Nooksack tribal dispute heads to federal court

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 17, 2013 

After getting another rebuff in tribal court, Nooksack Indians facing loss of their tribal membership have filed a new lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Seattle Attorney Gabriel Galanda filed the federal suit Monday, June 17, on behalf of Rudy St. Germain and Michelle Roberts, two tribal council members who are among the 306 who could be stripped of their tribal membership because the validity of their Nooksack lineage has been called into question.

The suit declares that the move to purge the 306 is based on "racial animus," because all 306 are part-Filipino. That charge is hotly denied by Nooksack Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly and his supporters, who have noted that many other Nooksacks have Filipino ancestors but can demonstrate their Nooksack lineage in a way that meets the requirements of tribal law.

But as Galanda and his clients see it, Kelly and the other five members of the council are in the process of changing that law to keep them out.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior is currently supervising a mail-in constitutional amendment election that could make it more difficult to qualify for Nooksack membership. Kelly and his five supporters on the council have asked voters to repeal a constitutional provision that makes tribal membership available to anyone who has at least one-fourth Indian blood, plus Nooksack ancestry "to any degree."

That election is scheduled to conclude June 21.

Galanda's lawsuit argues that repeal of that provision of the tribal constitution would make it more difficult for his clients and other challenged Nooksacks to re-enroll in the tribe if the current effort to strip them of membership succeeds.

That, the suit contends, denies the affected Nooksacks the right to equal protection under law and is therefore a violation of the Indian Civil Rights Act. Galanda wants the judge to order federal officials to halt the constitutional election.

All of the 306 facing loss of membership are descendants of the late Annie George. Tribal officials contend that George did not qualify as Nooksack under tribal law, because her name does not appear on a tribal census of 1942 or on the list of those who got an allotment of tribal lands. Galanda and his clients have submitted other records and letters from anthropologists indicating that Annie George was, in fact, a Nooksack.

Also on Monday, Nooksack Court Tribal Chief Judge Rachel Montoya repeated the legal arguments of her earlier rulings and refused to stop the constitutional election. She found that a majority of the tribal council was acting within its proper authority in launching the constitutional election to change the membership rules.

The 306 challenged Nooksacks face loss of housing and medical benefits, tribal hunting and fishing rights, tribal jobs and other benefits if they are pushed out of the 2,000-member 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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