Cowlitz tribe leaders respond to accusations

Cowlitz tribe leaders respond to accusations
One of the documents that some Cowlitz tribe members say raise questions about the legitimacy of the ancestry of some tribal leaders.

A week after KATU News aired a report about ongoing disputes within the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which is right now working to build a mega-casino on Portland’s doorstep, the tribal chairman is now answering accusations that some of the tribe’s top administrators shouldn’t even be members.

KATU's Dan Tilkin brought to light allegations made by members of a well-known tribal family that several high-ranking Cowlitz officials might not meet the blood requirements to actually be part of the tribe.

Since Tilkin’s report first aired, the men who brought us those documents have been banned from tribal property.

Steve Meyers and his cousin Thomas Hill have been ordered not to set foot on tribal lands and have been cut off from tribal services. Meyers has also received a letter from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe confirming it will “investigate ethics charges” against him.

“I’m pretty frustrated,” said Meyers.

Hill said the ban is retribution for questioning the lineage of tribal leaders.

“They’re spending more time on retaliating against us than they are looking at themselves and their own enrollment records," he said.

The cousins are talking about enrollment records they found in documents that belonged to Thomas’ late mother, who was tribal secretary in the 1950s and 60s. The documents cast doubt on whether three of the top eight tribal administrators are at least 1/16th Cowlitz Indian – which was the minimum blood quantum required by the tribe in its constitution when it submitted its official membership roll to the federal government as part of the tribal recognition process, granted in 2000.

The administrators are all full brothers and sisters, so they share the same blood lines, and they all hold influential positions: Tribal Enrollment Officer Randy Russell, Tribal Administrator Carolee Morris and Human Resources Director Nancy Osborne.

The enrollment documents brought to light by Hill and Meyers, which Osborne signed in 1974, indicate she’s 1/8th Cowlitz. But two years earlier, in 1972, she signed papers showing she was 1/16th Cowlitz. And five years before that her form indicated she was 1/32nd.

Sitting down with the tribal chairman

In preparing our original report, KATU News asked to speak to each of the three tribal leaders about the documents provided to us by the cousins – the answer was no. Instead, the tribal chairman leveled accusations of his own, writing in an email, "These records are stolen confidential records. Please return all of the records you have, as they are tribal property. They are out of date, incomplete and inaccurate.”

Chairman Bill Iyall reiterated those objections when he sat down with KATU News Wednesday for an on-camera interview. Here is part of our exchange:

IYALL: “We’ve told you over and over these are stolen documents.”
TILKIN: “But you have not talked about their content…”
IYALL: “Their content – this was basically a work in progress, there’s a process that was set up to enroll tribal members, to take into our government over the years. Ultimately all that went into a due process at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). They’re all certified.”

In a statement he posted Wednesday on the tribal website, criticizing the KATU News report, Iyall gets much more specific about the tribal enrollment records. He writes:

“The Tribe’s genealogies were subjected to thorough research and scrutiny by the US government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) professionals prior to our federal recognition. We are confident in the accuracy of our official enrollment records, as is the US government.”

But when the KATU Investigators asked the BIA for comment on the veracity of the documents and the questions they raise, as part of our original report, the Portland office issued a statement saying they “don’t determine tribal membership… that’s internal. The tribe sets the standard. We are not privy to knowing their lineage.”

BIA officials did raise several concerns about Cowlitz enrollment methods and records as part of their original research into the Cowlitz request for official recognition as an Indian tribe. The BIA findings were included in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Final Determination for Federal Recognition, issued in February of 2000.

BIA officials noted “the majority of CIT (Cowlitz Indian Tribe) enrollment files do not contain copies of the documentation from the applicant to the claimed Cowlitz ancestor”, noting that “individual enrollment files are not sufficiently complete and documented for the BIA to use them efficiently as a basis for establishing the official, post-acknowledgement base roll” of members.

Iyall, in his statement, claimed “there are no constitutional issues concerning ‘Cowlitz Enrollment’ records,” that the BIA felt that existed at the time the report was being prepared.

“As of 1999, based on analysis of new admissions, it is no longer clear that CIT is enforcing its constitutional requirements,” the BIA wrote in the final determination report.

Indeed, records included in our original report suggest the tribe had regularly enforced the blood quantum requirement in the 1970s and 1980s, rejecting would-be members whose lineage fell short of the 1/16th standard. But, as the BIA is quick to point out, a tribe is well within its rights to change those requirements as it sees fit, which the Cowlitz did soon after federal recognition was granted, dropping the 1/16th blood quantum rule.

Furthermore, Chairman Iyall said that he has confidential records that prove the leaders in question have always rightfully belonged to the tribe.

TILKIN: “You’re saying they were grandfathered in – that they were in under a lower blood quantum?”
IYALL:  “I’m not saying that. I’m saying that whatever blood quantum they had in the records – there was variability in the records. I can show you Thomas Hill’s grandmother had two different blood quantums.”
TILKIN: “Can we take pictures of Thomas’ records that impeach his grandmother?”
IYALL: “Those are private privileged information and we’re cognizant of the potential danger of identity theft.”

