Membership disputes have raged within the Snoqualmie tribe for years, but Marvin Kempf is determined to set the record straight.
Marvin Kempf lives on a massive piece of land in Rockport, Washington, that can only be described as picturesque. To the north, the Cascades begin their sharp ascent on the way to piercing the clouds. The Skagit River runs just to the south, and at times the quiet on his property is so absolute that, if you listen closely, you can almost make out the sound of the water slapping the rocks as it flows down from the mountains. Spend a couple hours up here, in the shadow of the tepee that stands outside Kempf’s home, and you almost forget where you are or what century you’re living in. In fact you get lulled into a sense of peace so overpowering that it’s hard to believe this has become base camp in a bitter war for the soul of the Snoqualmie Indian tribe.
Kempf is, he says, three-quarters Snoqualmie. And as the descendant of Chief Sanawa, who led a portion of the tribe in the 1800s, he’s the Snoqualmie’s rightful hereditary chief. “I’ve got the papers to prove it,” Kempf said as he sat at a picnic table smoking cigarettes near that tepee on a sunny day in September. “I’m big-time Snoqualmie.” Normally, Kempf says, he wouldn’t draw attention to what he calls his “inherent birthright,” because that’s just not the way a chief should carry himself; respect is earned in Indian country, not demanded. And besides, vanity isn’t in his nature. “We wasn’t brought up that way,” he says. “We weren’t supposed to brag or boast.”
But the last two years have been anything but normal. First Kempf lost his tribal membership in March 2010. Since then he’s watched the Snoqualmie leadership routinely flout its own laws, refuse to hold tribal elections while clinging to their positions of power, and boot anyone who challenged them. And then came the bizarre announcement in December 2011 that the Snoqualmie had partnered with an overseas developer to build a new casino in, of all places, Fiji, making it the first tribe to expand its gaming enterprise outside of the United States. But that’s not what’s prompted him to speak out. What really galls him is his belief that many of the people who have been making these decisions have been lying about their tribal ancestry for years.
Conflict is nothing new for the Snoqualmie. The tribe of roughly 650 members earned federal recognition in 1999, but only after the Tulalip tribe—which isn’t a traditional tribe so much as an amalgam of several Northwest Indian peoples—filed a lawsuit to prevent it. (The Tulalip tribe argued unsuccessfully that many of their members were descended from the Snoqualmie people, thereby negating the need for the government to recognize another group.) Five years later, the Snoqualmie were feuding with the Snoqualmoo—a smaller, as-yet unrecognized tribe that shared some history with them—over a proposed expansion of the Salish Lodge.
But it’s rancor from within that has defined the Snoqualmie tribe for decades, and virtually all of it stems from members’ claims to Native American bloodlines. In the early ’90s, a tribal council chairman had his membership revoked after challenging another member’s ancestry. A few years later another council person was removed for the same reason. Then, in 2008, eight more members, many of them in leadership positions, were removed, although they successfully sued to be readmitted. (They had to take the case to the federal level, though, in part because the tribe shut down its own court system.) The tribe’s constitution states that “membership is a privilege that may be revoked…for cause as determined by the acts and resolutions of the tribe,” but what constitutes just cause isn’t stated. And in practice the process has been equally vague and at times arbitrary. In some cases, a select group of the membership will vote to remove someone. In others, it’s the nine-member tribal council that votes. But in virtually all cases, those who lose their membership have no opportunity to face their accusers or plead their case.
The current imbroglio, the one that’s got Marvin Kempf so fired up, is much grander in scope and even more contentious. For the first time since the tribe was recognized, the blood of every single Snoqualmie has been placed under the microscope. Blood, it bears noting, is almost exclusively a figurative term in Indian country. The literal definition—which in the context of Native American history conjures images of war and violent genocide—is, ironically, an afterthought now. These days the word refers to something less tangible but much more complex and valuable. An Indian’s blood quantum, or degree of Native American ancestry, not only represents a link to family, but it’s also proof of membership in the tribe. And with membership comes voting rights and access to health care and subsidized housing.
The terms of enrollment in the Snoqualmie tribe are simple. According to a 2002 amendment to its constitution, members must be able to demonstrate they are at least one-eighth Snoqualmie and descended from someone on Roblin’s Rolls, a 1919 Indian census. And yet despite having been federally recognized for more than a decade, no one really knows for sure who in the Snoqualmie tribe is actually Snoqualmie. Plenty of people claim to know, but with few exceptions they can’t prove anything—and virtually all of the blame for the confusion rests at the feet of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA, which acts as the federal liaison to the more than 550 tribes across the country, recognized the Snoqualmie without obtaining an enrollment list and the blood quantum of everyone on it. Chaos has reigned ever since.
