SNOQUALMIE, Wash. – In November, the Snoqualmie Tribe will open the doors to a brand-new casino about 30 minutes southeast of Seattle. But instead of the media spotlighting pre-opening news on the $330 million project, the focus has shifted to the banishment of nine tribal members and the disenrollment of about 43.
The decision to banish former Chairman Bill T. Sweet and several of his family members, among other supporters, was made final during a closed-door general membership meeting at the Issaquah Hilton April 28.
In addition to voting on the banishments, the tribal council announced that the 43 individuals purged from the rolls failed to meet the blood quantum requirement for membership. According to a tribal press release, some members have already appealed the decision, while others have accepted it.
Councilmember and Chief Nathan Patrick Barker said that Sweet and some of his supporters recently attempted to seize control of bank accounts, shut down health and social programs, fire the entire staff and reach out to the BIA in an effort to receive backup on the effort. They are accused of running a ;’shadow government.”
”They tried to undermine the tribal government in every shape and form, and that was what they were judged on,” he said.
Sweet, who was suspended as chairman in August 2007, has his own take on the events that led to his fate. And Barker was elected to the council during a general membership and emergency election meeting in September.
For those facing banishment, the punishment is harsh. They are purged from the rolls and no longer eligible to receive benefits or dividends from future casino revenues. And those banished are no longer allowed to participate in tribal government and events, or even claim Indian identity.
Sweet’s problems began during elections last May. He recalled that the election went according to protocol, and those that were nominated and elected are the true tribal council to this day.
Barker, who served as the sergeant-at-arms during that election, said that a nomination to move the election process to the beginning of the meeting after the agenda was the first inconsistency to take place that day. He claimed the real eyebrow-raiser occurred when Sweet closed nominations while four tribal members stood waiting to nominate their person of choice for the council.
He also said that a former councilmember was forbidden to vote because she forgot to bring her tribal identification. The rule requiring members to present their IDs during elections was approved at the last meeting in 2006. Those minutes were not ratified by the council prior to the election, which Barker said makes that rule unenforceable.
”I think he let the room get away from him as far as the election process went,” he said. ”It’s unfortunate and, in hindsight, I think he would have run things differently.”
Over the course of the next three months, Sweet said that tribal business proceeded as usual and he felt no inclination that something big was going to happen. He said that he felt blindsided when, during open forum at an August council meeting, a tribal member stood up and read a letter written by Honorary Chief Jerry Enick. The letter stated that he was suspended and that the May elections were null and void.
”It was very emotional and I am still torn up inside,” he said.
Sweet added that Enick and his supporters have spearheaded the process that ultimately caused his banishment and the disenrollment of numerous members of his family. A tribal press release stated, ”Many of [Sweet’s] relatives were revealed to not meet the 1/8th blood quantum requirement for membership.”
Barker said that a tribal attorney, who was present at the August meeting, sent out a certified letter stating that Sweet had 30 days to file for an open meeting to discuss the charges. Yet Sweet claims never to have received the certified letter. And he further claims that his attempts to meet with Enick and other tribal council members fell upon deaf ears.
”I would call and I would hear a ‘click’; they would hang up on me,” he said.
The action that took place at the August meeting came on the heels of two petitions that were circulating through the tribe. One was to have Sweet removed as chairman; the other was to review the May election. Barker said it takes about 130 signatures to take action.
In September, new nominations and elections were held. Sweet said he and his supporters refused to participate and left the meeting early. From there, silence ensued until about March. That was when Barker said Sweet and his supporters tried to take measures to resume control of the government, which ultimately backfired.
During the April 28 meeting, the nine members up for banishment showed up to speak in front of the general membership that would vote on their fate. Sweet’s sister, Lois Sweet-Dorman, said that they were shut out of the meeting because they refused to meet alone with the tribal attorney, without the representation of their own attorney.
”We weren’t allowed due process,” she said.
It was a bitter twist of events for a family on the tribe’s rolls for generations.
Sweet-Dorman said she remembers standing on the shoreline and cheering her family on while they fought for fishing rights on Lake Washington during the fishing wars in the 1970s. She also served as the ambassador and acting chairman of the Snoqualmie Falls Preservation Project. The Snoqualmie Falls are sacred to the tribe, as they believe it supports the life cycles of salmon and cedar.
She joked that the banishment must be a rumor, as she said that neither herself nor her siblings, Ben Sweet and Linda Sweet Baxter, received an official letter. They heard about their fate from those who attended the meeting.
Sweet-Dorman said she was banished for being outspoken; Linda, a spiritual leader of the tribe, said she was banished for a prayer that she had made at a council meeting; and Ben, a minister of the Indian Shaker church, heard that he was banished for treason.
”It’s just very frustrating,” Ben Sweet said, adding that he has no clue what treasonous act he committed that warranted the harsh punishment.
Sweet-Dorman blames greed on the action of the tribal government toward her family.
”You’ve got this casino greed coming in,” she said. ”They appear like empty shells of people I used to know.”
During an interview, Sweet-Dorman showed photos of better days. The photos reveal the process by which the women of the tribe constructed a traditional vest to welcome Enick as the newly enrolled chief. Enick is a descendant of a chief, a title that is inherited and bestows ceremonial rights. He was enrolled with another tribe prior to his homecoming nearly a decade ago.
”We welcomed Jerry back with open arms,” she said.
Now she, and the eight other individuals banished, must feel the pain of severed ties.
Even Barker admits that the council should have examined varying levels of banishment before they considered full banishment.
”There are different levels that could have been explored,” he said, explaining that there are social banishments, banishments for a period of years, and full banishment.
He noted that all banished members are allowed to come before the council and appeal the decision.
”I have known these people for a long time,” he said. ”It’s hard to see this kind of division.”
Carolyn Lubenau, the former vice chairman of the tribe, now banished, summed up the whole process as undemocratic and vindictive.
”The government policy on self-determination makes it where these tribes can do anything they want,” she said. ”If you say anything, all the sudden you are brought up on charges. The biggest disappointment comes from having nowhere to turn.”
Sweet said that the banished plan on taking action, but would not elaborate on their plans.
”I am just getting warmed up.”
The Snoqualmie Tribe was federally recognized in 1999 and has about 600 enrolled members. Barker noted that disenrolled members, often called descendants, are still eligible for housing and health benefits, but are not permitted to vote or run for tribal office.
The BIA had frozen the flow of federal funding to the tribe, but recently lifted that freeze now that a working government is in place.