Nooksacks move ahead on revoking tribal memberships

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 18, 2014 

DEMING - Within a day of a Nooksack Tribal Appeals Court ruling that upheld tribal leaders' power to determine who qualifies for membership, tribal police were serving papers at the homes of some of the 306 people who are facing the loss of that membership.

Gabriel Galanda, the Seattle attorney who has been trying to stop the tribal disenrollment process on behalf of several Nooksacks, said the police were serving notice of a meeting - via telephone - that may be the affected tribe members' only chance to offer evidence that they meet ancestry requirements to remain on membership rolls.

Galanda contends that because there are still a few legal issues in the case yet to be resolved by both the Nooksack Tribal Court and the appeals court, the process of removing people from tribal membership should remain on hold. He filed a new petition with the appeals court in hope that the three-judge appeals panel would agree. But there was no word from that court as of late Friday, Jan. 17.

Galanda said he did not know how many of the 306 Nooksacks have received the meeting notices so far.

Since the tribal council and Chairman Bob Kelly began the move toward disenrollment in December 2012, the affected tribe members report that some of them have been fired from jobs with the tribe, and others have been denied tribal housing assistance, even though they have not yet been removed from tribal membership rolls.

They also have been excluded from back-to-school stipends paid to Nooksack children, and from a $250-per-person distribution that the rest of the 2,000 tribe members received in December 2013.

Also affected are two elected members of the tribal council, Michelle Roberts and Rudy St. Germain, who are themselves facing disenrollment. In court documents, the two say they have been systematically excluded from nearly all participation in tribal government since the move to disenroll began.

The legal dispute affects members of the Rapada, Rabang and Narte-Gladstone families descended from Annie George, who died in 1949.

Current Nooksack law limits tribal membership to descendants of those who got original allotments of tribal land and those whose names appear on a 1942 tribal census. Tribal officials say George does not meet those qualifications, and her descendants were erroneously enrolled in the tribe in the 1980s.

Tribal council minutes, introduced as evidence in tribal court, indicate that the alleged enrollment error was discovered in December 2012, although still other court exhibits indicate that the status of Annie George's descendants also had been questioned in the mid-1990s.

Years before the current disenrollment furor erupted, members of other families were complaining that the Rabangs and their allies had taken over the tribal government, using a winner-take-all single-round election system that enabled council members to be elected without a majority of votes. But that system was changed before the 2010 elections, enabling Kelly to defeat former chairman Narz Rabang Cunanan by a majority vote in a runoff election.

Cunanan was the leader of the tribe when the Nooksack Northwood Casino was built in 2007, over objections from Whatcom County and nearby residents. He is now among those faced with loss of tribal membership.

Tribal members who support the disenrollment of the three families contend that the Annie George descendants are actually members of a Canadian tribe who have been improperly sharing in Nooksack housing, medical and fishing rights benefits for years.

Galanda has produced legal documents and anthropologists' opinions attempting to demonstrate that Annie George was a Nooksack. He has tried, without success, to convince the tribal court and the appeals court that Kelly and his backers are violating his clients' civil rights.

But Tribal Court Chief Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis has relied on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that recognized tribal councils' broad powers to control their own tribes' membership rolls as they see fit, and the tribal government's broad immunity from lawsuit under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In a ruling filed Jan. 15, the appeals judges said there were no grounds to overturn Montoya-Lewis' ruling.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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