“This is Indian country on steroids,” says Jay Miller. He knows from experience. An anthropologist and former University of Washington professor, Miller began trying to untangle the tribe’s family tree last summer. “There are disputes like this in many tribes, but nothing like what’s going on among the Snoqualmie. It’s…” He pauses for a moment, as if trying to wrap his mind around the magnitude of the problem. “It’s over the top. Incredibly over the top.”
How the situation in the Snoqualmie tribe got so out of hand is complicated. But the why is fairly straightforward: money. Whoever controls the tribe controls its casino, which opened in Snoqualmie in 2008 and, according to some within the tribe, now brings in north of $200 million a year. And, in the future, members will be eligible for a cut of the profits—as much as $2,000 per person per month, according to talk that circulated earlier this winter. That explanation makes the power struggle a little easier to understand, but it doesn’t make it any easier to believe for outsiders who have witnessed it. “You almost feel like you’re going crazy,” says one genealogist who has worked with the tribe. Another puts the conflict in even starker, more ominous terms: “There isn’t anyone you can trust. The problem is that every one of these people that you’re going to talk to has an agenda. Every. Last. One of them.”
Marvin Kempf learned he’d been stripped of his Snoqualmie membership on March 8, 2010—four days after it happened. But he didn’t find out by phone or a face-to-face meeting with the tribal council. He got a letter. And the letter explained that after the council received documents from “a respected Tribal Elder” calling into question his degree of Snoqualmie blood, it passed a resolution to change his status in the tribe to “pending”—a sort of membership purgatory. Kempf was given 30 days to produce papers to prove he had Snoqual-mie blood. “I lost all respect within the tribe because they were saying I’d lied about being Snoqualmie,” he says. “They’d piled these stones on me, and I was trapped underneath.”
“This is Indian country on steroids. There are disputes like this
in many tribes, but nothing like what’s going on among the Snoqualmie. It’s over the top.”
Marvin Lee Kempf was born June 20, 1965. He spent much of his childhood in Yakima, before moving as a teenager to a longhouse on the Sauk-Suiattle tribe’s reservation in Darrington, Washington. (A helpful side note here: Kempf’s mother, Rose, is descended from—and therefore eligible for membership in—three tribes: the Snoqualmie, Upper Skagit, and Sauk. And Marvin’s claim to the Snoqualmie chiefdom runs through her; she is the great-great granddaughter of Chief Sanawa.) It wasn’t an easy life. His father, Donald, was a logger and would have to leave for long stretches, trusting Marvin and his two older brothers to find food for the family. Early on the boys would wade into the freezing Klickitat River to set fishnets for steelhead trout; later, when they were old enough to learn to shoot, they’d take down elk and buck, dress their kills in the field, and haul home the meat on foot.
All along, he says, he knew he was the descendant of Chief Sanawa but was instructed to not trade on his name. When it was time and when he had proven himself worthy, he would ascend to the chiefdom. “This has never been about me,” Kempf says. “The elders said it was stingy to ask for anything.”
That was a long time ago, though, and Kempf’s elders hadn’t had their ancestry challenged the way he had. So after receiving that letter from the tribal council, he contacted the BIA’s office in Everett, requesting its help. For more than two months he waited before finally receiving a response: Because Rose had been enrolled in the Sauk-Suiattle tribe, the bureau had records of her family tree, which showed she was one-quarter Snoqualmie, making Marvin, at the very least, one-eighth.
That evidence should have been all he needed to regain full membership status, but first he had to get it to the tribal council’s office in Snoqualmie; he’d been barred from the property by a police order. And even after having someone else deliver the paperwork, he still waited another nine months before the council grudgingly reinstated him. In the meantime, the whole thing ate away at his heart—literally. “I ended up in the hospital with a heart attack,” Kempf says now. “I couldn’t believe that people would think that way, act that way, do what they were doing.” He never saw the documents that purportedly cast doubt on his Snoqualmie heritage. He doesn’t think they exist. In fact he believes the council tried to get rid of him to discredit and silence him. And to understand why, you need to understand the Forgue family.
