Friday, December 28, 2012
BAD BLOOD at Snoqualmie. Snoqualmie Leadership Flouts Laws
Marvin Kempf lives on a massive piece of land in Rockport, Washington, that can only be described as picturesque. To the north, the Cascades begin their sharp ascent on the way to piercing the clouds. The Skagit River runs just to the south, and at times the quiet on his property is so absolute that, if you listen closely, you can almost make out the sound of the water slapping the rocks as it flows down from the mountains. Spend a couple hours up here, in the shadow of the tepee that stands outside Kempf’s home, and you almost forget where you are or what century you’re living in. In fact you get lulled into a sense of peace so overpowering that it’s hard to believe this has become base camp in a bitter war for the soul of the Snoqualmie Indian tribe.
Kempf is, he says, three-quarters Snoqualmie. And as the descendant of Chief Sanawa, who led a portion of the tribe in the 1800s, he’s the Snoqualmie’s rightful hereditary chief. “I’ve got the papers to prove it,” Kempf said as he sat at a picnic table smoking cigarettes near that tepee on a sunny day in September. “I’m big-time Snoqualmie.” Normally, Kempf says, he wouldn’t draw attention to what he calls his “inherent birthright,” because that’s just not the way a chief should carry himself; respect is earned in Indian country, not demanded. And besides, vanity isn’t in his nature. “We wasn’t brought up that way,” he says. “We weren’t supposed to brag or boast.”
But the last two years have been anything but normal. First Kempf lost his tribal membership in March 2010. Since then he’s watched the Snoqualmie leadership routinely flout its own laws, refuse to hold tribal elections while clinging to their positions of power, and boot anyone who challenged them. And then came the bizarre announcement in December 2011 that the Snoqualmie had partnered with an overseas developer to build a new casino in, of all places, Fiji, making it the first tribe to expand its gaming enterprise outside of the United States. But that’s not what’s prompted him to speak out. What really galls him is his belief that many of the people who have been making these decisions have been lying about their tribal ancestry for years.
Conflict is nothing new for the Snoqualmie. The tribe of roughly 650 members earned federal recognition in 1999, but only after the Tulalip tribe—which isn’t a traditional tribe so much as an amalgam of several Northwest Indian peoples—filed a lawsuit to prevent it. (The Tulalip tribe argued unsuccessfully that many of their members were descended from the Snoqualmie people, thereby negating the need for the government to recognize another group.) Five years later, the Snoqualmie were feuding with the Snoqualmoo—a smaller, as-yet unrecognized tribe that shared some history with them—over a proposed expansion of the Salish Lodge.
But it’s rancor from within that has defined the Snoqualmie tribe for decades, and virtually all of it stems from members’ claims to Native American bloodlines. In the early ’90s, a tribal council chairman had his membership revoked after challenging another member’s ancestry. A few years later another council person was removed for the same reason. Then, in 2008, eight more members, many of them in leadership positions, were removed, although they successfully sued to be readmitted. (They had to take the case to the federal level, though, in part because the tribe shut down its own court system.) The tribe’s constitution states that “membership is a privilege that may be revoked…for cause as determined by the acts and resolutions of the tribe,” but what constitutes just cause isn’t stated. And in practice the process has been equally vague and at times arbitrary. In some cases, a select group of the membership will vote to remove someone. In others, it’s the nine-member tribal council that votes. But in virtually all cases, those who lose their membership have no opportunity to face their accusers or plead their case.
The current imbroglio, the one that’s got Marvin Kempf so fired up, is much grander in scope and even more contentious. For the first time since the tribe was recognized, the blood of every single Snoqualmie has been placed under the microscope. Blood, it bears noting, is almost exclusively a figurative term in Indian country. The literal definition—which in the context of Native American history conjures images of war and violent genocide—is, ironically, an afterthought now. These days the word refers to something less tangible but much more complex and valuable. An Indian’s blood quantum, or degree of Native American ancestry, not only represents a link to family, but it’s also proof of membership in the tribe. And with membership comes voting rights and access to health care and subsidized housing.
The terms of enrollment in the Snoqualmie tribe are simple. According to a 2002 amendment to its constitution, members must be able to demonstrate they are at least one-eighth Snoqualmie and descended from someone on Roblin’s Rolls, a 1919 Indian census. And yet despite having been federally recognized for more than a decade, no one really knows for sure who in the Snoqualmie tribe is actually Snoqualmie. Plenty of people claim to know, but with few exceptions they can’t prove anything—and virtually all of the blame for the confusion rests at the feet of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA, which acts as the federal liaison to the more than 550 tribes across the country, recognized the Snoqualmie without obtaining an enrollment list and the blood quantum of everyone on it. Chaos has reigned ever since.
“This is Indian country on steroids,” says Jay Miller. He knows from experience. An anthropologist and former University of Washington professor, Miller began trying to untangle the tribe’s family tree last summer. “There are disputes like this in many tribes, but nothing like what’s going on among the Snoqualmie. It’s…” He pauses for a moment, as if trying to wrap his mind around the magnitude of the problem. “It’s over the top. Incredibly over the top.”
How the situation in the Snoqualmie tribe got so out of hand is complicated. But the why is fairly straightforward: money. Whoever controls the tribe controls its casino, which opened in Snoqualmie in 2008 and, according to some within the tribe, now brings in north of $200 million a year. And, in the future, members will be eligible for a cut of the profits—as much as $2,000 per person per month, according to talk that circulated earlier this winter. That explanation makes the power struggle a little easier to understand, but it doesn’t make it any easier to believe for outsiders who have witnessed it. “You almost feel like you’re going crazy,” says one genealogist who has worked with the tribe. Another puts the conflict in even starker, more ominous terms: “There isn’t anyone you can trust. The problem is that every one of these people that you’re going to talk to has an agenda. Every. Last. One of them.”
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