Questions about heritage of tribal leaders behind mega-casino

Questions about heritage of tribal leaders behind mega-casino »Play Video
One of the documents that some Cowlitz tribe members say raise questions about the legitimacy of the ancestry of some tribal leaders.

COWLITZ COUNTY, Wash. - Is the Cowlitz Indian Tribe trying to build its multi-million dollar mega-casino in Clark County on land that was never its traditional territory?

As a federal judge weighs that very question, KATU News has learned some tribal members are challenging their own leaders’ right to run the project.

Cowlitz Tribe member Steve Myers and his cousin, Thomas Hill, showed On Your Side Investigator Dan Tilkin internal tribal documents that raise new questions about whether some leaders of the Cowlitz tribal council even belong in the tribe.

“They’re not Indians,” said Myers, who is a card-carrying member of the Cowlitz and whose family has long played a role in tribal affairs. Myers' aunt – Hill’s mother – was tribal secretary in the 1950s and 60s, taking over the position from her mother who served as secretary for decades before that.

It’s through Hill’s mother that the cousins came into possession of documents that cast doubt on the degree of tribal ancestry of three of the top eight administrators of the tribe.  In other words, there are questions about how much Cowlitz blood they actually have.

The BIA and the Cowlitz Blood Quantum Requirement

Federal officials themselves acknowledged problems with the Cowlitz enrollment records and the calculation of blood quanta when they issued their official recognition in 2000, stating that “90 members do not appear to meet the petitioners own eligibility standards” and that “the blood quantum of several new members who did not meet the minimum eligibility of 1/16th was calculated as much higher than the actual Cowlitz blood quantum.”

Tribes are also obligated by law to adhere to the eligibility standards they adopt. Tribes can legally change them – but that can cause real problems, according to the BIA: “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.” (Final Determination For Federal Acknowledgement of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, page 193)

The Cowlitz aren’t the only tribe facing questions about lineage and legitimacy as casino money hangs in the balance. Right now the Snoqualmie Tribe, which runs a casino resort near Seattle, is going through a vicious fight amongst its own members over who is legitimately in the tribe.

That standard – called a blood quantum – helped the federal government decide who qualified as a real Cowlitz member when the tribe was granted recognition in 2000. The standard was a minimum 1/16th Cowlitz blood.

Tribe members now are entitled to share in any future casino proceeds, as decided by the tribal council. Membership also meant access to tribal-related benefits – subsidized housing for example, or monetary compensation.

Records show the tribe took the question of who was a ‘real’ Cowlitz very seriously – Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) documents show controversies over qualification split the tribe in the early 1970s. The 1/16th rule was also used to disqualify entire families from having a voice a in tribal affairs (Anthropological Technical Report, page 89 and 105).

That is why Myers and Hill were shocked by the information they recently uncovered in enrollment documents they say belonged to Thomas’ late mother, the former tribal secretary. The documents lay out the relations used to establish the blood quanta of tribal administrator Carolee Morris, human resources director Nancy Osborne, and – by association, since they are full siblings sharing the same parentage – their brother, tribal enrollment officer Randy Russell.

The enrollment documents – signed by Osborne in 1974 – say she’s 1/8th Cowlitz Indian. But five years before that, just 1/32nd.

The documents on Osborne’s sister, Carolee, also show changing fractions of Cowlitz blood. A third enrollment form uncovered by the cousins and provided to the On Your Side Investigators suggests Morris’ blood quantum level – and therefore shared by her brother and sister – might actually be as low as 1/64th Cowlitz.

That means they wouldn’t have qualified for full membership in the tribe using the 1/16th standard on the books when the federal government officially recognized the tribe. Keep in mind, Morris has been a tribal leader since the 1970s and records show her sister, Nancy Osborne, representing the tribe since the early 1990s. That was all during the time when the Cowlitz were barring others from membership because they lacked a 1/16th blood quantum.

Just months after the federal government recognized the Cowlitz as a tribe its leaders convinced tribe members to change the tribal constitution and remove any minimum blood quantum. Both Nancy Osborne and Carolee Morris held tribal leadership positions at the time.

The KATU On Your Side Investigators tried talking to each of the 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. Our roles are certified and confidential. For further inquiry about enrollment or tribal records, I will refer you to the BIA."

But when it comes to bad blood, the Bureau of Indian Affairs refuses to get involved. In a statement, the regional director here in Portland told KATU they “don’t determine tribal membership… that’s internal. The tribe sets the standard. We are not privy to knowing their lineage.”

Lawyers representing Clark County in their challenge to the Cowlitz casino proposal say tribal membership is not something the federal judge would resolve in her land use decision.

But the cousins hope these documents that question whether the people who stand to profit from the casino even belong to the Cowlitz tribe, will convince Cowlitz members to rethink their support of their leaders.

"They become recognized, then after they become recognized they changed the rules, because none of these people met the blood quantum to be enrolled in the tribe prior to recognition,” said Steve Myers. “They rewrote history."

His cousin, Thomas Hill, last week filed suit against the tribe in federal court, seeking to have the 1/16th blood quantum requirement reinstated and all who fall short of it – including Carolee Morris, Nancy Osborne and Randy Russell – be struck from the membership roll.