The Forgues are one of a handful of families that make up the bulk of the Snoqualmie tribe. And since before recognition, they’ve held a majority of the seats on the tribal council. Several members of the family were even instrumental in pushing for recognition. But there have always been whispers about the strength of their Snoqualmie blood and whether they qualified for membership. Without the audit, though, it was their word against everyone else’s. And once they assumed power, their word was law. Kempf says that in 2008 members of the Forgue family asked his longtime partner, Michele Buchanan, for help in researching their ancestry in an attempt to squelch doubts once and for all. She’s not a trained genealogist, but through her relationship with Kempf she’d spent enough time among Native American people to know how to trace their bloodlines. “I wasn’t trying to prove them wrong,” Buchanan says of the Forgues. “I was trying to help them.”
In the last five years, Buchanan has amassed a houseful of documents—letters from council members, genealogical records, copies of birth certificates—and she has filed many of them in thick binders that she carries around in reusable shopping bags. You don’t have to ask twice to see them. It was in the process of gathering all of this information that she says she discovered that many of the Forgues didn’t have the blood quantum necessary to be a part of the tribe. When she presented the results of her research in early 2010, she says the family turned on her. “These are people that I really loved, and they became rabid dogs,” Buchanan recalls now. “I mean, it blew me away. I thought this would resolve the conflict with the bureau.” It was not long after that Kempf received the letter questioning his own bloodlines, and both he and Buchanan are convinced the two events are connected.
Blood is a figurative term. The literal definition—which in the context of Native American history conjures images of war and violent genocide—is, ironically, an afterthought now.
Buchanan has a wild mane of long black hair that she repeatedly and dramatically sweeps from her eyes, and she talks in long, winding paragraphs. What she and Kempf are doing now—speaking out about the turmoil within the tribe—she says isn’t about revenge; it’s about setting things right. “We don’t go out into the world and say, ‘Me, me, me.’ We go out and say, ‘We, we, we.’ We got into this for the people,” she says. “These people pretended to be Indian. It is so sick. It is so broken and sick that the government, knowing that they’re not Native American, doesn’t stand up for the people, the last of the real Native Americans.”
Kempf and Buchanan were determined to straighten out the membership mess but didn’t have many people they could lean on for help because raising a ruckus within the tribe would get them nowhere. Instead, they went outside, to a white man who didn’t have a drop of Snoqualmie blood in his veins.
Ken Tollefson, a retired professor of anthropology at Seattle Pacific University, is one of two men who began working in 1985 to guide the Snoqualmie through the recognition process. The 77-year-old has close-cropped white hair and friendly eyes that rest behind large, wire-framed glasses. He punctuates many of his sentences with a wink, and his voice rarely rises above a whisper, even when agitated. In other words, he’s got the ideal demeanor for navigating the mayhem that has engulfed the tribe.
When Kempf knocked on Tollefson’s door in the midst of his fight for membership, it had been years since the professor had had any substantial contact with the tribe and he was leery about getting involved again. But then Kempf told him what had happened to the Snoqualmie in the decade since recognition and Tollefson couldn’t say no. “The only way for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing,” Tollefson says. “I could wash my hands and say, ‘I’m old. Forget about it.’ But on the other hand, who would stand up for them if I wouldn’t?”
The only way to end the dispute once and for all, they both agreed in spring 2011, was to conduct an audit of the membership: Trace the genealogy of everyone in the tribe to determine who had both a legitimate claim to Snoqualmie ancestry according to Roblin’s Rolls and the requisite one-eighth blood quantum to be a member. With that done, the tribe could wipe the slate clean and know that the people making decisions on its behalf were actually who they said they were.
The pair had good timing. The membership at large had also begun clamoring for an audit, and their cries were becoming too loud for the council to ignore. So in April 2011, with the tribe’s attorney brokering the deal, the council contracted a small team of genealogists led by a past president of the Seattle Genealogical Society named Sarah Little to do the research. Then, for 11 months, everyone waited.
Even by Snoqualmie standards it was a tumultuous period. For one thing the council decided to suspend an election that was scheduled to take place that May. On the surface its reasoning was sound: Until they knew which members were legitimate, and thereby eligible to vote or hold office, it was pointless to hold an election that the audit could ultimately void. But many Snoqualmie, Kempf among them, believed it was just an attempt to hold on to power for as long as possible.
Tensions continued to rise until December 22, when members picked up The Seattle Times and read the front page: “Snoqualmies Take Giant Leap to Fiji for Resort Deal.” The tribe, according to the story, had partnered with a Fijian developer to build a $290 million casino that would break ground the following March. The leadership had never discussed the project openly with the tribe, so for many this was the first official news of the deal. Oh, the rumors had spread among members for at least a month prior to the announcement—a widely circulated email pegged the tribe’s investment at $100 million—but even a subsequent news story that came out months later and revealed the tribe had committed a comparatively modest $1.5 million wasn’t enough to quell the outrage.
