A federal judge ruled Friday that a lawsuit filed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community against BNSF Railway over oil train shipments may continue in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik denied a motion by BNSF to refer key questions to the Surface Transportation Board, a three-member board in Washington, D.C., that oversees railroad operations, according to a news release.
The Swinomish tribe sued BNSF in April for violating the terms of an easement agreement allowing trains to cross its reservation in Skagit County.
The lawsuit concerns train tracks laid along the northern edge of the reservation in the 1800s without consent from the tribe or federal government. The tracks serve two Anacortes oil refineries, and in 1976 the tribe filed a lawsuit for nearly a century of trespass.
In 1991, the tribe and BNSF signed an agreement settling that lawsuit and granting BNSF an easement with several conditions: BNSF would regularly update the tribe on the type of cargo, and only one train of no more than 25 railcars would cross the reservation in each direction daily. In exchange, the tribe agreed not to “arbitrarily withhold permission” from future BNSF requests to increase the number of trains or cars.
The tribe learned from media reports in late 2012 that “unit trains” of 100 railcars or more were beginning to cross the reservation. Today, BNSF is reportedly running six 100-car unit trains per week across the reservation, more than four times as many railcars daily as permitted by the easement, according to the release.
Each of these trains carry between 2.8 million and 3.4 million gallons of Bakken crude, a particularly explosive cargo that has drawn the attention of lawmakers and federal regulators.
The tribe never granted permission to increase the number of railcars and repeatedly demanded that BNSF stop violating the easement. So far, BNSF has refused.
BNSF argued it has a responsibility to provide service, even for hazardous commodities, and that the easement doesn’t give the tribe power to “dictate the commodities that BNSF can handle over the line,” according to the release.
Tribal attorneys argued that the tribe does not want to regulate BNSF operations, but wants BNSF to live up to its contractual obligations.
Lasnik agreed, writing in a six-page ruling that, “In the context of this case, referral to the (transportation board) is neither efficient nor necessary.”
The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting BNSF from running more than one train of 25 cars in each direction and shipping crude oil from the Bakken region across the reservation. The tribe also seeks judgments against BNSF for trespass and breach of contract.
A nonprofit with close ties to a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point is telling local and federal agencies that Lummi Nation plans to take over part or all of Cherry Point in an effort to “de-industrialize” an area that already includes two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter.
Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew called the claim a fabrication and a distraction from the tribe’s effort to halt Gateway Pacific Terminal through an exercise of its treaty rights to fish near Cherry Point and elsewhere in north Puget Sound.
“There’s just no way they could be blowing the cover on some plan we don’t have,” Ballew said.
Northwest Jobs Alliance wrote to the Whatcom County Planning Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month, asking them to oppose a tribal takeover of Cherry Point.
“It has come to our attention that there are those who would de-industrialize the Cherry Point (industrial area), but this rather radical notion would not serve the public interest,” the Alliance wrote in an Aug. 12 letter to the Planning Commission. The letter was signed by Chairman John Huntley and President Brad Owens.
Not named in the letter was Craig Cole, who is listed in the state’s corporations database as the director of the Northwest Jobs Alliance. Cole also was hired to do public relations for Gateway Pacific Terminal’s proponent, SSA Marine.
Cole said on Friday, Sept. 11, he is one of more than 100 members of the Alliance.
“I am one of the directors and support its focus on family-wage job growth and retention,” Cole said, along with “the continued viability of the Cherry Point industrial area.”
The Alliance delivered its message to the public in a press release on Thursday, Sept. 10.
The release refers to “a plan by the Lummi Nation to annex Cherry Point to its reservation.” The Alliance equivocates on just how much land it believes the tribe would take, but in some of its statements the group assumes the worst.
“It would decimate the job and tax base of the county, in particular the budgets of the Ferndale and Blaine school districts and Fire District 7, for which Cherry Point industries carry much of the tax load,” Huntley said in the release.
“While the Lummi people themselves and their treaty rights deserve great respect, this ploy to snatch nontribal land is just plain wrong,” the Alliance said in an Aug. 20 letter to the Corps.
The Alliance points to a single page that it claims is a “Lummi Nation planning document” from 2012. The page describes a strategy that includes defeating the coal terminal, acquiring Cherry Point and placing it in trust.
Tribes can ask the federal government to acquire properties and hold them in trust for tribal use, even land outside a tribe’s reservation.
Lummi Chairman Ballew reviewed the document and said it did not come from the tribe.
