Judge: Nooksack tribe must hold off on disenrolling members

Plans to strip membership from roughly 300 members of the Nooksack Indian Tribe must wait until the disenrollment process has final federal approval, according to a tribal court judge.

In a hearing Monday afternoon, Feb. 23, Nooksack Tribal Court Judge pro tem Randy Doucet held with the court’s previous rulings: Until tribal council has final word from the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, they may not disenroll anyone, said lawyers for the affected members. A reporter was not allowed in the courtroom as only five people for each side were admitted.

The ruling came as a relief for members of three affected families, who call themselves the “Nooksack 306.”

Dozens of the 306 gathered outside the small tribal court building in Deming Monday afternoon, separated from the building by caution tape, cones, and a handful of tribal police officers. While waiting for news, they and their supporters prayed, sang songs and beat drums.

“I have faith that no matter what happens, Creator’s going to be watching over us,” said Arsenio Lopez III, who is facing disenrollment, while waiting outside of the court. “I never question my Nooksack blood. I have faith that justice will prevail.”

Within an hour, the Nooksack 306 had their answer as their lawyer Gabe Galanda walked out of the building, hand held high in the air with a big thumbs up and a smile on his face.

The hearing dealt in part with the group’s recent appeal of a decision by the Secretary of the Interior.

In mid-January, the tribe was notified the Secretary of the Interior had ruled a September 2014 tribal ordinance that details 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 10-minute teleconference with the council.

The council attempted to start expelling members with a similar process in 2013, but the Nooksack Tribal Court issued an injunction as that process was not sent to the Interior Secretary for approval when it was first put in place.

Upon getting the Secretary’s approval of the process in January, the council started sending notices to affected elders informing them of “involuntary disenrollment meetings” starting March 4.

The 306 appealed the Secretary’s decision. Their lawyers Galanda and Ryan Dreveskracht argued that federal law dictates the Secretary’s decision is of no legal effect until the appeal has been decided through a federal administrative process.

The judge agreed, holding with the previous injunctions the tribal court had issued, Dreveskracht said.

That means the March disenrollment hearings are not to take place until the Interior Board of Indian Appeals rules whether or not the Secretary’s decision may stand.

“At this moment it’s simply more time,” Galanda said to the group after the hearing. “The judge is simply going to maintain the status quo. ... Right now it is just simply more time. More time for you all to continue to fight; more time without the threat of disenrollment hearings hanging over your head.”

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.

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.

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 said he had expected Monday’s decision, but that it was only delaying the inevitable.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Kelly said.