“This is a tragedy. The Natives have already experienced enough victimization, and now they’re being victimized one more time.”
By the time the genealogical audit was complete in March 2012, the Snoqualmie were seething. And the report—or more accurately, what happened to the report—didn’t help matters. Of the 383 adults in the tribe, only 210 had at least one-eighth blood quantum. Even more damning, according to the report, five of the nine people on the council—including the chairperson—didn’t meet the requirements for voting or holding office. Rather than abide by the results, though, the council simply threw them out. Sarah Little, they said, was biased and had “given blood” to some people who didn’t deserve it and “taken blood” from others who did. Even Ken Tollefson questioned her research; for one thing, she found that Kempf’s blood quantum was only one-eighth, when he was sure it was three-quarters. Little declined to be interviewed for this story other than to say she stands behind her team’s work.
And as it had for decades, civil war consumed the Snoqualmie tribe. Without an audit it would approve, the council continued to suspend elections, prompting a group of members to hold its own last June. More than 70 people showed up to the polls—twice the number necessary for a legitimate election, according to the tribe’s constitution—and voted in a new council. But the effort served as little more than a protest. The existing council refused to step aside, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs declined to get involved, pointing out that the tribe was a sovereign nation and therefore had the right to sort out its own affairs without government interference. Another election took place in August—this one sanctioned—and the old council finally ceded power last fall.
Neither the director of the BIA’s regional office in Portland nor the superintendent of its office in Everett would comment for this article because the bureau was in the middle of a lawsuit over its refusal to act on that election dispute.
Sovereignty is a sticky wicket. On one hand, it makes perfect sense: As a form of reparations for the injustice of waging war on and displacing a people who had lived on this land for millennia, it’s only fair that the United States government give those same people the power to control their own destiny. But that power has also created an environment in which a tribe can’t, by definition, count on help from outside when injustice comes from within.
“This is a tragedy, in my opinion,” says Stephen Gomes, a strategic consultant who’s been helping Kempf for more than a year, pro bono. “The Natives have already experienced enough victimization, and now they’re being victimized one more time. The more I learned about this, the less I could I believe that it could be perpetuated for so long. But these people that are doing this are astute in how they’re going about it,” he says of the tribal council and its methods, “and they’re counting on the inaction of the BIA bureaucracy.”
Kempf and Tollefson had one more play, though. Last summer, after the tribal council rejected Sarah Little’s genealogical audit, the pair decided to commission another one. But this time, they wouldn’t present it to the council and run the risk that its members would tear it up—or, for that matter, take it to the BIA’s Portland office and risk being ignored. They planned to take their fight all the way to Washington, DC.
They started by recruiting Jay Miller, the former UW professor, partly because he’d been studying the native people of the Northwest for decades and partly because he was on Tollefson’s dissertation committee. And within a month he’d dug up enough information for a preliminary report. Among his findings: The Forgue family did not meet the tribe’s constitutional requirements for membership.
Miller spent last fall at the National Archives in Washington to complete his research, tracing the ancestry of every person currently enrolled in the Snoqualmie tribe. He would have stayed here if it weren’t for a couple problems: For one, the BIA wouldn’t give him access to any of its files because the tribal council hadn’t signed off on the project. And for another, he wanted to keep his head down. Nearly everyone who has made a legitimate stab at sorting out the Snoqualmie mess has been threatened in one way or another. Kempf says he’s had his car tires slashed. One of his friends was run off the road by two cars she didn’t recognize. And a “hit list” was anony-mously mailed to many within the tribe. When asked if he fears for his life, Miller went white: “Oh yeah.”
This winter, Kempf sent the report to the BIA’s head office in DC. The way he sees it, by refusing to act until now the regional office gave him no choice but to go over their heads. “I’m looking forward to corrections,” he says, by which he means a fresh start for the tribe, with a membership that actually has a right to call itself Snoqualmie. “We need spiritual growth. We haven’t had that yet in this tribe.” He had yet to hear back by early December.