“What they presented definitely has not been produced by the Nation,” he said.
Owens didn’t answer directly when asked by a reporter if the Alliance believed Lummi Nation wanted to tear down existing industries at Cherry Point.
“The indicators are that they’re in opposition to growth at Cherry Point, and that their goal is to acquire Cherry Point property and have it placed in trust,” Owens said.
Cole said the documented evidence of the tribe’s intentions said “in an unambiguous way” that the tribe is intent on taking Cherry Point land.
“Some of it is pretty direct,” he said.
Documents used by the Alliance to support its claim include a 2012 resolution by the Lummi Indian Business Council to acquire Cherry Point “in order to prevent any further projects” and protect the cultural value of the area “in perpetuity.”
The only property specifically mentioned by the tribe for acquisition was the terminal site, and only after the coal terminal project was defeated. The documents say any acquisition of the terminal site would happen through negotiations with its owner, SSA Marine — not through a forceful snatching of the land, as the Alliance stated.
Ballew, who was not chairman when the 2012 ordinance was approved but sat on the council, acknowledged that acquiring a portion of Cherry Point was “a part of the operative part of the resolution.”
“But the more significant policy statement in that resolution is to protect the site,” Ballew said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that the tribe acquires the land.”
“As far as I know the property isn’t for sale, and we haven’t taken that into consideration,” he said.
Ballew emphasized the importance of protecting the tribe’s cultural heritage at the coal terminal location, which he said was the site of an ancestral village. For now, he said, the tribe is focused on protecting its fishing rights through its request to the Corps to stop Gateway Pacific Terminal.
“They’re fabricating a false conspiracy,” Ballew said. “This is a distraction to our request to the Corps to protect our treaty rights.”
The tribe says the terminal pier and up to 487 ships per year traveling to and from the port would do irreparable harm to tribal fishing. At full capacity, Gateway Pacific Terminal would export 48 million metric tons of coal a year to overseas markets.
In its letter, the Alliance asked the Corps to “publicly disassociate” itself from the tribe’s takeover plans and reject its request to halt the terminal project.
Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said the agency continues to consider the tribe’s request.
“The Army Corps of Engineers is focused on evaluating the actual proposal we have in hand for the Gateway Pacific Terminal and not on speculation regarding what may or may not happen with regard to future property ownership at Cherry Point,” she said.
Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article34980117.html#storylink=cpy
The Dakotan sky is starting to blacken: “Something bad is coming this way; that wind came out of nowhere; something’s wrong, something’s very wrong,” a voice behind me warns. It’s almost midnight at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s “Spirit Camp” and the winds in the middle of the Great Plains are gusting alarmingly fast. “Are we OK out here?,” I shout above the flapping tents and flying debris, suddenly concerned that five teepees won’t give much shelter against the oncoming storm. The reassurance I am looking for is not forthcoming: “A prayer wouldn’t go amiss.”
In the Sioux’s Lakota mythology, Taku Skanskan, master of the four winds, is the herald of change (and of chaos). And on the first anniversary of this camp, built in opposition to the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline, its future is up in the air. Quite literally: by morning four of the five tents will lie shredded on the ground, and one camp member will be in hospital.
The proposed pipeline, or “Black Snake” as the Sioux call it, creeps ever closer. To Transcanada, the corporation behind it, these 1,179 miles of pipeline offer the most efficient method of connecting Canadian tar sands with oil refineries on the Gulf Coast. In Washington, it has become a political football, with Barack Obama vetoing a bill authorising the project in January. But big oil interests haven’t given up. Neither have Republicans, who have made building the pipeline a priority since taking control of Congress in last Autumn’s midterm elections. The assumption is that at some point it will be built.
“We’re protecting the future; for the people who can’t speak for themselves” – Gary Dorr, from the Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho.
Some suggest that its construction will make little difference to either job-creation, or to the overall extent of tar sands exploitation. For those who live in the pipeline’s path, however, it could change everything. None more so than the Native American tribes in South Dakota: perhaps America’s most downtrodden and overridden community.
To the Rosebud Sioux, the pipeline’s threat strikes deep. Its route, they argue, poses an untenable risk to their water supply. The lack of consultation from Transcanada is an affront to their ancient rights. Its exploitation of tar sands is an environmental curse on us all. In the words of their spiritual leader, Leonard Crow Dog (“God-Worcs”), such a pipeline would not just pollute the earth but risk leaving an entire generation “sterilised in their minds and in the conscience of their souls”.
