After a years-long fight that included a host of unusual legal maneuvers, the Nooksack Indian Tribe in northwestern Washington state said Wednesday it has booted nearly 300 people off its membership rolls. But a lawyer for those purportedly disenrolled insisted they’re not going anywhere.
Tribal Council Chairman Bob Kelly said in a news release the 289 were “non-Indians who had erroneously been enrolled in the Tribe” beginning in 1983 and thus shouldn’t be entitled to tribal rights or benefits, which can include housing, health care and educational support.
The announcement followed a Nov. 4 referendum that showed “overwhelming support” for the disenrollments, Kelly said – but those facing disenrollment were not allowed to vote and federal authorities have said they won’t recognize the referendum’s results.
“This has been a long and difficult process, and the Nooksack people are glad it’s finally over,” Kelly said. “Both tribal and federal law recognize that sovereign tribal nations have the right to determine their own membership. The individuals disenrolled today all failed to show that they are lineal descendants of Nooksack tribal members, or that they have at least one-quarter degree of Indian blood.”
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Gabe Galanda, a lawyer for most of those facing disenrollment, called the tribe’s announcement meaningless. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs announced last month that it won’t recognize any actions of the Tribal Council, including the decision to hold the referendum, since last March because the council has lacked a quorum: The terms of four members expired, and no election was held to replace them.
Services must continue
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cited that decision last week in informing the tribe that under its contract with the federally funded Indian Health Service, it must continue to provide health services to all of its enrolled members, including those it has been trying to kick out.
In addition to operating without a quorum, the tribal leadership’s long-running efforts to disenroll the members have included firing a judge who ruled against the Tribal Council, banning Galanda and other lawyers for the group from appearing in tribal court, and ignoring adverse opinions from a tribal appeals court.
My clients are not going anywhere. … They will always be Nooksack.
Gabe Galanda, attorney for Nooksack Tribe members targeted for disenrollment
“They could not legally disenroll and exile my clients for the last four years, or ever, so they resorted to the most illegal, inhumane and internecine measures imaginable to accomplish their goal,” Galanda said Wednesday. “My clients are not going anywhere. … They will always be Nooksack.”
Galanda has been a leading critic of tribal efforts to disenroll members around the country, describing them as shortsighted efforts to maintain or enhance wealth and power; ultimately, he said, such efforts simply reduce tribal numbers, reducing tribal influence overall. As many as 10,000 tribal members have been kicked out of 80 tribes in about 18 states, he said.
“Disenrollment is an existential threat to Indian people throughout the country,” he said. “It’s self-annihilation. It countervails the basic notion that there’s strength in numbers – especially in what strength Indians have left after the last 500 years.”
The tribe has been denying many benefits to his clients for the past few years, including health care and even the $250 check many would receive to help buy holiday presents, Galanda said. His goal is to get those benefits restored, he said.
The Nooksack tribe has about 2,000 members and is located in Deming.