The terms of office have expired for most members of the Snoqualmie Tribal Council, and an enrollment audit still in the works has revealed the chairman of the tribe and two members of its council aren't qualified under the tribe's constitution to hold office or vote.
Neither is the tribal member on the board of a new gambling venture in Fiji, in which the tribe has already invested $1.5 million.
The tribe hasn't had an election in two years, because of members' inability to agree who is qualified to vote or hold office, due to an ongoing tribal-membership dispute.
Stan Speaks, Northwest regional director for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the tribe is perilously close to a takeover by his agency if it can't muster the ability to hold an election.
"If they can't do that, they are hardly really a tribe," Speaks said. He said his agency is loathe to step in, but the tribe is increasingly at risk of losing control of its own self-governance.
It's an internal dispute with the potential to reach beyond the tribe.
For instance, the official offering memorandum issued to potential buyers of $330 million in bonds the tribe sold to pay for its casino in North Bend requires the casino to be overseen by a tribal Authority Board, the members of which are the same as the 11-member tribal council.
Rating agencies recently raised the casino's bond rating, based on improved revenues. The tribe also has caught up on financial audits that had been in arrears, and it received a clean bill of health for compliance with regulations by the Nation Indian Gambling Commission.
Whether the tribe's election impasse affects the casino is unclear. Rick Dey, of the Washington State Gambling Commission, said his agency is monitoring the situation. A call to the casino general manager was not returned. The chief of staff for the National Indian Gaming Commission declined to comment.
Nina Repin, 56, of Snohomish, is the only regular voting member of the council today whose term is unexpired and whose blood quantum also has so far been shown to meet the tribe's requirements to hold office.
Speaks, of the BIA, traces the trouble back to the time of the tribe's battle for recognition by the federal government. Once the federal government recognizes a tribe, it is up to the tribe itself to decide who is a member, using factors from degree of Indian blood to decendancy from treaty signers or a combination of characteristics. Tribes may also change those requirements when and however they like.
After it was recognized in 1999, the Snoqualmie Tribe was supposed to determine who, according to its governing documents, is a tribal member, and with what rights and privileges, such as the ability to vote.
"They have not addressed one major issue, and that is their membership, from day one," Speaks said. "The recognition group evidently did not look very carefully at their membership and the criteria for membership. That has carried over to where they are today. That has really been their downfall. They can blame anyone they want, but internally, that was their responsibility. They just didn't take care of it."
At Snoqualmie, the present constitution requires that anyone who runs for office or votes must possess at least one-eighth degree of Snoqualmie blood. A person may still be a Snoqualmie tribal member with less blood degree.
The tribe submitted a list of members during its petition for recognition but never corrected it for duplication, errors or even outright forgery, said Kenneth Tollefson of Shoreline, an anthropologist who worked on the recognition petition. "Even I am on it," he said.
Tollefson is a non-Indian but was adopted into the tribe.
Efforts ever since by the tribe to decide who meets the requirements to run for office or vote have foundered in disagreement. Some say everyone on the base roll is at least one-eighth Snoqualmie. Others want confirmation, by independent genealogical research, and even DNA testing. An enrollment audit is being prepared now for the tribe by an independent contractor to identify the Snoqualmie people on the tribe's base roll with at least one-eighth blood degree.
But the audit has come under attack by dueling families, and council members are talking about scrapping the audit before it has even been completed or submitted.
The enrollment issue came to a head in 2007 once the tribe moved to open its casino in North Bend, taking on $330 million in debt, the largest ever shouldered by a tribe to open a casino.
The tribe became consumed with infighting over its enrollment and election procedures that haven't let up since. The fight burst into the open when Jerry Enick overturned a 2007 election, igniting a dispute that culminated in a 2008 federal-court case over the banishment of nine Snoqualmie tribal council members, including the tribal chairman.
At that time, those banished cried foul, and Enick's use of his ceremonial title was criticized as an attempt to thrust his family into power. Before long, Enick was at the center of a showdown in which the validity of his position as a hereditary chief of the tribe has been questioned.
On May 20, another group formed an emergency tribunal that recalled the remaining two council members with unexpired terms, and empowered itself to convene the membership to hold an election in June. "We are going forward; we are going to have an election," said Carolyn Lubenau, head of the emergency tribunal.
But others say the tribe still has to create a list of qualified voters before any election can stick. "We need to hold on and be patient," said tribal member Marvin Kempf. "No one can vote until we get a clear genealogy and know who are the qualified voters."
Repin said she has worked for her tribe her whole life and is saddened by the current state of affairs. "I just want to see us work together for the good of all the people."
The BIA's Speaks said he had never seen such a breakdown of a tribe in all of the Pacific Northwest. "If they are at a point where they can't administer anything, we will step in, and we are getting close to it," Speaks said. "There has to be some kind of election conducted regardless of how that occurs. They need to do that. They have to get a viable, functioning government in place."