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Interior Secretary approves Nooksack tribal disenrollment process

The Department of the Interior has potentially cleared the way for the Nooksack Indian Tribe to strip 306 people of their tribal membership over the telephone.

In the most recent step of a process that the tribal council started two years ago, the Secretary of the Interior has ruled that a September 2014 tribal ordinance detailing a disenrollment process is legal under the tribe’s constitution.

The ordinance in question was set up by Chairman Bob Kelly and his supporters on the tribal council. It spells out a process that requires each of the affected members to compile legal documentation of their lineage and schedule a time to have a teleconference with the council.

Each member will be given 10 minutes to plead their case.

Members of three affected families, who call themselves the “Nooksack 306,” have appealed the Interior Secretary’s decision.

Federal law dictates that the decision is of no legal effect until the appeal has been decided through a federal administrative process, according to appeal notice papers filed by Gabe Galanda, the group's lawyer.

Galanda said he believes that under two existing Nooksack Tribal Court injunction orders, any disenrollment of tribal members must be put on hold pending that federal appeal.

Wording in the tribal constitution that was approved by a vote of tribal members in June 2013 limits membership to descendants of those who got original allotments of tribal land and those whose names appear on a 1942 tribal census. The tribe has approximately 2,000 members.

All of the people facing loss of tribal membership are descended from the late Annie George, whose name does not appear on the 1942 census. Her descendants say that was a mistake that should not be used to strip them of their tribal identity and the valuable housing, medical and fishing rights benefits that go with it. They say they have probate records and anthropologists’ opinions to support their claims.

Kelly’s supporters describe the 306 as members of a Canadian tribe who were wrongfully enrolled as Nooksacks in the mid-1980s. They argue expulsion simply corrects that mistake.

Kelly did not respond to a media request for comment Friday, Feb. 6.

The council attempted to start expelling members with a similar process in 2013, but the Nooksack Tribal Court issued an injunction as that process didn’t allow members to have legal representation during their phone call, would have allowed the council to hold a hearing less than 21 days after sending out notices, and more importantly was not sent to the Secretary of the Interior for approval when it was first put in place.

At that time, members were given notices with directions for the phone-in process that advised they would lose their meeting if they failed to call on time, if their call was dropped, or if they hung up while waiting on the line for between 10 minutes and 2 hours, “as other meetings are scheduled for the same day and time.”

Following the Interior Secretary’s recent approval of the process, which was amended in September to address the concerns laid out in the tribal court injunction, members have again started receiving notices.

One of the affected members, Michelle Roberts, said she knows a handful of elders received notices dated Jan. 30. The notices instruct members to dial a California area code number at a set time on Wednesday, March 4, to participate in an “involuntary disenrollment meeting.”

“A lot of them don’t even understand the whole process,” Roberts said. “The way they want the paperwork to be submitted is as a legal document. Most of (the elders) don’t even have computers.”

Any member up for disenrollment has to submit evidence supporting their claim to membership no later than five days before their scheduled meeting, and it will only be admissible if submitted by a specific process laid out in the ordinance.

“Just imagine: You’re in your 80s ... they won’t take handwritten paperwork, it must be typed,” Galanda said. “The documentation needs a cover sheet and exhibit list, and in the lower right corner of each and every exhibit there needs to be a label that includes your name, enrollment number, exhibit number and total number of pages. I can barely do that with the assistance of a paralegal. Imagine trying to do that as someone without a legal background.”

In a news release, Nooksack 306 spokesman Ron Miguel said the process is a “farce.”

“We are people of oral tradition,” Miguel said in the release. “We at least deserve the courtesy of speaking our piece to our accusers face to face.”

Roberts, who was ousted from the tribal council last January, said people in the community are afraid to talk to the 306, as an estimated 50 family members and supporters have lost their jobs or been reprimanded.

“It’s very wearing,” Roberts said. “We’re going on the second year now. Living in the community around people, you don’t now who’s a friend and who’s not your friend. ... We need to have the community behind us to pressure the current council that’s doing this to stop it.”

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