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Lessons from Native American Filipino Shared History


By: Elaine Lehman


Throughout the month of November, designated as Native American Heritage Month, we have been exploring our shared history. While long connected, the relationship, however, has not been without controversy. In recent years, it has faced a situation that raises fundamental questions about identity: What makes someone Native American or Filipino or both? Is it a matter of race, or culture, or some combination of both? This conundrum is made more complicated by our overlapping stories of invasion, colonization, diaspora, and interracial marriage – and the imposed artificial hierarchy of blood quantum.

Due to exclusionary immigration acts and anti-miscegenation laws in effect in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Filipino migrant workers “manongs” came as a bachelor society, and one of the only groups of women they had access to was the Native American women. Most descendants of these unions enjoyed assimilation into both groups. On Bainbridge Island, Washington state, many Filipino immigrants settled down with Native American women and worked in the strawberry farms that once carpeted the Island and were owned by Japanese berry farmers. When World War II broke out, the U.S. government ordered Japanese families on Bainbridge Island to relocate to internment camps. On many abandoned farms, the Filipino men stepped in as caretakers. Their descendants celebrated their unique, cross-cultural heritage and community in the annual Bainbridge Island Indipino Festival. Many of these mixed heritage families traced their ancestors back to the Nooksack Tribe, near Bellingham.

In February 2013, however, the Nooksack Tribal Council stated that 306 people of Filipino – Native American heritage were erroneously enrolled, calling the legitimacy of their common ancestor Annie George, born 1875 and daughter of Chief Tumulth known through oral tradition to be a Matsqui George and Nooksack, into question. In 2000, The Tribal Council alleged that a clan of outsiders, the Rabangs – a 200-member family of mixed Filipino and Native American descent – masquerading as Nooksacks were controlling tribal government; taking tribal housing, fishing rights and other resources; and using Nooksack membership to provide cover for a massive drug ring. The Council elders claimed the Rabangs used lax membership rules in the 1980s to infiltrate the tribe. Prior to their enrollment, the Rabangs had only identified as Filipino.

The Nooksack Tribe, a 1, 449-member tribe, gained federal recognition in 1973, after fighting for more than a century to reclaim land lost in an 1860s government takeover. Like many tribes, they adopted a constitution based on a model that the Bureau of Indian Affairs developed during the reorganization period in the 1930s. The new constitution restricted Nooksack membership to recipients of early land allotments, recipients of a 1965 government settlement or people who appeared on a 1942 tribal census. Their direct descendants could also be enrolled, provided they had “at least one-fourth (1/4) degree Indian blood.” The Nooksack were not alone in seeing long-lost applicants turn up after the tribe was officially recognized. In the last decades of the 20th century, “inner-circle communities” of northwestern tribes experienced a “wave” of people who started coming back to places their families once left. This has been viewed as political advancement of tribes, which made members of the broader society feel that it was “O.K. to be Indian.” Tribes generally welcomed the new arrivals, but still wondered, “Where are all these Indians coming from?”

Historically, Native Americans have been largely accepting of others, regardless of appearance, skin tone, or genetic make-up. They do not consider blood quantum as a deciding factor. While many have challenged the idea of tribal enrollment, arguing that it is part of “western thinking” and an imposed system on Native Americans. It is the system that the Nooksacks employed to disenroll the Filipino- Native American members from the tribe.

The Grand Ronde Tribal Court of Appeals overturned the disenrollment of Chief Tumulth’s descendants, holding that it was unfair to subject tribal members to “such an extreme sanction” after accepting them for nearly three decades. Elsewhere, a few tribes have rejected disenrollment altogether. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in California amended their constitution to ban disenrollment in 2013. The Spokane tribe of Washington did the same in 2015, as part of more than two dozen constitutional changes meant to better reflect the historical complexity of the tribe. But the Nooksack dispute dragged on in the form of lawsuits. In November 2017, the Tribal Council disenrolled the 306 Filipino-Native Americans, placing the tribe under further scrutiny of the Bureau of Indian Affairs who warned that its actions were jeopardizing the tribe’s sovereignty and federal benefits and funding. As the lawsuit continues, the story of Nooksack is now being taught in law schools as a cautionary tale.

Our stories of shared history are highly instructive: they teach us that we cannot impose a singular identity but must redefine what it means to be – in our case, what it means to be a Filipino. We must not participate in divisive constructs of dialect, region, and nativity – but must respect and celebrate our diversity in our communities and as a peoples, rather than ignore, denigrate, or attempt to eliminate it. It forces us to re-examine our recognition process – as familial ancestry is much different than racial ancestry – and the underlying reason(s) for discriminatory practices. The exclusionary process almost always involves power-grab and vaunted self-adulation. It does not define what one is. But, like the Nooksack saga, due to labelling, finger-pointing, and infighting, the entire group loses.


“I am a very old fashioned Indian, and, I am not easily shamed, because, I don’t judge my neighbors, I am so saddened and in disbelief of their actions. So are many other old ones.” — Coast Salish tribal elder, about the Nooksack 306 disenrollment case (2016)


Macabebes, descendants from Aztecs from Mexico in the Americas, specifi cally
Yaqui people



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