Embattled Nooksacks go to court to get BIA records

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 31, 2013 

Two members of the Nooksack tribal council threatened with disenrollment have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle, contending that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has failed to provide them with documents that could help them prove their right to stay in the tribe and on the council.

Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda filed the lawsuit on behalf of Michelle Roberts and Rudy St. Germain, charging that the BIA is not complying with the federal Freedom of Information Act. Roberts and St. Germain are among 306 Nooksacks whose right to tribal membership is being challenged by Chairman Bob Kelly and five other council members.

Kelly and the council majority contend that the late Annie George, an ancestor of the 306, was not a Nooksack, and that makes their tribal enrollment invalid. Kelly and many others in the tribe argue that Annie George's descendants - members of the Rapada, Rabang and Narte-Gladstone families - were improperly admitted to the tribe in the 1980s.

Kelly and his backers are also in the process of conducting an election to amend the tribal constitution to tighten the rules on who is entitled to tribal enrollment and the medical, housing and fishing rights benefits that go with it.

The lawsuit states that Roberts and St. Germain filed an information request with the BIA on March 8, 2013, seeking records of communications between tribal officials and the BIA related to the move to kick the 306 out of the tribe. The other council members approved that move in February and sent notices to the 306 affected people.

As of Friday, May 31, the suit states, no records have been provided. The suit accuses BIA officials of using processing fee questions and other matters to delay their response. The suit asks the court to order the release of the records.

Meanwhile, the Nooksacks facing loss of tribal membership are still hoping they can get some relief in tribal court, where Tribal Chief Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis earlier refused to grant them an injunction to block the tribe from further action to kick them out. The judge ruled that the tribal council has broad authority to decide tribal membership matters.

On Friday, Montoya-Lewis held another hearing on a plaintiff's motion to, among other things, stop the mail-in election to change tribal membership standards through an amendment to the tribal constitution. A ruling is expected early next week.

Galanda also has appealed Montoya-Lewis' earlier ruling against his clients to the Nooksack Court of Appeals. And he has asked U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan to review the matter.

He has offered the courts a probate document indicating that Annie George's father, Matsqui George, was a Nooksack, as well as an opinion letter from University of Washington anthropologist Jay Miller agreeing that Annie George's descendants are valid members of the Nooksack tribe.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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