DEMING, Wash. — The tiny Nooksack Tribe, after fighting for more than a century to reclaim land lost in an 1860s government takeover, is under siege from a different foe, some tribal elders say.
They allege that a clan of outsiders masquerading as Nooksacks is controlling tribal government; taking tribal housing, fishing rights and other resources; and using Nooksack membership to provide cover for a massive drug ring.
Now, the elders say, they need the government's help.
"Where is the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Where is the help from Indian Health Services? Where is the help from HUD?" asked Rozalda Roberts, 66, a former Tribal Council member who contends the Nooksacks have lost control to the Rabangs, a 200-member family of mixed Filipino and Indian descent.
Roberts and other elders claim the Rabangs used lax membership rules in the 1980s to infiltrate the 1,449-member tribe. Since then, they say, Rabangs and their supporters have climbed the ranks of tribal government, and corruption and drugs have put a stranglehold on the tribe.
Federal prosecutors allege Rabang family members--including former Tribal Councilman Robert Rabang Sr.--took advantage of loose immigration rules for Indians and family ties among the Squ'ay Indians in Canada to run bundles of cash north and duffel bags full of pot south. More than a ton of pot was sold around the reservation, in Seattle and in Los Angeles for as much as $3,500 per pound, according to court documents.
Some 20 people have been indicted, mostly Rabangs or their relatives. Several pleaded guilty earlier this year to reduced charges, and others are awaiting trial.
Rabang relatives claim the charges only implicate a small number of a very large family, and they lash out at critics who they say are bitter over losing control of the tribal government.
But drugs are only the most visible Rabang influence, said Ivan George, 67, a Nooksack Pentecostal minister who recently joined Roberts and other elders at a cafe in Deming, home of tribal headquarters and the small but thriving Nooksack River Casino.
The more serious problem is growing corruption in tribal government and preferential treatment for Rabang family and friends, he alleged.
"We can't even penetrate our own leadership to find out what's going on," George said.
"They've pretty much taken over all the programs in the tribe," said Jeannette Peters, 34, who lives a few miles outside Deming in the tribe's Five Cedars housing complex, located across a one-lane bridge over the Nooksack River.
"When you go to complain about anything, you talk to the same people all the time," said her mother, Myrtle Neevel, 67. "You talk to [Rabangs], then you go to council, you talk to them again. They're such a big family, they just never run out."
When Roberts was on the Tribal Council in 1996, an enrollment audit intended to prove the Rabangs were not Nooksacks was dropped when more than 100 angry Rabangs confronted the council, she said.
"They threatened the enrollment committee," Roberts said, adding that after the confrontation, the audit "just went down the drain."
The Rabangs solidified their hold on the tribe in an election and leadership shake-up in 1998, when they controlled a large, committed voting bloc, George and others said.
Nooksack leadership has been under increasing federal scrutiny.
Two tribal leaders pleaded guilty this year to misusing federal funds. Another probe is underway into possible embezzlement of more than $300,000 in federal Housing and Urban Development funds, including more than $144,000 paid to a painting company owned by the daughter and son-in-law of Tribal Chairman Art George (no relation to Ivan George), according to a search warrant affidavit.
No charges have been filed. Published reports have said the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle is considering organized-crime charges against Nooksack leaders--an unprecedented move against a tribal government.
Such charges could result in a federal judge taking over day-to-day Nooksack operations.
A spokesman for the federal prosecutor in Seattle declined comment.
"This tribe is not run by organized crime," Art George bristled, adding that it was ludicrous to think the Rabangs had taken control. He noted that those who had pleaded guilty to drug charges were being evicted from tribal housing.
"I'm just fed up with all of this," said Narcisco Cunanan, a cousin and nephew of two Rabangs indicted in the drug case and, as tribal vice chairman, the highest-ranking Rabang relative.
"These guys made their mistakes, and they're paying for it," he said. "There are some good Rabangs out there."
Cunanan maintains his grandmother was a full-blooded Nooksack and the Rabangs are legitimate, contributing tribal members.
"I'll give you a little insight on why the other side's so [angry]," he said. "They used to be on the council, they used to run the housing, they used to run the liquor store and they used to run the smoke shop, and they don't do that anymore."
But Roberts, Ivan George and others say they are speaking for hundreds of Nooksacks who are afraid to protest because they live in tribal housing or hold tribal jobs.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs will not get involved in the membership question because tribes set their own enrollment standards, said a BIA official at regional headquarters in Portland, Ore.
The elders hope the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle will file charges against tribal leadership, though they're uncomfortable with the idea of another "takeover" of the tribe, which struggled so hard for full federal recognition in 1973.
"We're just such a very small tribe, and we're really struggling. We don't need this," Roberts said. "But on the other hand . . . we don't want this to happen to our children, our grandchildren."