Who belongs to Snoqualmie Tribe? 'This is a mess'
A look at original documents at the National Archives alerts a researcher that records of family lineage used to claim enrollment at the Snoqualmie Tribe are unreliable.
Seattle Times staff reporter
He traveled with a notebook in his pocket, on an urgent mission.
All over Western Washington, for two years beginning in late 1916, Indian agent Charles Roblin sought out homeless, landless Indians, left behind and hiding out during the treaty-making era, who had never received the benefits promised in return for the loss of their land: a school for their children, tools for farming, money.
On sandbars in the rivers in northern Puget Sound, he found Sauk Indians chased out of communal gardens that had sustained them for generations, run out of the forests where loggers didn't want them, and burned out of villages where fishermen didn't want them, either. He traveled to Tolt, where Snoqualmies had lost their livelihood when the hop ranches were destroyed by aphids.
Roblin took down their names and family history, and recorded their enrollment in tribes according to their bloodline, so they could secure the benefits they had been promised under the treaties.
Those records are called Charles Roblin's Schedule of Unenrolled Indians, dated Jan. 1, 1919, or Roblin Rolls for short. In those records Roblin used a red pen to denote families that did not qualify to be enrolled at Snoqualmie, because they were already enrolled in other tribes.
But the red ink was undetectable in the black-and-white copies and microfilmed records that made it to Northwest archives, and at least three major families called out in the Roblin Rolls nonetheless claim Snoqualmie ancestry today.
Seattle anthropologist Jay Miller discovered that secret as he combed through the original Roblin Rolls — organized in a rainbow of colored papers and folders, and notated in colored inks — to help resolve an ongoing tribal enrollment dispute under a contract signed by Snoqualmie tribal secretary Nina Repin.
Miller's research indicates that Shelley Burch, chairwoman of the tribal council, several other council members, and some tribal members claiming hereditary chief status are descended from families nixed by Roblin in red ink. The mismatch with the original record shows that contemporary records used to claim membership today are unreliable, Miller said. "Most records after 1920 are inaccurate, messed up, corrupted or intentionally falsified," Miller said.
Some question the reliability even of the Roblin Rolls, because tribal members were self-identifying their lineage; the oral history they related could have been embroidered, and other complications defeat a perfectly square-cornered foundation.
Nonetheless, the Roblin Rolls preserved at the National Archives are used by many as a gold standard against which to affirm family trees and tribal enrollment claimed by Indian people today all over Puget Sound.
At stake at Snoqualmie is not only identity and the right to vote and hold office, but money. The tribe's casino just outside Seattle is pulling in more than $200 million a year by one estimate. The tribe is mulling an expansion that could boost revenue even more, for a tribe numbering only about 650 members — according to current membership records. But that number could get a lot smaller, or bigger, depending on how the tribe resolves its membership dispute.
A "rogue state"?
Tribes decide for themselves who is a member under their constitution. It is not unusual for tribal members to be of mixed Indian blood, but they may enroll in only one tribe at once, and must meet the qualifications determined by that tribe to enjoy benefits including the right to run for office and vote in elections.
The Snoqualmie tribe was recognized by the Department of Interior in 1999. Its first job as a tribe was to produce a base membership roll verified under the terms of its constitution, which says that to vote or hold office at Snoqualmie, members must have an ancestor on the original Roblin Rolls, and today possess at least 1/8 degree of Snoqualmie blood.
But the tribe never produced a base roll that it certified on those two fronts. And it has been fighting about who is qualified to be a voting member of the tribe per its constitution ever since.
Burch did not return phone calls for this story, but in an earlier email to The Seattle Times, she acknowledged the 2004 roll the tribe provided to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) did not include the blood quantum verification required by the tribe's constitution: "That roll had no blood quantum on it, and it was signed off by both governments and accepted," she wrote. In the email, Burch wrote she was satisfied with the roll because it had been accepted by the tribe's general membership.
But that doesn't meet the terms of the tribe's constitution.
"They've got to clean up their act," Miller said. "They are the equivalent of a rogue state. I have laid the foundation based on the constitution, and called attention to the illegality of the membership rolls, and the council."
Miller provided a copy of his findings to the Snoqualmie tribal council and casino leadership Nov. 25, but says he has received no response. His work is not finished, he notes, because neither the BIA nor the tribe would allow access to their files, to compare the lineage claimed by Snoqualmie families today against the historic public record. But that is work, he said, that needs to be done.
At Snoqualmie, the membership fight has intensified since 2007, when the tribe moved to open its casino in Snoqualmie, taking on $330 million in debt, the largest ever shouldered by a tribe to open a casino.
"The fraudulent records are there long before the casino, but they have come to roost with all the moneys and resources, which are not serving constitutional tribal people," Miller said. "It's not serving people who are Snoqualmie. They are supposed to come out of the Snoqualmie homeland. People need to know that behind all this are a bunch of really corrupt records."
The tribe is seeking to expand the casino with a 350-room hotel tower and 600 more slot machines, for a total of 1,700 machines in all. One estimate shows that could pump up total revenue for the tribe's casino property to nearly $300 million a year, including $230 million in gambling revenue. That would be a big jump from 2012, with $189 million in gambling revenue and $40 million from the casino's restaurants and other facilities.
"Somebody has to respect the documents. What I am doing is warning everybody who works in Puget Sound that this is a mess, and it has gotten to be a mess because of all the millions of dollars involved," Miller said. "If it were a little tribe in the middle of nowhere, I am sure nobody would have cared."
Feds not acting
Marvin Kempf is one of the latest Snoqualmie tribal members to take aim at the current council. In a letter to Snoqualmie Gambling Commissioner Jennifer Repin dated Nov. 26, he put the commission on notice that there are council members who don't meet the constitutional requirement to hold office, either as council members or the board overseeing the casino.
"Any actions by the tribal council and the [board] would be illegal and criminal, as pertains to the revenues and lawful property of the Snoqualmie Tribal membership/general council," Kempf wrote. "This letter [is] important in that it places you on notice of past, current, and future problems associated with the administration and assets of the Snoqualmie People."
Kempf said he received no response to the letter.
He has taken his battle to the federal level, urging the BIA to get involved, and insisting the Snoqualmies provide a base roll that meets the tribe's constitutional requirement.
Said Kempf, "We want them to do their job."
But in the past, the BIA has pushed the job right back to the tribe, which the agency says is legally responsible for managing its own affairs. And with federal funds frozen because of the federal budget crisis, there is no urgency for them to get involved, according to the BIA.
"The BIA Northwest regional office is aware of a tribal government dispute that may involve issues of membership qualifications," BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling, for the agency in Washington, D.C., wrote in a recent email to The Seattle Times.
"As of mid-November the BIA had determined that there currently was no pending federal action that it needed to take with respect to the Snoqualmie Tribe. Therefore, at this time we are still deferring to tribal forums for the resolution of their membership and tribal disputes."
The Snoqualmies can always change their constitution by a vote of the membership to make anyone a member they want to. But so far, the tribe hadn't done that yet, either.
As for Nina Repin, the tribal council has since expelled her from her seat on the council. Her council stipend has been cut off, and she's lost her job as tribal secretary. The expulsion was for hiring Miller to do the research, among other charges, according to the Dec. 17 council resolution. Repin said she is appealing the expulsion to the general membership, and staying in the fight.
"I am not a quitter," she said. "I wanted a fresh start for the tribe. The light is shining on the darkness, and the darkness doesn't like it."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.