For the last year therefore, a dedicated group of tribes-people have taken part in a continuous stakeout. Nestled within the sweeping Dakotan plains, at one of the few points where the pipeline would run near Indian land, lies a small circle of five white teepees. Only in America would the nearest named location to somewhere so remote be a place called “Ideal”. But to many anti-pipeline activists across the region – and the world – this unlikely camp has become just that: the ideal emblem of their fight.
It’s a responsibility that that weighs heavily on one of the spirit camp’s founders, Russell Eagle Bear (pictured above). After 365 days of ensuring that the camp stayed occupied – through wind, and cold, and heat, and spiders (“Oh my God the spiders!”) – he seems tired out. With furrowed brow and slow words, he explains the personal cost of keeping up the battle:
“There were times when we only had one person sitting out here… and now we’re at a time when I would like to think that we need a breather because it’s been an ongoing struggle I tell you; I get criticised all the time, I get threatened all the time.”
Some say he should personally have spent more time at the camp. Others that the camp should be taking the fight more literally:
“There are many, many people that come here who want us to pick up guns; y’know the pipeline hasn’t even started and yet they want me to sit out here with guns and things!”
Sometimes he feels as if he’s dealing with “big babies”. Yet he is also the first to acknowledge the personal transformations the camp has brought about for many from the community. Leota Eastman-Ironcloud describes her experience as nothing short of a “re-birth”. “She was here from day one,” Eagle Bear says with a fatherly pride. “Of course she has to go home and wash clothes and take care of business but she was constantly out here. And for a Lakota woman to stand up and defend us on our tribal land, that’s awesome; that’s so awesome it’s beyond words.”
Leota’s life has not been an easy one. Like many on the reservation where she was born and raised her three children, she has been touched by the hardship which characterizes Rosebud life. Located in the nation’s second poorest county, unemployment here hovers near 80 per cent and life expectancy is around 30 years lower than the American average. It’s a situation in which drug abuse, diabetes and alcoholism are rife, and suicide is epidemic. At breakfast one teenager turns up fresh from a night in the reservation’s jail. He’d been caught driving before the term of his drink-driving ban had ended. But he’s surprisingly buoyant: today marks a year of staying sober – a resolution made the day the tents went up.
This kind of reaction was an ambition for the camp’s founders from the start. From the outset, the Rosebuds’ response to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has been resolutely spiritual. “[Our elders] say that with prayer you can stop this thing,” Eagle Bear explains. It’s a decision that seems to have worked on a number of levels. One member even believes it has helped keep the anti-terrorism agencies at arm’s length, though says she can still “hear them click on and off when I call my grandmother”.
Paula Antoine, chair person of the Oyate Wahacanka Woecun – Shielding the People, a project of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Yet the camp’s symbolic power is turning in a new direction. Pipeline opponents across the country are increasingly being drawn into lengthy legal challenges – the Rosebud included. ‘We’re here to pray and we’ll continue doing that,” Eagle Bear assures the audience at the anniversary celebrations, “but we have to take that next step and deal with it in a legal way; using their courts, their laws and their courtrooms… We have the ability to do that as tribal people because this is our aboriginal land; this is our treaty land; this is our reservation boundary land”.
At a hearing commencing on 27 July, alongside three neighbouring tribal nations as well as the Dakota Rural Action and Bold Nebraska activist groups, the Rosebud will challenge TransCanada’s attempt to renew its state permit for the pipeline’s construction. Their argument focuses on what they deem to be an unacceptable threat to the region’s water supply. In particular, they cite the risk a spill would pose to the tribes’ own Mni Wiconi water pipeline, as well as to the vast Ogallala Aquifer (an underground system that currently supplies around two million people with clean water).
If this challenge fails, however, the tribes are readying themselves for an even bigger fight. This could involve a lawsuit against Transcanada and, if needed, the federal government itself. Gary Dorr of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, explains that the threat to the water pipeline is “an infringement” of the tribes’ historic rights. Jen Baker, a Colorado-based lawyer who works with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, agrees: “It would be a violation of the federal trust responsibility to tribes for the federal government to allow that.”
Such a lawsuit would demand recognition of something called “treaty rights”. According to Dallas Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network, these rights “represent the acknowledgment that our tribal nations are more than just a ethnic minority; that we have inalienable rights to determine not only what happens to our people but also to mother earth”.
