Politics Blog

Interior Department official shows no enthusiasm for intervening in tribal membership disputes

The 306 people facing loss of membership in the Nooksack Indian Tribe have been trying to get the attention of the U.S. Department of the Interior in hopes that the federal agency will intervene to stop, or at least slow down, the effort to remove them.

But in a recent interview in the Indian Country Today online newspaper , Interior's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Kevin Washburn, indicated that he and his department are profoundly reluctant to get involved in deciding tribal membership issues. 

Emphasizing that he was speaking in general, and not commenting on any particular tribe's issues, Washburn suggested that once Interior decides to override tribal sovereignty and take on tribal membership or other issues, the controversies might never end.

“I think the question is, should tribes always be sovereign and self-governing?" Washburn said. "Or are there times when the United States should trample over their sovereignty and self-governance for some other purpose – the principle of justice or equity or something like that?"

 “One can make a solid argument that the United States never has any business trampling on tribal sovereignty and self-governance, but that’s not satisfying to everyone because we all see occasionally a tribe doing something that well-thinking people outside the tribe disagree with," Washburn said. "These are just agonizing decisions and I’m not convinced that the United States is better at making these decisions on average than tribes are at making them themselves ... We often get entreaties from both sides to get involved, but once we get involved how do we not get involved in the future?” (emphasis added.)

Michelle Roberts, one of those facing loss of Nooksack membership, recently sent a letter to Washburn and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, urging them to take a stand on tribal enrollment controversies. Here is her letter as published in Indian Country Today.

Roberts was a member of the tribal council until Chairman Bob Kelly and his backers ousted her and Rudy St. Germain, who is also facing loss of membership.

In response, Roberts got a short response from an Interior official saying the agency would not comment on the issues in her letter because of "pending litigation."

At this point, the Nooksacks faced with loss of membership are hoping for favorable rulings from the tribe's own Court of Appeals as they challenge the legality of the disenrollment process and the removal of Roberts and St. Germain from the council.

But a more likely source of relief may be at the ballot box. Based on results from the Feb. 15 primary election, Chairman Kelly appears to be in a tough reelection fight against George Adams, who opposes stripping the 306 of tribal membership. Three other council races also appear to be closely contested, pitting Kelly supporters against candidates who apparently want to stop the move against the 306.

The general election is March 15.