Ross Cline Sr., two weeks into his new role of Nooksack tribal chairman, knows things have been bad.
Council members stopped holding public meetings. The previous chairman was nowhere to be seen. And he could feel the tension as he walked around tribal neighborhoods east of Bellingham.
“You’re afraid to say hi. You don’t know who’s your enemy.”
The reason for all this is the long-running fight in this tiny tribe of roughly 2,000 over whether some 300 members should be kicked out. The tribal government’s attempt to do so became a symbol of tribal disenrollment nationwide and unraveled in such a tumultuous and legally suspect way that federal and state authorities paused millions of dollars in funding.
“The way I see it, the tribe was set back 25 years,” said Cline, talking at a Bellevue Starbucks on the way back from an Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians conference.
What he said should have been done: kicking out the 300 “right off the bat” instead of allowing the process to drag out for years.
Suffice it to say, Cline’s plan for healing does not include making amends with the so-called “Nooksack 306,” who received a new round of disenrollment letters in March.
“As far as I’m concerned, the battle with the 306 is now over,” Cline said. “They’re no longer tribal members. So that’s history.”
Indeed, the 306 are running out of options.
Many still live on tribal property, and say they are determined to stay there and keep fighting disenrollments they consider invalid. Their lawyer, Gabe Galanda, keeps announcing legal challenges and making startling allegations – the latest an assertion that tribal officials or their allies used Facebook to sexually harass a former council member who spoke up for his clients.
Some among the 306 took heart when former Chairman Bob Kelly, who drove the disenrollment effort, failed to advance from an April primary.
But results from the general election in May tilted entirely toward pro-disenrollment candidates, as did a long-postponed election late last year. With no dissenting voices now on the council and seemingly diminished interest from the feds in intervening, the tribe seems poised to force the 306 to “move along,” as Cline put it.
He said he is mulling ideas, including charging homeowners among them rent for the tribal property on which their houses sit. “They’ll probably refuse and they’ll be evicted for failing to pay,” he said.
Wearing a traditional cedar bark hat, his wife by his side, the 66-year-old Cline said this in a genial tone, speaking slowly and carefully. Family feuds and conflict over money are common reasons for disenrollment around the country, but the new tribal chairman says he harbors no ill will toward the 306.
Asked why kicking them out is so important, he likened tribal enrollment to registering dogs with the American Kennel Club. “If you owned a purebred dog, you’d better understand the question,” he said.
He and fellow disenrollment advocates contend the 306 were incorrectly enrolled decades ago and cannot prove the lineage required. The 306 say they traced their ancestry to a qualifying Nooksack forebear, but tribal officials refuse to look at the documentation.
They raise different questions of legitimacy.
Some point to Cline’s past. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to two counts of embezzling less than $1,000 of tribal funds when he was the Nooksack administrator. He spent a year in federal prison.
Cline said he was told by the tribal council at the time to distribute the funds in question, designated for unemployment assistance.
The 306 have also lambasted a series of council actions over the last five years, including firing a tribal judge who issued an unfavorable ruling, getting rid of the tribe’s appeals court and appointing its own members to a new Nooksack Supreme Court.
Then there were the council’s electoral woes. It put off an election scheduled for March 2016. Months went by, with council members continuing to serve past the expiration of their terms.
That got the feds involved. The Department of the Interior, normally reluctant to intervene in tribal affairs due to sovereign immunity, said it would not recognize the council’s actions until the overdue election took place. Eventually, the feds withdrew funding, as did the state.
When the tribe sued the feds over the money, an assistant U.S. attorney countered in pleadings that the Nooksack government was illegitimate, anti-democratic and abusive.
The tribe and the feds then entered into an agreement: If the Nooksacks held an election monitored by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, funding would be restored.
And that is what happened.
The 306 contend the election, late last year, was rife with ballot-stuffing and other irregularities. The BIA, in a March letter, said it found no evidence of such, certified the election and freed up funding.
“I have no faith in anything anymore,” said Debbie Alexander, whom the tribe considers disenrolled. Like the others, she can no longer access tribal benefits like medical care, though she has precancerous lesions that need monitoring. She said the tribe’s dental clinic recently turned her away.
“It’s awful to open the door and see people who hate my children,” she added. She has four, now grown.
Bob Doucette, who is not part of the 306 or the pro-disenrollment tribal faction, ran for council last year on a platform of unity. He lost.
“My personal feeling is that it has to get totally out of control before the whole thing blows up and we start over,” he said.
One might think the tribe reached that point long ago. Still, the intrigue never seems to stop.
Facebook and subpoenas
Over the last week, Galanda said, he has uncovered information about a Facebook account that in 2016 used a stolen picture of former tribal Councilwoman Carmen Tageant to harass her. Tageant poses in lingerie in the photo, which was shared many times on Facebook and prompted degrading comments.
Galanda says the Facebook account appears to have been set up under a fake name. The lawyer, representing Tageant in a lawsuit against a defendant named for now as “John Doe,” subpoenaed Facebook to get the IP addresses identifying electronic devices used to access the account. He said further information following subpoenas of Comcast and Verizon led him to trace those devices to the Nooksack tribe.
Cline said he was unaware of this situation and couldn’t comment. Other tribal officials, including in the legal department, said they were not authorized to speak.
Galanda is also pursuing a racketeering lawsuit against a number of current and former tribal officials, alleging they conspired to deprive his clients of their homes and other property.
So while the new Nooksack new chairman considers the disenrollment debacle settled, he, too, expressed some dissatisfaction with the status quo. Part of the problem, he said, are previous Interior Department letters highly critical of the tribe. He wants them rescinded, and said he plans to ask Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray for help.
Despite the continuing drama, Cline promised one bit of normalcy. He plans to open council meetings to the public, beginning June 5.