Feds Order Northwood Casino Closed amid Internal Squabbles Challenging Tribal Legitimacy

Posted on: June 19, 2017, 12:00h. 

Last updated on: June 19, 2017, 12:34h.

The Northwood Casino in northern Washington state is closed until further notice. The US government ordered it to cease operations for violating numerous tribal gaming provisions under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Nooksack Tribe Northwood Casino
National Indian Gaming Commission Chairman Jonodev Chaudhuri is working with the Nooksack Tribe in hopes of reopening its Northwood Casino in Lynden, Washington. (Image: Andrew Bahl/Indianz.com)

Located just steps from the US-Canadian border, the Northwood Casino is owned and operated by the Nooksack Tribe, a Native American group that recently lost their status as a federally recognized tribe, after the Department of the Interior, through its Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), found multiple breaches of IGRA.

The BIA has determined that the Nooksack casino was no longer operating under a valid tribal government after months of disputes that brought the legitimacy of multiple tribal elections into question.

“We do not take lightly the issuance of notices of violation and closure orders against tribal gaming operations,” National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) Chairman Jonodev Chaudhuri said in a press release.

Formed under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the NIGC supports and promotes tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and the federal regulation of gaming on Indian lands.

What sparked this showdown with the federal government was an internal battle among two factions that culminated in the “disenrollment” of nearly 300 tribal members.

The current leadership also tried to disbar an attorney representing the disenrolled, fired a tribal judge who ruled against the council, and refused to adhere to US court orders about disenrollment proceedings.

The BIA shutdown order claims the Nooksack have failed to hold legitimate elections, amounting to a hostile takeover by one faction of the tribe. With no resolution to the standoff in sight, the BIA made came to the rare conclusion that the Indian casino was no longer operating under a valid tribal government.

The Nooksack Tribe’s lone other casino closed in late 2015.

Code Violations Lead to Closure

In its order to close the Northwood Casino, the US government noted several IGRA issues . The United States said the Nooksack “failed to maintain its sole proprietary interest,” and responsibility for the conduct of gaming activity.

The tribe also failed to adequately care for the gaming facility in order to protect public health and safety. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Northwood Casino water system failed to meet standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act on multiple occasions.

Finally, the tribe also failed to perform required licensing reviews of management officials overseeing gaming operations at the venue.    

“The violations set forth compromise the integrity of the Northwood Casino and the gaming industry as a whole, diminish the sole proprietary interests of the Tribe, threaten the health and safety of the public, and impede the Tribe’s ability to make necessary decisions to administer their operations,” Chaudhuri concluded.

The tribe quickly obliged to the closure order, as civil penalties total $50,275 per violation, per occurrence.

Blood and Money

The Nooksack’s misstep in holding tribal council election stems from an ongoing disenrollment controversy within the community, which impacts the number of people who get to share in casino profits.

Last November, Chairman Bob Kelly, Jr., ordered nearly 300 members booted from the tribe. He based his decision  on alleged findings that ancestors of Annie George didn’t have strong enough bloodlines to be merit full membership as Nooksack.

George’s children married Filipino migrant workers, and gained power in the tribe during the 1980s and 1990s. They also reportedly became involved in smuggling drugs across the Canadian border, Kelly’s group claimed.

Removing the alleged members hasn’t gone smoothly, and decades-long civil strife has now led to the closure of the tribe’s last remaining casino. In addition to losing out on the much-needed revenue the Northwood venue generates, hundreds of workers are also being laid off, at least temporarily, until the Nooksack people can convince the federal government who deserves proper recognition.