Future remains unclear for Nooksack tribe following tribal council elections

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 16, 2014 

DEMING - After what tribal members are calling the largest voter turnout in Nooksack Indian Tribe history, the unofficial results of the Saturday, March 15, tribal council election appeared to point to a continued battle over the loss of tribal membership for 306 tribal members.

Incumbent Chairman Bob Kelly, who has pushed to oust the members of three large families admitted to the tribe in the 1980s, was re-elected over challenger George Adams, a strong opponent of the disenrollment.

Nadene Rapada (or Zapata), a disenrollment opponent, was elected secretary over Roy Bailey, who was appointed to the position in mid-January after then-secretary Rudy St. Germain and council member Michelle Roberts were ousted from the council. Roberts and St. Germain are members of the three families facing disenrollment. Bailey is expected to back Kelly.

The remaining two positions were split: Position A went to disenrollment supporter and incumbent Robert Solomon, who beat opponent Felisisimo Johnny; Position B went to disenrollment opponent Carmen Tageant, who defeated incumbent Agripina Johnson.

A total of 722 ballots were cast in the Saturday election, a much larger showing than the 560 votes counted in the February primary.

Members of the 306 planned to call for a recount first thing Monday morning, as unofficial election results showed only 7 votes separated the candidates in two of the races and rumors swirled that the newly-elected officials could be sworn in Monday instead of Tuesday as previously planned.

"We want to be in there as soon as the doors open to request a recount," said Ron Miguel, who is among those who could lose tribal membership.

Chairman Kelly chose not to comment on the unofficial election results or the swearing in.

The disenrollment process is on hold while the Nooksack Court of Appeals reviews legal issues raised by the group's lawyer. The group has fought to avoid getting stripped of membership for more than a year, and plans to continue with the struggle.

"We're still fighting," Miguel said. "Just because we lost two out of the four positions with the vote yesterday doesn't make us any less Nooksack today."

If the votes stand as they are the council will likely be stacked with the same numbers backing and opposing the disenrollment process as before Roberts and St. Germain were ousted, with 5 in favor and 2 against. The chairman only votes in the case of a tie, according to the 2,000-member tribe's constitution.

Those numbers could change if Roberts' seat is reinstated following legal action pending before the Nooksack Tribal Court of Appeals.

In mid-January, Roberts and St. Germain were ousted from the council under a constitutional provision that allows the removal of members who miss more than three meetings in a row without an excuse. St. Germain was not running for re-election, but Roberts' seat was not up for election this year. The two contend they were not allowed to participate via telephone in three consecutive meetings held over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, for which they were only given 24-hours notice.

David Williams was appointed by the tribal council to serve in Roberts' seat.

The 306 and their supporters contend that up to 50 members of their group have been fired from their tribal jobs since the council first voted to disenroll the group in February 2013. Adams, who had a job teaching native language and culture to tribal youth, and Miguel, who was general manager at Nooksack Northwood Casino, were among 13 anti-disenrollment members to be fired from their at-will positions on Wednesday, March 12, Miguel said.

"When we were all fired on the same day, it's hard to look at it as not political," Miguel said. "If that were to happen outside of Nooksack, say in Lynden, or the city of Bellingham, there would have been a total uproar about it, but it just doesn't seem that way if you're Nooksack."

Miguel said he doesn't resent losing his job - "the further up the food chain you go in the casinos, the shorter your shelf life is" - but that he does resent the disenrollment process.

"It's hurtful," Miguel said. "We didn't sneak our way into membership in 1986."

Miguel said he and many of his family members feel the federal government should step in to thwart the disenrollment.

"There's a moral responsibility here: if the government sees something that's unjust, it's their fiduciary responsibility to step in and sort it all out," Miguel said. "(The federal government has) turned a blind eye to us. That's not a victim's standpoint, that's just facts."

"The Nooksack tribal government has used sovereignty as a weapon against its own people," Miguel said.

ELECTION RESULTS

Chairman

Robert Kelly: 380 votes

George Adams: 337 votes

Ballots left blank for this position: 5

Secretary

Nadene Rapada: 373 votes

Roy Bailey: 349 votes

Ballots left blank for this position: 0

Position A

Robert Solomon: 363 votes

Felisisimo Johnny: 356 votes

Ballots left blank for this position: 3

Position B

Carmen Tageant: 363 votes

Agripina Johnson: 356 votes

Ballots left blank for this position: 3

Source: Nooksack Indian Tribe's Facebook page.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service