Under a peace treaty with the federal government in 1868, Sioux lands were defined in a vast swathe stretching from the Missouri River in Montana to Big Horn in Nebraska. Certain Native American rights to that land were enshrined in this treaty. Events of the twentieth century saw this territory increasingly divided into smaller, separate, reservations – with the land in between becoming the property of the state. Many argue, however, that native rights over this vacated land were not included in the transfer. Thus, although Transcanada has tried its best to route the pipeline around today’s reservations, it still passes directly over land said to be held “in trust”, on behalf of the Native American peoples.
Spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog prepares for prayer.
There are many within the Rosebud community who know too well how far this trust has been abused over the years. Forty years ago, 76-year-old Leonard Crow Dog found himself sentenced for his political involvement with the American Indian Movement: “I fought for Indian rights and I went to penitentiary. I was sentenced for 23 years: scary,” he reminisces. The glee that the new understanding of Treaty Rights gives him, however, is tangible: “Lot of us didn’t know we owned all this land – we thought we owned Rosebud right there – now we have [rights across] millions of acres!”
Getting these rights recognized in court will be far from easy. Already the Rosebud are pressed to meet their legal defence needs and bring in expert witnesses. Just the other week it was ruled that testimony on tar-sand exploitation’s impact on climate change will not be allowed during the scheduled hearing next month, removing that element of their challenge.
There is some precedent for success though. In the early 1980s, the United States government acknowledged that the seizure of Black Hills territory violated the 1868 treaty. “They offered a money settlement to the tribal nations”, Goldtooth explains, but the tribes refused to take it: ‘“No we’re not going to take your blood money” they say, “We want the Black Hills back’’’.
Whether their challenge to Keystone XL stands or falls, arguments for a greater recognition of treaty rights look set to stay. From opposition to uranium mining and fracking to challenging the “unnecessary” placement of Native American children with white American foster families, many see the pipeline as “just the start” of a much wider battle.
It is one that could forge alliances not just across tribes, but countries. “We as native peoples have to get together now,” Eagle Bear exclaims. “Half a million native Mexicans up here with us – now wouldn’t that be something!”
Keith Fielder, Rosebud Sioux Tribe archeological monitor, surveys the wreckage after the storm.
Back at the camp, work is underway to rebuild after the storm. Despite the growing pressure the legal fight will put on people’s time and funds, the decision has been taken to keep the camp in operation, and to keep spirituality central to their cause.
During the day’s speeches, I admit I’d found the emphasis on prayer a little heavy. Yet lying in the dark that night, winds screaming above me, that scepticism thinned out. By the time I was helping clear up the debris the next morning it had gone. For many in this region the spirits, like the camp and the great Ogallala reservoir, are a connection that binds. “Even today, when you get that little soft wind, that’s the spirits responding, showing themselves; they’re coming through here,” Eagle Bear tells me. “It is a powerful time.” Taking on the power of Big Oil in America is no mean feat. The answer, perhaps, really is blowing in the wind.
Coal trains are not the only threats to sacred sites and traditional hunting and fishing territory.First Nations in the U.S. and Canada that share the Salish Sea contend that increased ballast water discharges associated with the Gateway Pacific Terminal would introduce invasive species to the local marine environment; that increased rail and vessel activity would increase the risk of coal and oil spills, and that coal dust from the railway and terminal would affect the health of marine waters and nearby communities. But the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is only one of the projects that would bring increased rail and shipping activity to the Salish Sea. Also proposed: Expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to Vancouver, B.C., and expansion of a coal, grain and container terminal at Delta, B.C.
The Salish Sea is currently transited by an estimated 10,000 cargo ships and tankers en route to and from oil refineries and shipping ports. The George Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University studied the potential risk for a large oil spill from increase in shipping and “an ever-changing vessel traffic mix” of cargo ships and tankers that would result from the three projects. The 2014 vessel traffic risk assessment was commissioned by the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency charged with coordinating efforts to improve the health of Puget Sound by 2020.
“Even though this area has not experienced major oil spills in the past 20 years or so, the presence of tankers in an ever changing vessel traffic mix places the area at risk for large oil spills,” the study states. “While a previous GW/VCU analysis of this area demonstrated significant risk reduction of oil transportation risk due to existing risk mitigation measures, potential for large oil spills continues to be a prominent public concern heightened by proposed maritime terminal developments.”
Concerns about coal dust and coal spills are bolstered by recent incidents in other communities.
