DEMING - More than 300 members of the Nooksack Indian Tribe must wait another week to find out if they will face loss of tribal membership and the benefits that go with it.
Tribal Chief Judge Raquel Montoya Lewis heard legal arguments for about 90 minutes Thursday, May 16, from attorneys representing tribal leaders, as well as from attorneys representing 306 Nooksacks who have been told they are subject to removal from the tribe's membership rolls because of alleged deficiencies in their tribal ancestry. Total tribal membership is about 2,000.
Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda has filed a tribal court lawsuit on behalf of four tribal members, challenging the move to disenroll. Among other things, the suit seeks an injunction blocking the disenrollment on numerous legal grounds. The suit also seeks to block an upcoming tribal election aimed at amending the tribal constitution to make it more difficult to qualify for membership.
After the hearing, Galanda said the judge promised to rule on the matters within a week. The judge herself declined to comment.
Reporters from The Bellingham Herald and Lynden Tribune were kept out of the courtroom, and so was almost everyone else. Galanda said he and the judge had no objection to reporters' presence, but attorneys representing the tribe told the judge they would prefer that reporters not be there, and the judge accommodated them.
Galanda said the judge limited attendance by non-lawyers to just 10 people, and tribal officials and Galanda's clients were included in that limit. The limit was imposed because the small courtroom in a modular building off of Deming Road could not safely accommodate everyone who wanted to watch, Galanda added.
Court staffers said they would make audio recordings of the hearing available for everyone who wanted one.
About 50 people gathered in the courtroom's gravel parking lot while the hearing was underway, to await any news. All of them appeared to be people facing disenrollment, or their family and friends. Most wore white "We belong" T-shirts.
The tribal administration took steps to prevent trouble. Orange mesh plastic construction fencing was set up around the court building, and five uniformed tribal police officers kept all but court participants away from the door.
But the gathering outside was relaxed and mostly quiet, with a bit of drumming, tribal song and a prayer circle presided over by George Adams.
Adams said his own tribal membership is not at issue, but some of his relatives face disenrollment.
"I can't speak for everyone," Adams said. "All I know is, it's affecting everyone, and it's not good."
Ricky Belmont said he is a member of the Suquamish Tribe through his father, but his elderly mother is enrolled Nooksack and is one of those facing disenrollment and loss of medical benefits. Belmont said his mother is the granddaughter of Annie George, the ancestor whose validity as a Nooksack has been called into question.
All of the 306 facing disenrollment have based their Nooksack eligibility on descent from her, and they insist she was the real thing. But tribal officials contend Annie George was not on a 1942 tribal census, and that invalidates the tribal identity claimed by her descendants.
Belmont said he had no idea why the tribe's chairman, Bob Kelly, and five other council members are moving aggressively now to disenroll Annie George's descendants.
"It has to be political," Belmont said.
Phillip Narte, who is among those facing disenrollment, agreed.
"I've been enrolled for 30 years, as have most of the people here," he said.
Narte contended that the disenrollment would disenfranchise members of families who have not been supportive of Chairman Kelly and his supporters.
If the disenrollment comes to pass, "these people will be in charge forever," Narte said.
Among those facing disenrollment are two tribal council members - Rudy St. Germain and Michelle Roberts - and former tribal chairman Narz Cunanan, whom Kelly unseated in a 2010 tribal election.
Kelly's supporters say they have believed for years that the families claiming Nooksack identity through Annie George should never have been allowed into the tribe. Kelly himself has declined comment.
Thursday's only tense moment came after the hearing was over and Kelly left the court building with police officers at his side. He got into his car and drove slowly out of the parking lot. There were a few muttered obscenities from those in the gathering, but they cleared a path for the chairman's departure.
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.