Hundreds of members of the Nooksack Tribe near Bellingham won a temporary victory Wednesday. Hearings were scheduled to start this week to potentially expel 306 members from the tribe, but a ruling from the Nooksack Court of Appeals has halted the proceeding for now.
Gabe Galanda, attorney for the families facing removal, expects it will take the appeals court at least four months to reach a decision.
If the disenrollment does go forward, it would likely be the largest ever in Washington according to David Wilkins, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. Disenrolled members also stand to lose other benefits like health care, housing and tribal jobs.
Angel Rabang, a Nooksack member slated for removal, has lived on the reservation since 1986. Her three children, all adults now, were born there. She’s worked for the tribe for more than a decade but she says she saw the writing on the wall after her cousin and uncle recently lost their long-held tribal jobs.
“As soon as they got let go then I knew they were going to go down the list of people they were going to fire and I knew I’d be one of them,” Rabang said.
In July, Rabang says she was unexpectedly fired from her management job at the Nooksack Casino. Despite her own setback, Rabang says she’s more worried about her elderly relatives who depend on the tribe for health care and housing.
The Nooksack Tribe uses a 1942 census to confirm membership. In February, the council sent letters to 306 members, saying the individuals lacked proof of tribal ancestry. The members all descend from a woman named Annie George whose name is missing from the census.
Rabang says this controversy has torn the tribe apart and other members are afraid of repercussions if they get involved. “I have friends that are other tribal members from different families and they are beside themselves,” Rabang said. “They can’t say anything. They’re afraid they’ll be blacklisted like we’ve been.”
Rabang thinks the controversy boils down to a family feud. In her view, it’s not about tribal money or resources.
Nooksack council members did not respond to KUOW's interview requests. But in a previous statement, Chairman Bob Kelly said the disenrollments are based on lineage, not politics. “It would be unfair to our community if we were to allow these people to remain members in the absence of any proof,” Kelly wrote.
The 306 members facing removal had also balked at the procedures the council planned to use for the now delayed hearings. According to Moreno Peralta, a spokesman for disenrollees, the meetings were scheduled to be on the phone, limited to 10 minutes and not open to attorneys.
Rabang was relieved to hear the appeals court ruling Wednesday. Her father and several relatives had been slated for the first disenrollment hearings this Friday. In the end, Rabang says that even if she loses her Nooksack membership, she’ll fight to stay in her family home on the reservation.
“I don’t think my grandmother would want me to up and run," Rabang said. “I would like to fight for my ancestors.”