However, in regards to the sanctity of tribe members’ personal files, the BIA’s original research findings suggest tribal leadership was not above using that information for political purposes.

“People interviewed believed that leaders have used genealogical information against adversaries so as to jeopardize their or their children’s voting memberships … blood quanta have been evaluated to the disadvantage of a member viewed as troublesome and to the advantage of members closely allied to people in positions of power,” the BIA wrote in their report.

BIA officials went on to say, “The threat that a small change [to blood quanta] could do away with one’s own or one’s children’s voting rights is enough to discourage blatant public criticism  of the people who control enrollment, according to several informants who talked to the BIA anthropologists in 1999.”

Given the issues of tribal sovereignty, the BIA cannot step in; an official challenge to the legitimacy of a tribal leader can only come from within the tribe itself. That is what Thomas Hill was trying to do when he filed a lawsuit in federal court in late December over the blood quantum issue.
Although Hill is a member Quinault tribe, he is by blood ¼ Cowlitz.

KATU News reported on his legal challenge in our original story, but as Iyall points out in his website statement, “That lawsuit was dismissed by the federal court on January 3rd, the day of the newscast,” the judge describing the lawsuit as “frivolous.”

The judge’s ruling did not examine the validity of Hills supporting documents. The court decided the way he wrote the lawsuit (by hand, without the help of a lawyer) did not form a cause of action and that there was a lack of jurisdiction; therefore, it’s legally frivolous. 

Hill tells KATU News he’s going to try to get a lawyer to write the lawsuit.

Not that the Cowlitz should be surprised at a court challenge: the BIA warned tribal leaders in the “final determination” filing that, “inconsistency in the application of eligibility standards leaves a tribe open to serious membership disputes, and to lawsuits and raises issues under the Indian Civil Rights Act.”

Similar case in Seattle

That is actually happening right now with the Snoqualmie Tribe near Seattle. As reported by the Seattle Times this week, doubts about the reliability of family records used to establish membership have led to a fight so bitter there’s been talk of a federal takeover.

The Times’ story points out, “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.”

Iyall took issue with our original report, which cast the dispute over blood quantum of Cowlitz leaders in the context of the tribe’s effort to establish land rights on Portland’s door step in Clark County, where they can build a mega-casino.  

He writes: “The newscast tried to connect this story to our pending reservation and casino. The newscast used the stolen documents that are more than forty years old; a full twenty years before there were any Indian casinos in the United States. Any effort to link our tribe’s recognition documents and gaming is completely false and disingenuous.”

History of tension in the tribe

The tug-of-war between pro-business and pro-tradition camps within the Cowlitz Indian Tribe is deeply rooted and well documented by the BIA.

The final determination report includes notes on the public dispute in 1992 over the construction of a tribal sweat lodge, which BIA officials said highlighted “the cleft between the followers of [then-tribal Chairman] John Barnett, who focuses primarily on the business aspects of the tribe, and of another segment… who would like the tribe to put more emphasis on spiritual, cultural and welfare issues.”

The sweat lodge was also built “when a power struggle was going on between Barnett, the chairman of the General Council and Jerry Bouchard, the chairman of the Tribal Council” and that one of the underlying issues “may have been blood quanta of various individuals attached to Bouchard or to Barnett … Clearly blood quanta allegations were mixed in to the arguments about the sweat lodge and the role of traditionalists between 1992 and the present.”

The influence of heritage and membership on tribal business decisions dates back even further, to at least the 1970s, and sparked something of a civil war as the tribe was voting on the distribution of federal monetary compensation.

The final determination report, quoting from the BIA’s technical report on the tribe, sets the stage: “On March 3, 1971, the CTI (Cowlitz Tribal Indians) held a meeting to consider the proposed ICC  settlement. The overall vote was 172 in favor of accepting the settlement and 36 opposed. Among the opponents, however, were influential members of the group, including Donald Cloquet and John Barnett.”

Barnett (who was elected Cowlitz Tribal Chairman in 1982, serving until his death in 2008 – his son David Barnett is leading the effort to develop the casino in La Center) had specific ideas about what the tribe should do with the settlement money:  “Barnett advocated diverting 80 percent of the claims funds to buying land and building some sort of tribal government,”  according to a footnote entered in page 80 of the BIA’s Anthropological Technical Report .

The report goes on to document how Barnett’s group – calling itself the Sovereign Cowlitz – split off from the main tribe, and successfully overturned the earlier vote in favor of the ICC settlement, objecting to the fact that people they did not consider to be “actively participating members” of the Cowlitz tribe were allowed to attend the meeting (click on link above link to download PDF of the file).

Importantly, again quoting from the BIA findings, this controversy lead to the tribe’s first attempt to set a blood quantum standard in regards to distribution of tribal benefits. “As a result of the controversy over voter eligibility, the CIT (Cowlitz Indian Tribe) adopted a new constitution which much more precisely defined membership standards” voting to “exclude from receipt of judgment fund awards … Cowlitz descendants with less than 1/16th blood quantum.”