“On more than one occasion, coal dust from the Brayton Point [power-generating] station has covered the nearby neighborhoods of Somerset, Massachusetts,” the Center for Media and Democracyreports. “On October 29, 2008, coal dust covered nearby Ripley Street, where residents reported having coal dust in their homes despite the windows being closed.”
Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Ashley Ahearn reports that in 2009, a representative of BNSF Railway Company testified before a federal review board that 645 pounds of dust escapes from each coal train car during a 400-mile trip.
“Since the 2009 testimony, coal companies have been required to apply what’s called surfactant or topper agent to the trains before they leave the mines,” Ahearn reported in March 2013. “BNSF researchhas shown that the surfactants reduce the coal dust by about 85 percent. That should bring the 645-pound figure down to about 100 pounds of coal dust escaping per car. There are usually about 125 cars per coal train.”
But coal in transit can harm health and the environment in other ways. In December 2012, a ship crashed into a conveyor belt at Westshore Terminals in Vancouver, British Columbia, spilling 30 metric tons of coal into the sea. In January 2014, a 152-car coal train derailed in Burnaby, British Columbia; three cars spilled their loads, one of them into a protected waterway.
Concerns about rail accidents in Washington state are shared by rail workers themselves. Members of the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), have proposed new rules for hazardous material trains in response to the recent explosions of oil trains in Canada and North Dakota. House Bill 1809 and Senate Bill 5679 would require trains carrying hazardous materials to have one or two additional staff on board. Previously, Washington state mandated six-person crews. Today, some trains operate with only one or two people, according to SMART.
“Our workers know how to run these trains safely, but the railroad refuses to provide adequate staffing, exposing the public and rail workers to death and injury,” said SMART legislative director Herb Krohn, a conductor and switchman on Washington’s rails, in announcing the bills.
The measures have bipartisan support. HB 1809 is sponsored by 34 representatives and has been approved by the House Committee on Labor. Companion bill SB 5679, sponsored by 24 senators, is before the Senate Committee on Commerce & Labor.
“Our bill simply restores Washington state’s common-sense safety standards,” Krohn said. “We looked at what went wrong in each of the catastrophic explosions and the close calls, and it’s clear that one or two people simply can’t monitor and safely operate these dangerous cargos. Adding even one more person to a train, particularly at the back of the train, will save lives.”
The Washington State Transportation Commission is considering four indigenous names for its newest 144-car state ferry.
The names proposed, in alphabetical order, are: Chimacum, Cowlitz, Sammamish, and Suquamish. Construction of the ferry is scheduled to begin this fall. The commission will accept public comment on the proposed names in October and is scheduled to announce its selection on November 19.
Semi-finalists that didn’t make the final list: Illahee, the name of an earlier state ferry; Tukwila, a Duwamish place name; Nawt-sa-mat, the name of a new regional coalition of Natives and non-Natives working to protect the environmental health of the Salish Sea; and Taina, the name of the hawk that leads the Seattle Seahawks football team out of the tunnel before its home games.
Chimacum, Cowlitz, Sammamish and Suquamish are First Peoples of the state.
According to the Quileute Tribe, the Chimacum were a remnant of the Quileute. They were signatories to the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point, and many S’Klallam and Skokomish peoples can trace their ancestry to the Chimacum. A town in Jefferson County is named Chimacum.
The Cowlitz Tribe “provided key assistance with pioneer transportation and commercial activities in what some historians refer to as the Cowlitz Corridor, which linked the Columbia River valley with South Puget Sound communities long before Washington Territory was established,” the commission reported. “The Washington Territorial Legislature honored the Tribe by naming one of our earliest counties for them.”
The largest Sammamish village was tlah-WAH-dees at the mouth of the Sammamish River. “In 1855, the United States government signed the Treaty of Point Elliott with the putative leaders of most of the Puget Sound Tribes and they were relocated,” the commission reported. “Descendants of the Sammamish dispersed into other tribes, including the Suquamish, Snoqualmie and Tulalip.”
The Suquamish people have lived in Central Puget Sound for approximately 10,000 years. The major Suquamish winter village was at Old Man House on the shoreline of Agate Passage at d’suq’wub, meaning “clear salt water.” The Suquamish name translates into the “people of the clear salt water” in Lushootseed. Chief Seattle, namesake of the city and first signer of the Point Elliott Treaty, was an ancestral leader of the Suquamish Tribe born in 1786 at the Old Man House Village.
“We took the stance where at the federal government level the scientists were still arguing, ‘is climate change a reality?’” he recalled. “We said ‘no, it’s a reality. What are we going to do to mitigate it?’”
