United Nations says evictions of disenrolled tribal citizens must stop
The ramifications of sovereign tribal nations disenrolling their citizens is becoming a hot human and civil rights issue on the world stage.
United Nations officials are making clear that they stand firmly against what they view as human rights abuses toward Indigenous citizens who have been disenrolled by sovereign U.S. tribal nations.
In other words, the human and civil rights of individual Indigenous citizens trump tribal sovereignty, according to the United Nations — and the weight of U.S. law is on the side of disenrollees, they believe.
And that’s the way it should be, according to a growing chorus of vocal tribal disenrollee advocates who say that by taking their cultures, identities — and, in some cases, their homes — away from disenrollees, some tribal governments have become agents of human rights abuse.
“To me it really a question of evolving policy and making sure that in 2022 — two summers after George Floyd was murdered — that the first peoples of these lands are not the only residents or citizens of the 50 states who do not universally enjoy the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Gabe Galanda, an Indian affairs lawyer with Galanda Broadman, told Indigenous Wire.
“But that really is the unfortunate and ugly truth in 2022,” he added. “We are those people, and we do not even enjoy that promise.”
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest Native advocacy organization in the country, has previously released policy declarations against tribal disenrollment human rights abuses, but it has been silent on the topic as of late. Top officials currently serving there have said they prefer not to get into “Indian versus Indian” issues, and the recently-elected vice president of NCAI Mark Macarro is widely known to have overseen disenrollments at his tribe.
Galanda and his firm have picked up the slack, earning increasing national attention by defending in both real court and in the court of public opinion what have come to be known as the Nooksack 306, a group of tribal citizens legally fighting for their collective right not to be disenrolled from the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington state.
United Nations High Commissioners on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland today weighed in on the side of Galanda’s arguments and those of several disenrolled tribal citizens. The experts are Balakrishnan Rajagopal, special rapporteur on housing issues at the UN; and Francisco Cali Tzay, special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples at the UN.
Their decision comes as a result of 21 families facing eviction from their homes by the Nooksack Tribal Council.
The council has previously attempted to disenroll the families, but that decision has been prevented by the tribe’s courts. Still, the decisions have since been ignored by the tribe’s council.
The UN officials noted in a press release that the families’ homes were constructed by the tribe on land owned by the U.S. government and with funds from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a result of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act.
“The families are at various stages of acquiring ownership of their homes, and some are due to take full ownership this year,” the UN press release stated. “Many are elderly, women and children — some with disabilities and chronic diseases – and have lived in their homes for over a decade. The imminent evictions will significantly impact the health of some of the vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“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 UN experts said.
According to the press release, evictions were due to begin on Dec. 28, but they were halted due to snow and ice storms. Evictions are scheduled to resume this month.
“We appeal to the US Government to respect the right to adequate housing, which is enshrined under article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 21 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and to ensure that it abides by its international obligations, including with respect to the rights of Indigenous peoples,” the experts said.
On Feb. 1, the UN High Commissioners directly told officials in the Biden administration at the U.S. State Department to take measures to stop the evictions, according to Galanda.
Galanda said in a emailed note after the UN announcement was made today that “this may very well be the first UN diplomatic action ever taken to prevent Indigenous human rights violations in the U.S. by Tribal political actors.”
The U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) said in a statement last month that the federal government has some level of responsibility for the human and civil rights of tribal disenrolled citizens.
"The federal government must protect the rights of individuals under federal law, including the Indian Civil Rights Act,” Interior officials said in a statement to USA Today focused on tribal disenrollment. “BIA respects tribal sovereignty and supports tribal self-determination. Accordingly, we seek to work closely with our tribal partners to safeguard the rights of both tribes and individuals.”
Galanda told Indigenous Wire that he was not expecting that statement from the BIA, but to him, it was a “historic showing of federal commitment to protect Indigenous human rights.”
He further lamented that for the past 50 years or so of federal policy, the federal focus has been on protecting the “group right of tribal self-determination, rather than the individual human right, virtually to the exclusion of the Indigenous human right.”
“It’s a profound policy statement,” added Galanda, noting that it remains to be seen whether the Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo Laguna, will use her plenary authority to make decisions over such matters.
“Sitting here today, Secretary Haaland has plenary authority over almost every tribes’ rolls of enrollment or disenrollment,” he added, pointing to 1919 law and 1968 administrative actions that appear to back up that claim. “It remains to be seen, but it certainly gives hope for any Indigenous person who is being disenfranchised or persecuted by their own tribe’s politicians.”
The increased national and international attention and potential policy ramifications are leaving tribal disenrollees hopeful across the nation.
“I was disenrolled when I was 49; I'm nearly 65 now,” Rick Cuevas told Indigenous Wire regarding his and his family members’ disenrollments from the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, at which Macarro has been chairman for nearly 20 years.
“I want to give up, as so many have done, but I know my father — a Bronze Star awarded Army vet, who was also disenrolled posthumously — would be ashamed of me,” said Cuevas, publisher of the Original Pechanga blog. “So I'm here to help get the information out.”
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