That’s where this story should be headed: the aggrieved party who hopes to right wrongs and clear his own name in the process has made an honest attempt to do so. But there are holes in Kempf’s narrative. There’s no disputing he’s a descendant of Chief Sanawa; every genealogical audit shows that. (Curiously, when a Seattle Met fact-checker asked about Sanawa, Kempf insisted the chief was his great-grandfather, even though BIA documents show Sanawa was his great-great-great-grandfather.) But his claim to being three-quarters Snoqualmie seems a stretch. With only one-eighth on his mother’s side—he never offered paperwork to show what his father’s Snoqualmie blood quantum was—that’s unlikely. And the history of his enrollment is odd. Kempf is named on a membership list from 2004, but at that point he couldn’t have been a member for long: A Seattle Times article from September 2003 identifies him as a member of the Stillaguamish. And confirming any of those dates is nearly impossible because representatives from both tribes would not comment on his enrollment. Even Kempf says he’s not sure about the details.
It’s hard to confirm much about Kempf’s story. Outside of his small circle of supporters, no one will speak on the record about what exactly has happened within the Snoqualmie tribe over the last two years. Even those who support him are wary of talking, lest they draw the ire of the council and find themselves banished just like he was. His detractors won’t talk, either. In particular, Shelley Burch, the council’s chairperson and a Forgue, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
One person who will talk, though, is Amy Johnson. Johnson was hired as the project manager on that first audit, the one commissioned by the tribal council in April 2011, and was charged with overseeing Sarah Little’s work. But within six weeks of signing a contract that guaranteed her $6,000 a month for as long as the project required her to work, she resigned. The audit, she says, was never meant to show who truly met the blood quantum requirements. According to her, it was an attempt to thin the herd, to revoke the membership of the families that different factions within the tribe didn’t like. From the beginning, the audit team had limited access to genealogical records; Johnson says the council only gave Little the documents she needed to get rid of the Enicks, a clan that claims to be descended from another former Snoqualmie chief. Kempf fed her documents to discredit the Forgues and the Enicks. And in the middle, Johnson says, was Pete -Connick, the tribe’s attorney—a non–Native American—who was playing each side against the other. He knew that Kempf was not only legitimate since the BIA had proved it in writing, but that he also had a claim to the title of chief. So if -Connick could orchestrate an audit that would remove virtually everyone else, he could address the enrollment issue while solidifying his own power by installing Kempf as chief and pulling his strings behind the scenes. At least that’s Johnson’s version of what went down. As with virtually everyone else contacted for this story, Connick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Johnson says she’s not out to hurt Kempf or discredit him; in fact, she says after working with him for several months she has a deep affection for him. But she doesn’t agree with what she saw of the audit process: “What matters to me is that the Snoqualmie people get their tribe back.”
Kempf’s hackles rise at the mention of Johnson’s name. “She’s a troublemaker,” he says, his voice growing louder and his words clipped. “And she doesn’t know when to quit or shut up.” He doesn’t deny that he knew Connick was trying to oust a significant number of the tribe’s members, but he believed at the time that the ends justified the means. If the audit only left the “real Indians,” wouldn’t that be a good thing? “Let’s just ask the simple question: Could Marvin Kempf be right?” he barks, lapsing into the third person. “Could there actually be some truth behind what he’s saying?”
Given the seemingly endless stream of conflicting motives and agendas that have fueled the never-ending power struggles among the Snoqualmie people, it can be difficult to parse exactly which solution, if any, would best serve the tribe. For that matter, there may be a tendency to believe there’s little that anyone can do to clean up the mess because the people who have the power to do it—namely the Snoqualmie themselves—haven’t been able to after more than a decade.
But that’s exactly what the Bureau of Indian Affairs wants you to think, says Stephen Gomes. “The reality of the BIA—and I hate to say this—is that it doesn’t operate in the interest of the Native Americans. It never has,” he says. “The whole goal of the BIA was to encourage assimilation as fast as possible. And it’s a complete surprise to them that the Indians didn’t assimilate. Now they look at it as a burden, as a huge withdrawal of resources from the United States. The BIA has been completely uncooperative with the true, traditional Snoqualmie people.” In other words, a group of people that was victimized and marginalized for centuries is being victimized and marginalized again—not just from the outside, but from within as well.
And that may be the best argument in Marvin Kempf’s favor. Many of the people who have had the power to effect change within the tribe didn’t have a legitimate claim to it. So no matter what Kempf’s motives are for speaking up and trying to protect the “real Indians,” the corrections he says he’s after would without question bring some semblance of order to the tribe. And for the first time since it gained recognition more than 12 years ago, those who are legitimately entitled to control what happens next could finally—finally—be in control. “I’m not out looking for 15 minutes of fame,” Kempf says. “I’m hoping that we get the true families back to where we belong.” Because even though Native Americans like the Snoqualmie can’t reclaim their past, it only makes sense that they have some say over their future.
Published: January 2013