The federal government took notice of the tribe’s climate change preparations.
“The Swinomish is a tribe that has shown leadership on climate in the past,” said Dennis McLerran, the Northwest Regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has awarded the Swinomish a $750,000 grant. McLerran met Thursday with tribal leaders to discuss their plans.
The money will be used to map where sea level rise will affect tribal infrastructure and sacred places. It will also fund an assessment of how climate change will impact tribal health and natural resources – like salmon.
“We think this is money well spent. The work that they’re doing here is work that we think will be valuable in a variety of other places and particularly for vulnerable communities and for tribal communities,” McLerran said.
Scientists project that sea levels could rise by more than 3 feet by the end of the century.
PORT TOWNSEND – The football practice looked the same at the old grassy field.
There were those familiar red and black football jerseys and the smell of fall hung in the air. It is a rite of passage in this small peninsula town, which has clung to a nickname for 88 years that many people felt was steeped in tradition.
But on this first day of classes, there were few signs of the term “Redskins” on this 400-student campus.
“We want to move forward,” says Scott Wilson, the Port Townsend High Athletic Director, who has led a sometimes controversial conversion. The School Board voted last year to change the school mascot, after numerous calls to do so, including from the neighboring Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
The school colors remain the same, but the players will now wear “Townsend” or “Redhawks” across their chests.
“Not that we want to obliterate the old one, but we want to be positive about this,” said Wilson, as he strode through the school gym.
The old references are gone, and a new logo is at center court. It’s just one of the changes on campus, which included the removal of a granite welcome sign near the school entrance.
Wilson estimates the cost is roughly $90,000 in all, and says some of the work falls under the needed infrastructure improvements, but that some of the other costs have been picked up by private contributions. He says the tribe donated $25,000 for the needed changes.
Port Townsend Junior Ellis Henderson walked around campus on this first day and said the change was finally settling in. “It’s good for the community, and why they wanted to change it. We know how some people found it offensive.”
His teammate, Lucas Foster, another Port Townsend Junior agreed. Although he wasn’t too sure about the name change originally, he said, “Now we’re Redhawks, and we’re liking it.”
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – An Oregon congresswoman wants federal recognition for the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes on the northern Oregon coast.
A bill by Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici would restore federal benefits to the Indian tribe, but not fishing or hunting rights. Recognition wouldn’t require a reservation, but allows members to live in Tillamook and Clatsop counties.
The tribe has been seeking federal recognition for several decades.
More than a century ago, the tribe signed treaties with the U.S. government that were never ratified and left the tribe in legal limbo. The Indians were forced from their lands by white settlers and in 1954 Congress – “terminated” their recognition.
Bonamici introduced the bill in the U.S. House on July 28.
Benefits for federally recognized tribes include medical and dental care, education grants and housing programs.
SANTA CRUZ, Ariz. The swath of land in southern Arizona that bleeds into the northern Mexican state of Sonora is a sprawling, largely uninhabited, desert divided by mountains and spotted with shrubs. Driving down dusty roads with a punishing sun overhead, it seems almost lifeless.
But this region is home to the Tohono O’odham Nation, a tribe of 25,000 people, who have shared the land with the road runners, mountain lions, jaguars and wolves for over 6000 years. In 1853 the US Mexico border was redrawn, effectively cutting the O’odham Nation in half.
This border itself did not present grave consequences for the tribe, however, until the late 1990s, when the US Border Patrol developed a new strategy for Border enforcement in the southwest. At that time, operations Gatekeeper in San Diego, Hold the Line in El Paso and Safeguard: Arizona in Nogales shifted enforcement to urban areas. The object was to force migrants into desolate desert regions, where they would either be deterred by the terrain or easily apprehended in open spaces.
The only thing that’s changed, however, is where migrants are crossing. The narrow corridor they have been edged into goes right through the Tohono O’odham reservation.
This land is also where the proposed border fence would be built, isolating the communities of O’odham people on either side of the fence and threatening the animals and vegetation of the biologically diverse Sky Island region.
Tribal members and environmentalists there are not concerned with the politicized issue of undocumented immigration to the United States. Their concern is the preservation of the culture and habitat that have flourished here for thousands of years and now face decimation by the construction of a wall.
Every October, O’odham tribal members make a pilgrimage from the US side of their land to Magdalena, Sonora in Mexico side as part of their annual St Francis festival. The procession is part of a larger event, with music, food and dancing and is their largest tribal festival. Increased border enforcement in the past twenty years has restricted this movement, but they still made the annual procession. Until this year.
