Over the past few weeks, dozens of tribes across the Pacific Northwest have been paddling canoes 200-400 miles on the salty waters between Washington and Vancouver Island.
Deborah Alexander led about a dozen young paddlers on the annual canoe journey along traditional trade routes. Alexander’s canoe was filled with many people, including herself, who have been disenrolled from their tribe.
“We’re fighting for our right to remain Nooksack,” she said.
Alexander’s long wooden canoe is named after her grandmother, Emma, a symbol of disenrollment. The Nooksack tribal government said Alexander and her extended family of 306 were disenrolled because they couldn’t provide the birth certificate of Emma’s mother.
Alexander was removed from tribal rolls and fired from her job as a teacher about a year ago.
Now the federal government is stepping in. The Department of Interior says the tribe improperly disenrolled Alexander’s extended family because the disenrollments happened after the Nooksack Council failed to hold an election when many of its seats expired.
Because the tribal government lacks quorum, the Department of Interior says, the tribe does not have a government, and the feds aren’t recognizing the disenrollments.
The federal government is now denying Washington’s Nooksack tribe tens of millions of dollars. They’ve shut down the casino and are taking over tribal health care.
Just before she was kicked out of the tribe, Alexander had surgery to get precancerous lesions removed. She needed to see a doctor every six months to make sure they didn’t come back and turn into cancer.
She said she went to the tribal clinic twice and was denied treatment. “They're playing Russian roulette with my life,” she said.
Alexander eventually signed up for Medicaid. When she went to an off-reservation doctor a few months after that checkup deadline, she was told her lesions had come back.
The Nooksack tribe and clinic would not return interview requests. But the federal government says Alexander should have never been denied tribal health care.
Dean Seyler, area Director of Indian Health Services, said his department is following the Interior’s lead. He said the tribe doesn’t have the authority to disenroll people and deny them services unless they hold a fair council election.
“We totally believe in the sovereignty of the tribe and support that. Whatever the tribe decides to do when they have a duly elected council — if they want to disenroll folks — that’s their tribal business,” Seyler said.
In the meantime, Seyler said his department is pulling out about $2.5 million from the tribal clinic. They’re also making a network of off-reservation health centers available for Nooksack members and the disenrolled.
Other federal departments are intervening as well. The National Indian Gaming Commission has shut down the Nooksack casino. And the tribe has lost out on tens of millions of dollars because it can’t legally sign off on state and federal contracts that fund things like the tribal clinic, housing and construction projects.
Alexander said there is a bright side to this saga. This questioning of identity by the tribe has inspired her and many of her family members to get more involved in their indigenous roots. They’re canoeing again and starting to learn traditional dances and songs for the first time.
“When this journey started we didn't have songs. Now we have 10-20 songs,” she said.
She said her family’s songs were lost through generations of cultural assimilation.
Alexander’s nephew, Roland Cuartero, helped lead drumming and singing among other paddlers and young men on this year’s trip.
“Last year was my first journey. It’s where I learned the power of the drum,” Cuartero said.
He said he wants to help pass on this tradition so it’s around for future generations.
“They say whenever you pick up the [drum] you don't belong to yourself anymore, you belong to your people,” Cuartero said.
While Cuartero and his family continue to fight a legal battle for tribal recognition, they’ll keep working on their personal identity by embracing their own native culture.