the same way. “If my nephew isn’t Nooksack,” Rudy said in the council chambers, “then neither am I.”

To Rudy, the words were an expression of shock. “It’s fighting words,” he said, to tell someone they’re not really part of their tribe. At stake were not just his family’s jobs and homes and treaty rights but also who they were and where they belonged. “I’ll still be who I am, but I won’t have proof,” Rudy said. “I’ll be labeled a non-Indian. So yeah, I take this very personally.”

To Kelly, the words were an admission of guilt, implicating not just the St. Germains but also hundreds of tribal members to whom they were related. As chairman, he felt that he had a sacred duty: to protect the tribe from invasion by a group of people that, he would eventually argue, weren’t even Native Americans. “I’m in a war,” he told me later, sketching family trees on the back of a copy of the tribe’s constitution. “This is our culture, not a game.”

The St. Germains’ rejected application proved to be a turning point for the Nooksack. Separately, the family and the council began combing through Nooksack history, which, like that of many tribes in the United States, is complicated by government efforts to extinguish, assimilate and relocate the tribe, and by a dearth of historical documents. An international border drawn across historically Nooksack lands only adds to the confusion. There were some records and even some living memories of the ancestors whose Nooksack heritage was being called into doubt. But no one could agree on what the records meant.

In January 2013, Kelly announced that, after searching through files at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in nearby Everett, he had reason to doubt the legitimacy of more than 300 enrolled Nooksacks related to the St. Germains, all of whom claimed to descend from a woman named Annie George, born in 1875. In February, he canceled the constitutionally required council meeting, saying it would be “improper” to convene when Rudy St. Germain and another council member, Rudy’s cousin Michelle Roberts, were not eligible to be part of the tribe they’d been elected to lead. A week later, he called an executive session of the council but demanded that St. Germain and Roberts remain outside while the rest of the council voted on whether to “initiate involuntary disenrollment” for them and 304 other Nooksacks, including 37 elders. The resolution passed unanimously. “It hurt me,” Terry St. Germain said later. Even harder was watching the effect on his brother, Rudy. “It took the wind right out of him.”

Two days after the meeting, the tribal council began sending out letters notifying affected members that unless they could provide proof of their legitimacy, they would be disenrolled in 30 days. Word and shock spread quickly through the small, tight-knit reservation. The disenrollees, now calling themselves “the Nooksack 306,” hired a lawyer and vowed to contest their expulsion. “I told ’em, ‘I know where I belong no matter what you say,’ ” an 80-year-old woman who, in her youth, had been punished for “speaking Indian” at school, said. “ ‘You can’t make me believe that I’m not.’ ”

The Nooksacks who want the 306 out of the tribe say they are standing up for their very identity, fighting for the integrity of a tribe taken over by outsiders. “We’re ready to die for this,” Kelly would later say. “And I think we will, before this is over.”

Outside the lands legally known as “Indian Country,” “membership” and “enrollment” are such blandly bureaucratic words that it’s easy to lose sight of how much they matter there. To the 566 federally recognized tribal nations, the ability to determine who is and isn’t part of a tribe is an essential element of what makes tribes sovereign entities. To individuals, membership means citizenship and all the emotional ties and treaty rights that come with it. To be disenrolled is to lose that citizenship: to become stateless. It can also mean the loss of a broader identity, because recognition by a tribe is the most accepted way to prove you are Indian — not just Nooksack but Native American at all.

Efforts to define Native American identity date from the earliest days of the colonies. Before the arrival of white settlers, tribal boundaries were generally fluid; intermarriages and alliances were common. But as the new government’s desire to expand into Indian Territory grew, so, too, did the interest in defining who was and who wasn’t a “real Indian.” Those definitions shifted as the colonial government’s goals did. “Mixed blood” Indians, for example, were added to rolls in hopes that assimilated Indians would be more likely to cede their land; later, after land claims were established, more restrictive definitions were adopted. In the 19th century, the government began relying heavily on blood quantum, or “degree of Indian blood,” wagering that, over generations of intermarriage, tribes would be diluted to the point that earlier treaties would not have to be honored. “ ‘As long as grass grows or water runs’ — a phrase that was often used in treaties with American Indians — is a relatively permanent term for a contract,” the Ojibwe author David Treuer wrote in a 2011 Op-Ed for The Times. “ ‘As long as the blood flows’ seemed measurably shorter.”

by Brooke Jarvis, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times