Tribal appeals court halts removal of Nooksack members

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 15, 2013 

DEMING - Members of the Nooksack Indian Tribe who could have been stripped of their membership as early as Friday, Aug. 16, have been given a reprieve.

A tribal appeals court on Wednesday, Aug. 14, called a halt to disenrollment hearings the tribal council had scheduled to start on Friday morning. Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly and his five allies on the council seek to remove 306 members of the tribe, claiming they lack the proper ancestry.

The court also said in its Wednesday order that it will hear an appeal filed by families threatened with removal from the tribe. Their status with the tribe will remain in place during the court's consideration of the appeal, which will take at least four months, according to a statement released Thursday, Aug. 15, by the Rapada, Rabang and Narte-Gladstone families.

It was the first favorable outcome in months for the families, who had made unsuccessful appeals earlier to tribal court, U.S. District Court and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Everybody was surprised," said Moreno Peralta, spokesman for the families. "Everybody was very jubilant about the fact that it was good news."

Attorneys for the tribe could not be reached for comment.

The council decided Aug. 8 to hold 10-minute "involuntary disenrollment meetings" over the phone starting Friday, Aug. 16. The council asked the members to provide written evidence supporting their ancestral claims five days in advance, but notices didn't come to affected members until Monday, Aug. 12.

In the appeal, filed on Monday, the families argued that the chairman and council didn't provide any documents to prove the 306 weren't members of the tribe. The appeal also said a recent change in membership requirements didn't apply.

New wording in the tribal constitution, approved by a vote of tribal members in June, limits membership to descendants of those who got original allotments of tribal land and those whose names appear on a 1942 tribal census.

All of the people facing loss of membership are descended from Annie George, whose name does not appear on that 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 say they have probate records and anthropologists' opinions to support their claims.

Kelly's supporters describe the 306 as members of a Canadian tribe who were wrongfully enrolled as Nooksacks in the mid-1980s. They argue the expulsion simply corrects that mistake.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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