A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed the Nooksack Indian Tribe’s $13.7 million lawsuit against the federal government, ruling the council that filed it wasn’t recognized as a legitimate governing body.
Judge John Coughenour’s ruling on Thursday was the latest move in a long and tortuous legal fight over the decision, under Chairman Bob Kelly Jr., to remove 289 people from the Nooksack membership rolls because, the council said, those people didn’t have strong enough blood ties to the tribe and had been erroneously enrolled.
In February, the Nooksacks sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs for millions in state and federal funds they claim were being withheld over the council’s actions, and that the council said was needed for medical services, salmon restoration, affordable homes and other needs for tribal members.
The Nooksacks insisted the federal agencies’ decision interfered with the tribe’s right and ability to govern itself.
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In April, attorneys for the federal government asked the court in Seattle to dismiss the lawsuit, referring to the council as the “Kelly Faction” and characterizing its behavior as “abusive.”
The Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs have said they won’t accept actions taken by the tribe after March 24, 2016, because no election was held to replace four expiring council seats, meaning decisions were made without a quorum and therefore weren’t legitimate – and that includes the decision to push members out of the tribe.
The tribe announced on Nov. 22, 2016, that it had disenrolled nearly 300 members, which barred them from receiving federal benefits that included housing, health care and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They also faced attempts to evict from their homes on tribal trust land.
The tribe held an election Jan. 21, but the BIA didn’t accept it because the nearly 300 who were kicked out weren’t allowed to vote.
Coughenour deferred to the federal agencies’ decision to not recognize current tribal leadership.
“These are very rare circumstances. The DOI found that the Nooksack Indian Tribal Council, currently existing as the holdover Council, lacks authority due to a lack of quorum,” Coughenour wrote in his decision. “The DOI decisions stand during the interim until the DOI and BIA recognize a newly elected Nooksack Indian Tribal Council.
“If the DOI and BIA recognize Nooksack tribal leadership after new elections and the nation-to-nation relationship is resumed,” he added, “the new tribal leadership would have authority to initiate an action against the federal government.”