What did the Nooksack Tribe have to do to be allowed to reopen its Northwood Casino?

The Nooksack Tribe reopened its casino, 9750 Northwood Road, north of Lynden, at noon on Saturday.
The Nooksack Tribe reopened its casino, 9750 Northwood Road, north of Lynden, at noon on Saturday. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

The Nooksack Tribe was allowed to reopen its Northwood Casino after agreeing to terms, most notably holding an election that would be deemed legitimate by federal agencies with regulatory oversight.

That special election for the Nooksack Indian Tribal Council also could help settle a years-long dispute over tribal membership, in which nearly 300 were pushed out.

If the tribe violates the conditions, the National Indian Gaming Commission will issue a $13 million fine and immediately close the casino, according to a Sept. 8 agreement between the commission and tribal Chairman Bob Kelly Jr.

The tribe closed the casino June 16, after the gaming commission ordered it to do so over violations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

On Monday, the gaming commission expressed confidence the tribe was making strides toward resolving the issues that led to the ordered closure.

“The settlement agreement ensures that the tribe’s assets and operations, as well as the interests of the public, are protected,” commission Chairman Jonodev Chaudhuri said in a news release. “With these safeguards in place, I am suspending the closure order so people may return to work and vital programs and services can be restored to all tribal members.”

The tribe reopened its casino, 9750 Northwood Road, north of Lynden, at noon on Saturday, according to an announcement on the casino’s Facebook page.

In ordering the closure in June, the gaming commission cited “numerous violations” of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, including that tribal gaming “must be conducted by federally recognized leadership.” The current tribal council isn’t recognized as a legitimate governing body by the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The commission’s order was the latest twist in an ongoing legal battle over the tribe’s decision – under Kelly – in November 2016 to remove 289 people from the Nooksack membership rolls because, the tribal council said then, those people didn’t have strong enough blood ties to the tribe and had been erroneously enrolled.

The Department of the Interior and 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 included the decision to expel members.

In order to reopen the casino, Kelly agreed to:

▪ Hold a “timely election” that allows the tribal members pushed out to vote, per a separate Aug. 25 agreement with the Department of the Interior.

The agreement also overturned the disenrollment of the group, which calls itself The Nooksack 306. Still, the group’s members expressed concern about being treated fairly, even as the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it would monitor the election.

▪ Use the net gaming revenue only for government expenditures.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Related stories from Bellingham Herald