On October second, the electrical lines to an O’odham community in Mexico were cut, leaving them without power. A tribal member decided to drive to the US side to get some generators so the celebration could go on as planned. As he was driving, his truck was shot at.
The man’s sister, Ofelia Rivas, along with most tribal members, is convinced that the cut lines and the shooting are related, perpetrated by drug smugglers who have set up operations on O’odham land and are trying to intimidate the residents.
Ofelia is a tribal elder and she has watched the impact that increased border security has had on her people’s land. Aside from the aggression from smugglers, she’s had to endure harassment by Border Patrol officers restricting movement on traditional routes. “One of the main things is that we are impacted by the immigration policies and we’re not immigrants,” she says. “We have to carry documents to prove who we are.”
Ofelia tells a story of one Border Patrol encounter that turned into terror for her and her family. She was with her daughter and grandson, driving home from an all night dance when they were pulled over. “Right away they said ‘Get out, get out’ because I’m in the back seat and I’m brown skinned and I don’t talk English too well, you know.” She asked why she had to get out of the car and the agent asked whether she was a US citizen or a Mexican citizen. She answered, “I’m an O’odham don’t you know you’re on my land? You should have some respect.”
At this point, Ofelia recalls, the officer got angry, unclipped his pistol and put it to her head, demanding that she say whether she is a Mexican or a US citizen. He said if she didn’t answer, he would handcuff her and have her deported. “I said where are you gonna deport me to? Mexico is my territory. My father’s community is there. O’odham community is there.” Ofelia shakes her head. “By then my daughter is crying, my grandson is crying and I can’t cry because I’m really angry but I’m very much afraid.”
Then another Border Patrol truck pulled up and the agent accosting Ofelia put his gun in his holster. They were promptly let go.
The terrain in this corner of the continent is referred to as the Sky Island Mountains. The name alludes to the natural phenomenon of lush, vegetated mountains surrounded by a sea of desert. It is considered the most biologically diverse region in North America, connecting desert, tropics and mountains.
Matt Skroch is the executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, a non profit organization which dedicates itself to the preservation of the region. Most of their energy now is spent trying to raise awareness to the importance of what they call “wildlife connectivity” across the border, which he says would be devastated by the construction of a wall.
“The region is defined in both the United States and in Mexico,” Matt explains. “It’s one unique biological region that spans the international border. In that sense, it’s very much connected. The Sky Islands to the north of the border are connected geographically, topographically, biologically, ecologically with the mountains south of the border. And its imperative that permeability of the landscape remains so that our web of life, our plants and animals are able to migrate back and forth.”
Sergio Avila, a wildlife biologist for the Sky Island Alliance, uses the example of the jaguar — an animal native to the region — to explain his position.
“Animals don’t know about borders, different countries, languages or visas. So anything that prevents the animals from moving is gonna be a problem, no matter what side the animals are at. . . It’s just dividing the same region. Its’ not going to be a matter of well, what side is the jaguar in? Is it in the US side? Are we going to keep it in the US? Or is he gonna stay in Mexico? It is not good to leave it in one side or the other. We shouldn’t have to choose for the animal.”
Beyond the abuse and the fear, Ofelia Rivas is most troubled by the prospect of the construction of a fence. “We don’t agree with this wall,” she said. “It’s like a knife in our mother (earth). These metal things are going to go in our mother and we can’t pull them out.”
Mia Prickett’s ancestor was a leader of the Cascade Indians along the Columbia River and was one of the chiefs who signed an 1855 treaty that helped establish the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon.
But the Grand Ronde now wants to disenroll Prickett and 79 relatives, and possibly hundreds of other tribal members, because they no longer satisfy new enrollment requirements.
Prickett’s family is fighting the effort, part of what some experts have dubbed the “disenrollment epidemic” — a rising number of dramatic clashes over tribal belonging that are sweeping through more than a dozen states, from California to Michigan.
“In my entire life, I have always known I was an Indian. I have always known my family’s history, and I am so proud of that,” Prickett said. She said her ancestor chief Tumulth was unjustly accused of participating in a revolt and was executed by the U.S. Army — and hence didn’t make it onto the tribe’s roll, which is now a membership requirement.
The prospect of losing her membership is “gut-wrenching,” Prickett said.
“It’s like coming home one day and having the keys taken from you,” she said. “You’re culturally homeless.”
