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A drawn out battle over Nooksack tribal housing reaches Washington state Supreme Court

A woman looking off to the side stands in front of a shelves filled with memorabilia holding a black and white family photo.
Parker Miles Blohm
Michelle Roberts holds a family photo in her living room. She was almost finished making 15 years of payments to buy her house in Deming, Washington. But the Nooksack Tribe is demanding she and more than 60 others, who’ve all been making payments under a federal low-income Housing Tax Credit Program, leave tribal land.
Updated: June 8, 2022 at 3:50 PM PDT
The Washington State Supreme Court has temporarily halted evictions by the Nooksack Tribe. The Nooksack had already started issuing eviction notices to people it says were mistakenly enrolled in the tribe.

The residents threatened with eviction appealed all the way up to the state Supreme Court. After discussing the matter Tuesday, a panel of justices ruled that the tribe must pause the evictions immediately. Next week, the court will consider whether it will take up the case.

Before tribal police could knock on her door again, Cat Barril opted to just get out of the way and move out this spring. In March, police had left a 14-day eviction notice on her door.

The 50-year-old single mother of two lived in her apartment on Nooksack tribal land for a decade.

Barril moved to nearby Bellingham, Washington. Her new place is piled with boxes.

"When you walk in the house, because the movers just unpacked everything on the bottom floor, so to get from my front door to the kitchen, we have to go sideways. There's a little path," Barril said.

A 50-year old woman poses in front of ferns in a forest.
Parker Miles Blohm
Cat Barril is the first to be evicted among a group of people who the Nooksack Tribe says were mistakenly enrolled in the tribe and aren't entitled to tribal housing. As a renter, her situation is a little bit different than others. This spring she decided to pack up and move to nearby Bellingham.

Barril is the first to be evicted among a group of people who the Nooksack says were mistakenly enrolled in the tribe and aren't entitled to tribal housing. But Barril is in a little bit of a different situation than most because she’s a renter.

The battle over tribal housing has reached the highest court in the state of Washington. On Tuesday, the court could decide whether the Nooksack Tribe should temporarily halt the evictions of some residents living on tribal land. In court documents, the Nooksack Tribe argues Barril and others are using housing needed by true tribal members.

Barril is sitting in her cousin Michelle Roberts’ dining room in Deming, Washington, the small town where the Nooksack Tribe is located. It’s just south of the Canadian border, surrounded by mountains and forest.

"At the end of this year, we were expecting to just being able to become homeowners, and now it looks like that's not even going to be possible," Roberts said.

Roberts was almost finished making 15 years of payments to buy her house. But the Nooksack is demanding that she and more than 60 others, who’ve all been making payments under a federal low-income Housing Tax Credit Program, leave tribal land.

Roberts believed "whoever lives in the home would own it no matter what."

Indigenous rights lawyer Gabe Galanda is appealing the evictions. He says the tribe doesn’t even own the homes. He says the actual owner is the investment bank Raymond James. It got tax credits for building them.

"They got the tax credits, and now they're just hiding behind tribal sovereignty while brown people are being evicted from their home. That's not fair," Galanda said in an interview from his Seattle office.

Galanda says no one – including the big investment bank – is intervening out of fear of betraying tribal sovereignty.

And he says if this federally backed housing was anywhere other than on tribal land, these evictions wouldn’t be allowed.

"This would not happen to any Black family in South Seattle, any Asian family in North Seattle, any Hispanic family in the Yakima Valley, any Indigenous family off tribal land," he said.

Earlier this year, in an unprecedented move, experts from the United Nations called on the federal government to intervene and prevent people from being evicted. The UN noted that the move had at one point been prohibited by the Nooksack Tribe’s own court.

Like other Nooksack members being threatened with eviction, Barril and Roberts are both Filipino and Native American, or what some call "Indipino." Galanda says his clients are being singled out in part because of that, though he says this kind of mixed identity is common among Native peoples.

"This idea of Indipinos is one that pervades the entire Pacific Rim from Alaska to Washington to Oregon to California. Because especially during poor times like the Depression, Indigenous peoples were finding work in farms like the Yakima Valley," he said. "And then that's also where they would go and interact with Filipino people and ultimately intermix and intermarry."

Roberts learned about Filipino traditions from her grandfather but also heard her grandmother speak the Nooksack language.

"My grandmother, she spoke the language, and she did basket weaving," Roberts said. "I have to say that we probably grew up more with our Filipino side, my grandfather...But we heard stories many, many, many stories from my grandmother."

She remembers her grandmother telling her what it was like at the Native boarding school that she was forced to go to.

"All the kids that had scarlet fever, they put them into this room, which they said was just basically a box with a dirt floor, no windows and a bucket in the middle of the room with some water and left them to die," she said.

The fight over the Nooksack evicting people from their homes and denying them membership has been dragging on for a decade. Barril says the drawn out fight has affected her children.

"I mean, this is all my daughter knows. This is where she grew up. She knew she was Nooksack all her life. And then just to take that away from her," she said. 

It’s left Roberts feeling demoralized, even as the lawsuit that she’s part of is pending in the state Supreme Court.

The Nooksack Tribe says people can enroll and be eligible for housing if they’re direct descendants of a member who received an original allotment of land. Descendants of those who appeared on a 1942 official tribal census can also enroll.

KNKX also tried to reach Nooksack Tribe Chairwoman RoseMary LaClair for comment but received no response.

But Barril and Roberts say they’ve been denied the opportunity to show proof that they meet this criteria for a variety of reasons: family dynamics, political infighting — all stemming from greed and a desire for power.

The loss of membership has monetary consequences: the removal of housing, health benefits, COVID assistance, and in Roberts' case, help with her son’s college education.

"We sent him to New York, and and we had to bring him back home because we couldn't afford it. And he didn't qualify as a Native American anymore," she said.

A residential street with cars and older houses with forest behind.
Parkers Miles Blohm
Michelle Robert's neighborhood in Deming, Washington. Investment bank Raymond James received tax credits for building the houses which are on tribal land. Roberts and more than 60 others threatened with eviction have all been making payments for their houses under a federal low-income Housing Tax Credit Program.

Galanda says those who have disagreed with the tribe kicking out Indipino members have been retaliated against. Years ago, someone even broke into the home of a former tribal council member who spoke up. They stole a set of intimate photos. She was bullied online and eventually that led to her having a stroke.

"That's why this hasn't changed. They are all living up there in fear," Galanda said.

Galanda says Nooksack has retaliated against him by barring him from representing his clients in tribal court.

Now, since he can’t go to tribal court, Galanda is pressing the state Supreme Court to take up the case in what may be a last ditch effort.

As she sits in her home in Deming, Roberts points to the baskets her grandmother used to weave and family photos.

She says for her and others the fight over the last 10 years has been about much more than just money or benefits.

"It's our birthright, it's our identity, and it's something that we just can't let go of," she said.

She says her family has simply wanted the opportunity to present their case. Now it’s up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether she’ll have that chance.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to