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Federal Government Denies A Native American Tribe Millions


The federal government is denying a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest tens of millions of dollars and have shut down their casino and are taking over tribal health care. That's because the Department of Interior says the tribe improperly disenrolled an extended family of 300 people. Emily Fox from member station KUOW in Seattle reports.

EMILY FOX, BYLINE: Leaders of the NookSack Tribe in Washington state removed Deborah Alexander from tribal rolls and fired her from her job as a teacher about a year ago.

DEBORAH ALEXANDER: I didn't have income, so I just wasn't seeing a doctor at all.

FOX: Just before she was kicked out of the tribe, she had surgery to get precancerous lesions removed.

ALEXANDER: I needed to see a doctor every six months, make sure they don't come back because if you don't, they can turn to cancer.

FOX: She says she went to the tribal clinic twice and was denied treatment. Alexander eventually signed up for Medicaid. When she went to an off-reservation doctor a few months after that checkup deadline, she was told her lesions had come back.

ALEXANDER: They're playing Russian roulette with my life.

FOX: The NookSack Tribe and clinic would not return interview requests, but the federal government says Alexander should have never been denied tribal health care. That's because disenrollments happened after the NookSack council failed to hold an election when many of its seats expired. Because the tribal government lacks quorum, the Department of Interior says the tribe does not have a government. And the feds aren't recognizing the disenrollments.

DEAN SEYLER: We totally believe in the sovereignty of the tribe and support that.

FOX: Dean Seyler is the area director of Indian Health Services. He says his department is following the Interior. He says the tribe doesn't have the authority to disenroll people and deny them services unless they hold a fair council election.

SEYLER: You know, whatever the tribe decides to do when they have a duly elected council, if they want to disenroll folks, that's their tribal business.

FOX: In the meantime, Seyler says his department is pulling out $2.5 million from the tribal clinic. They're also making a network of off-reservation health centers available for NookSack members and the disenrolled.

SEYLER: Well. I've never dealt with a reassumption at this level, where we're pulling the funds and overtake - providing the health care - the whole spectrum of health care.

FOX: Other federal departments are intervening as well. The National Indian Gaming Commission has shut down the NookSack casino. And the tribe has lost out on tens of millions of dollars because it can't legally sign off on state and federal contracts that fund things like the tribal clinic, housing and construction projects.

ALEXANDER: Watch your tips. Follow the person in front of you.

FOX: Out on the coastal waters between Washington and British Columbia, Northwest tribes gather for a multi-day canoe journey. They're paddling traditional trade routes hundreds of miles long. Deborah Alexander is helping lead about a dozen young paddlers on the trip, most of whom were also disenrolled.

ALEXANDER: We're fighting for our right to remain NookSack.

FOX: Alexander's long wooden canoe is named after her grandmother, Emma. She's a symbol of disenrollment. The NookSack tribal government says Alexander and her extended family of 300 were disenrolled because they couldn't provide the birth certificate of Emma's mother.

ALEXANDER: Frank (ph), James (ph), see how I'm holding my paddle?

FOX: Alexander says there is a bright side to this saga. This questioning of identity by the tribe has inspired her and many of her family members to get more involved in their indigenous roots. They're canoeing again and starting to learn traditional dances and songs for the first time.

ALEXANDER: When this journey started, we didn't have songs. Now, we have 10, 20 songs.

FOX: She says her family's songs were lost through generations of cultural assimilation. Back onshore, Alexander's nephew, Roland Cuartero, leads strumming and singing among other paddlers and young men on this year's trip.

ROLAND CUARTERO: Last year was my first journey. It's where I learned the power of the drum is the cowat (ph).

FOX: And he says he wants to help pass on this tradition so it's around for future generations.

CUARTERO: They say whenever you pick up the cowat, you don't belong to yourself anymore. You belong to your people.

FOX: And while Cuartero and his family continue to fight a legal battle for tribal recognition, they'll keep working on their personal identity by embracing their own native culture. For NPR News, I'm Emily Fox in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily is a reporter and producer for Stateside and fill-in host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered.