Sauk-Suiattle Court Battle Reveals Alleged Racism, Corruption and the Power of Sovereign Immunity

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There's no sign that marks the Sauk-Suiattle reservation. Indeed, driving on State Route 530 in the foothills of the northern Cascades, you could miss the tiny enclave in a blink of an eye. Essentially, it's one looping road, home to less than 100 people.

Yet, the reservation, which despite its small size boasts a multi-million budget, has been the site of an intense drama over the last couple of years. It kicked off with the sudden firing of 11 staffers--allegedly a purge aimed at non-Indians.

Many of those fired filed suit, charging discrimination. They might seem to have a strong case. At a raucous tribal council meeting, the member who initiated the firings said this when questioned: "None of these people are Sauk-Suiattle, other Natives, spouses of Natives, you know, okay?"

But the plaintiffs have an uphill battle before them. That's because of a legal principle that has an enormous effect in Indian country: sovereign immunity. No matter how grievous the alleged wrong, tribes cannot be sued unless they waive their immunity, something they rarely do. In contrast, cities, states and the federal government have all granted broad waivers, making suits against then an everyday affair.

Jeffrey Needle, a lawyer representing the fired employees, and someone whose sympathies naturally lie with the tribes, calls sovereign immunity "an anachronism. It originates with the idea that there's a king, and the king can do no wrong." Needle says it allows tribes to say: "Even if we did this, is doesn't really matter."

It's a notion that has come under increasing scrutiny as tribes, with their casino riches and economic development plans, draw more and more employees and tourists. And sovereign immunity is proving not quite as ironclad as once thought in Sauk-Suiattle tribal court, where the fired employees are pressing their case.

The court battle has exposed more than just one little-known aspect of the law. It's also tapped into deep dysfunction at the tribe, which insiders say is rife with racism, feuding and corruption--all of which is portrayed in our cover story this week, Tribal Kings.

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