DEMING - Nooksack Indian Tribe voters have approved a change in their constitution that will make it more difficult for people to enroll - or re-enroll - as members of the 2,000-member tribe.
Re-enrollment is the key issue because tribal leaders are threatening to strip 306 people of their tribal membership due to alleged inadequacies in their Nooksack ancestry.
The vote on the constitutional change was conducted by mail and supervised by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which announced a final result of 377 in favor and 239 against.
The constitutional change endorsed by Chairman Bob Kelly and his five supporters on the tribal council repeals a constitutional provision that makes tribal membership available to anyone who has at least one-fourth Indian blood, plus Nooksack ancestry "to any degree."
With that provision stricken, tribal membership is restricted to descendants of those who got original allotments of tribal land, and those whose names appear on a 1942 tribal census.
All of the 306 people facing loss of tribal membership are descended from the late Annie George. They insist she was a Nooksack, but her name does not appear on the census. Her descendants say that was a mistake that should not be used to strip them of their tribal identity and the valuable housing, medical and fishing rights benefits that go with it. They have probate records and anthropologists' opinions to support their claims.
But Kelly's supporters describe the 306 as members of a Canadian tribe who were wrongfully enrolled as Nooksacks in the mid-1980s. They argue that the expulsion is simply correcting that mistake.
Moreno Peralta, one of the Nooksacks facing loss of tribal membership, said he and others plan to appeal the results of the election to the BIA. Peralta contended that not all tribal members received notice of the election, and that should make the results invalid.
Legal efforts to stop the process of stripping the 306 of their Nooksack membership have proved fruitless so far. Nooksack Tribal Chief Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis has rebuffed several legal motions filed by Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda. Montoya-Lewis has so far agreed with tribal attorneys that the tribe's council has broad authority to determine tribal membership rules, as well as broad immunity from lawsuits filed by tribe members.
The tribal appeals court also has declined to intervene so far, and on June 19, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones rejected a petition asking him to issue an order stopping the constitutional election.
"There seems to be no justice for us as members and there seems to be no hope," Peralta said, adding that the embattled Nooksacks aren't yet ready to quit.
Those facing loss of tribal membership have received letters informing them they may request individual hearings before the tribal council, and Peralta said he hopes that he and other descendants of Annie George can use that opportunity to document their ancestor's legitimacy as a Nooksack.
Peralta said no such hearings have yet been scheduled, as far as he knows.
"Are they going to allow us to go in front of the council and prove our lineage?" he asked. "I don't know. If given the chance, we can argue up and down. ... We're not hiding anything. We haven't duped anybody."
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.