Nooksack tribe re-starts disenrollment process for 306 members

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 3, 2014 

DEMING - The 306 people facing loss of Nooksack Indian Tribe membership are back in tribal court attempting to block the tribal council's latest effort to oust them.

As recently as March 2014, it seemed as though the members of three threatened families -Rabang, Rapada and Narte-Gladstone - would get a reprieve from a tribal procedure known as disenrollment that began in early 2013. After a long and convoluted legal battle in Nooksack tribal courts, the Nooksack Court of Appeals ordered a halt to the disenrollment process until the tribal council could draw up an ordinance spelling out disenrollment procedures. Such an ordinance also would require approval from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the appeals court ruled.

But in mid- May 2014, the tribal council began sending out new notices to some members of the affected families, scheduling July disenrollment hearings before the tribal council under the terms of a 2005 tribal membership ordinance that received BIA approval in 2006. Ironically, the 2005 ordinance bears the signature of former chairman Narz Cunanan, a member of the Rabang family who is among those who could lose tribal membership.

In a new lawsuit filed May 30, 2014, in tribal court, Seattle attorney Gabe Galanda argues that the tribal council's new disenrollment strategy does not comply with language in the March appeals court ruling, since the BIA has not approved any procedures since that ruling was handed down.

The lawsuit states that a tribal attorney confirmed the tribal council's plan to conduct the disenrollment process under the terms of the older ordinance.

Now, Tribal Court Chief Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis is being asked to decide whether that approach is a legally valid way around the Appeals Court's ruling. In past legal opinions, Montoya-Lewis has tended to accept tribal attorneys' arguments in favor of the tribal council's sweeping authority to determine who is entitled to tribal membership and its many benefits. That authority has a firm legal foundation thanks to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a New Mexico tribe.

If Montoya-Lewis does decide to uphold the tribal council's position, the threatened families could go back to the tribal Court of Appeals to give those judges the opportunity to weigh in on whether a disenrollment process under the 2005 ordinance is in violation of their March 2014 appeals ruling.

The disenrollment controversy began in early 2013 after Nooksack Tribal Council Chairman Bob Kelly and a majority of other council members agreed that members of those three families had been incorrectly enrolled in the 2,000-member tribe in the 1980s, and their enrollments should be revoked.

Since then, members of the affected families have mounted a vigorous legal and public relations effort to retain their Nooksack membership. That membership entitles them to a wide range of benefits, among them fishing rights, health care, access to tribal housing and small cash payments for Christmas and back-to-school expenses.

Those facing the loss of tribal membership have based their membership claim on their descent from Annie George, who died in 1949. Members of those three families have introduced evidence that Annie George was Nooksack, but those who want the three families out have noted that George's name does not appear on a list of those who got original allotments of tribal land or on a 1942 tribal census, and those two criteria determine legal eligibility for membership.

Even before the disenrollment process began, Kelly and his council allies pushed two other members off the council on grounds that they had missed council meetings, but the two contended they were targeted because they were members of the challenged families. Cash Christmas and school supplies payments also have been denied to the family members, and many of them have lost their jobs in tribal government or in the tribe's two casinos.

While Kelly has refused comment on the situation, some of his backers in the tribe's rank-and-file have spoken out in the past to praise Kelly for his actions. As they see it, the three affected families were outsiders with tenuous membership claims who should never have been admitted to the tribe to get a share of scarce tribal resources.

In tribal elections in March 2014, Kelly was reelected, despite a vigorous campaign against him by members of the three families and their supporters. The full results sent a mixed message: Two candidates who opposed the disenrollment also were elected. But the result left Kelly and his supporters with a 5-2 majority on the council.

The February 2013 edition of the official tribal newsletter, Snee-Nee-Chum, reported that the tribe's 2013 revenue would add up to about $39.5 million, with about 24 percent of it coming from the casinos and smaller tribal enterprises.

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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