UN calls on US to halt evictions by Native American tribe

February 3, 2022 GMT

DEMING, Wash. (AP) — Experts from the United Nations are calling on the United States government to intervene and stop the Nooksack Indian Tribe’s ongoing effort to evict certain families from their homes.

The unusual announcement Thursday by the U.N.’s special rapporteurs on adequate housing and the rights of Indigenous peoples is the most recent development in a long dispute over enrollment in the tribe based east of Bellingham, Washington, The Seattle Times reported.

“We appeal 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,” experts from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a news release.

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The Nooksack government has made efforts for years to expel more than 300 of the tribe’s roughly 2,000 members, including 21 families who live on tribal property held in trust by the U.S.

Ross Cline Sr., who chairs the Nooksack Tribal Council, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from the newspaper or The Associated Press on Thursday. He has said the families known as the “Nooksack 306” were incorrectly enrolled in the 1980s, cannot prove their lineage adequately and were disenrolled in proceedings in 2016 and 2018.

According to the U.N. commissioner’s office, 63 people who self-identify Nooksack are at risk of eviction from homes they’ve lived in for many years, which were developed with federal funding.

Many are “elderly, women and children — some with disabilities and chronic diseases,” and being evicted could impact their health, especially during the pandemic, the experts said.

“We are also concerned that the forced evictions will deny them the possibility of enjoying their own culture and of using their own language in community with others,” the special rapporteurs said.

The families facing eviction last year asked the U.S. government to intervene on their behalf, while Nooksack leaders have asserted tribal sovereignty. The U.S. Department of Housing and Development and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs are investigating the matter.

It’s unclear how the U.N. announcement, prompted by an appeal in December from a Seattle-based lawyer for the families facing eviction, may influence the Biden administration. The lawyer for the Nooksack families, Gabe Galanda, said he isn’t aware of another case in which the U.N. has gotten involved in a dispute within a Native American community, as opposed to a dispute between Native American individuals and the U.S. government, he said.

“We’re heartened that the U.N. has affirmed our clients’ human and civil rights, as we have articulated them now for almost a decade,” Galanda said.

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Special rapporteurs have been in touch with U.S. officials about the Nooksack matter before Thursday, the news release said. The independent experts are appointed by the U.N’s Human Rights Council with mandates to monitor, advise and report on human rights matters.

Cline has said the evictions represent the tribe simply taking overdue action to enforce its rules. He has objected to Galanda’s lobbying as meddling and warned the U.S. government against trying to boss the tribe around.

The families and Galanda have contested every ousting effort, gaining attention across the country as leading opponents of tribal disenrollment, an increasing practice that can involve struggles over power and resources, and questions about culture and identity.

Galanda has said nearly all the homes in question were developed as rent-to-own, which means his clients should own their homes or hold equity.

Cline has disagreed. Galanda’s clients are at a disadvantage because the tribe’s government has barred Galanda and other adversarial lawyers not employed by the tribe from representing the families in tribal court.

For several years, lawsuits in U.S. courts stopped the tribe from taking additional steps. But those lawsuits were dismissed last year, clearing the way for Nooksack leaders to begin a multistep eviction process. One family received a notice to vacate by Dec. 28, which was then put on hold because of harsh weather.

The tribe has since agreed to delay until February under pressure from the BIA, Galanda said.