The enrollment battles come at a time when many tribes — long poverty-stricken and oppressed by government policies — are finally coming into their own, gaining wealth and building infrastructure with revenues from Indian casinos.
Critics of disenrollment say the rising tide of tribal expulsions is due to greed over increased gambling profits, along with political in-fighting and old family and personal feuds.
But at the core of the problem, tribes and experts agree, is a debate over identity — over who is “Indian enough” to be a tribal member.
“It ultimately comes down to the question of how we define what it means to be Native today,” said David Wilkins, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and a member of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe. “As tribes who suffered genocidal policies, boarding school laws and now out-marriage try to recover their identity in the 20th century, some are more fractured, and they appear to lack the kind of common elements that lead to true cohesion.”
Wilkins, who has tracked the recent increase in disenrollment across the nation, says tribes have kicked out thousands of people.
Historically, ceremonies and prayers — not disenrollment — were used to resolve conflicts because tribes essentially are family-based, and “you don’t cast out your relatives,” Wilkins said. Banishment was used in rare, egregious situations to cast out tribal members who committed crimes such as murder or incest.
Most tribes have based their membership criteria on blood quantum or on descent from someone named on a tribe’s census rolls or treaty records — old documents that can be flawed.
There are 566 federally recognized tribes and determining membership has long been considered a hallmark of tribal sovereignty. A 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed that policy when it said the federal government should stay out of most tribal membership disputes.
Mass disenrollment battles started in the 1990s, just as Indian casinos were establishing a foothold. Since then, Indian gambling revenues have skyrocketed from $5.4 billion in 1995 to a record $27.9 billion in 2012, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Tribes have used the money to build housing, schools and roads, and to fund tribal health care and scholarships. They also have distributed casino profits to individual tribal members.
Of the nearly 240 tribes that run more than 420 gambling establishments across 28 states, half distribute a regular per-capita payout to their members. The payout amounts vary from tribe to tribe. And membership reductions lead to increases in the payments — though tribes deny money is a factor in disenrollment and say they’re simply trying to strengthen the integrity of their membership.
Disputes over money come on top of other issues for tribes. American Indians have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage in the U.S. — leading some tribes in recent years to eliminate or reduce their blood quantum requirements. Also, many Native Americans don’t live on reservations, speak Native languages or “look” Indian, making others question their bloodline claims.
Across the nation, disenrollment has played out in dramatic, emotional ways that left communities reeling and cast-out members stripped of their payouts, health benefits, fishing rights, pensions and scholarships.
In Central California, the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians has disenrolled hundreds. Last year, the dispute over banishments became so heated that sheriff’s deputies were called to break up a violent skirmish between two tribal factions that left several people injured.
In Washington, after the Nooksack Tribal Council voted to disenroll 306 members citing documentation errors, those affected sued in tribal and federal courts. They say the tribe, which has two casinos but gives no member payouts, was racially motivated because the families being cast out are part Filipino. This week, the Nooksack Court of Appeals declined to stop the disenrollments.
And in Michigan, where Saginaw Chippewa membership grew once the tribe started giving out yearly per-capita casino payments that peaked at $100,000, a recent decline in gambling profits led to disenrollment battles targeting hundreds.
The Grand Ronde, which runs Oregon’s most profitable Indian gambling operation, also saw a membership boost after the casino was built in 1995, from about 3,400 members to more than 5,000 today. The tribe has since tightened membership requirements twice, and annual per-capita payments decreased from about $5,000 to just over $3,000.
Some members recently were cast out for being enrolled in two tribes, officials said, which is prohibited. But for Prickett’s relatives, who were tribal members before the casino was built, the reasons were unclear.
Prickett and most of her relatives do not live on the reservation. In fact, only about 10 percent of Grand Ronde members do. Rather, they live on ancestral lands. The tribe has even used the family’s ties to the river to fight another tribe’s casino there.
Grand Ronde spokeswoman Siobhan Taylor said the tribe’s membership pushed for an enrollment audit, with the goal of strengthening its “family tree.” She declined to say how many people were tabbed for disenrollment.
But Prickett’s family says it has been told that up to 1,000 could be cast out, and has filed an ethics complaint before the tribal court. They say the process has been devastating for a family active in tribal arts and events, and in teaching the language Chinuk Wawa.
“I have made a commitment to both our language and our tribe,” said Eric Bernardo, one of only seven Chinuk Wawa teachers who also faces disenrollment. “And no matter what some people in the tribe decide, I will continue to honor that commitment.”