Nooksack Tribe Cites ‘Missing Ancestor’ As Reason To Disenroll 306 Members

Dec 17, 2013

It's a frosty morning at the Nooksack tribal courthouse in Deming, Wash., and caution tape and tribal police block the entrance.

Outside the courthouse – a small, portable building that resembles a mobile home – about two dozen people wait out a court hearing underway inside. Their tribal membership hangs in the balance.

The Nooksack tribe’s disenrollment process started nearly a year ago, and people here have felt the sting as outcasts.

Linda Hart, Nooksack elder who faces disenrollment: "You find out who your friends are."
Linda Hart, Nooksack elder who faces disenrollment: "You find out who your friends are."
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

“You find out who your friends are,” Linda Hart says outside the courthouse. 

“I’d come up here one time, and told them I wanted dental work,” Daniel Rapada says. “They wouldn’t even see me.”

“Matter of fact, even at a gathering, sometimes they won’t sit by you,” Lois Gladstone says.

Hart, Rapada and Gladstone are Nooksack elders and among 306 members targeted by tribal officials for disenrollment. The cuts would reduce the 2,000-member tribe by about 15 percent, and would likely be the largest disenrollment ever in Washington state.

Without tribal standing, the members stand to lose fishing rights plus access to health care and housing programs, among other benefits. Similar disenrollment battles have increased across Indian Country in recent years.

Daniel Rapada, a Nooksack elder: “I’d come up here one time, and told them I wanted dental work. They wouldn’t even see me.”
Daniel Rapada, a Nooksack elder: “I’d come up here one time, and told them I wanted dental work. They wouldn’t even see me.”
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

In February, the Nooksack Tribal Council sent letters to the 306 members, citing documentation errors with their proof of ancestry.

"I was really mad," Rapada said. "I mean, I was ready to come here and chew on somebody."

Most of the 306, as they call themselves, enrolled in the tribe in the 1980s, about a decade after the tribe gained federal status. Their Nooksack ancestor, upon whom they based their enrollment, is a woman named Annie George. However, in the disenrollment letters, the tribe says George is missing from a 1942 census that is used to verify lineage.

The 306 are fighting the disenrollment in tribal court.

Lois Gladstone, Nooksack elder: "Even at a gathering, sometimes they won’t sit by you."
Lois Gladstone, Nooksack elder: "Even at a gathering, sometimes they won’t sit by you."
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

'A Confidential Matter'

Back at the courthouse, the crowd quiets as the Nooksack Tribal Council Chairman, Bob Kelly, exits the building and beelines for his SUV. Kelly, who has led this disenrollment effort, has previously declined KUOW’s repeated interview requests.

Shouting across the police line, I again ask Kelly to comment. He declines, so I call out another question about the reason for the proposed disenrollments.

To everyone’s surprise, Kelly steps closer to the crowd.

“Enrollment is a confidential matter,” Kelly says.

A tribal member starts to shout obscenities, interrupting Kelly, but the man’s relatives quickly hush him.

“There’s still an opportunity for information to be presented,” Kelly continues. “There doesn’t need to be a blame game and argument about that right now.”

Kelly says the lawsuits filed by members of the 306 are holding up the tribe’s constitutional process, which gives each member a chance to defend their enrollment qualifications.

The tribal council planned to start these individual hearings in August, but attorneys for the 306 obtained a stay from the tribal appeals court. It’s unclear how long that stay will last, but for now it prevents the tribal council from going forward with the removals.

As the crowd breaks up, the members facing disenrollment say this was the first time Kelly has addressed them. They have gathered outside several court hearings since the process started in February.

Read part one of this series: 'We'll Always Be Nooksack': Tribe Questions Ancestry Of Part-Filipino Members

About-Face

A sliver of the Nooksack reservation pushes into the Mount Baker foothills near the Canadian border. Many of the 306 live here in a cluster of tribal housing.

On a recent Monday afternoon, the neighborhood was quiet except for the crash of skateboards on pavement as two teenage boys rode down the empty streets, past lawns filled with kids' toys and fishing gear.

Looking out at the 50 or so homes here, Michelle Roberts, who is among the 306, listed off the uncles, aunts and cousins she also calls neighbors. Her dad’s place is just yards away.

"I know some people, it would probably make them crazy [to live here], but I actually love it," Roberts said.

Roberts said she’s fighting to keep her Nooksack heritage and this close community. She said her extended family gathers nearby for holidays and birthdays, and that she’s worried they will lose this closeness.

Without tribal affiliation, Roberts said she also fears many families would lose their homes.

Roberts, an elected member of the Nooksack Tribal Council, said it came as a shock to feel unwelcome in the tribe.

“A lot of people that are part of this even came to my wedding and called me niece or auntie,” she said. “Now, those same people are the people that are trying to disenroll us, so it’s a complete 180-degree turn.”

Friendships have ended. Roberts and others have been dismissed from long-held tribal jobs. The tribe has even withheld annual funds for their children’s school supplies.

As to why this all started, Roberts likened it to a family feud. She said some members who grew up here reject others, like her, who moved in later. They’re seen as outsiders.

Roberts said this stand-off has taken a huge toll.

“I’m just thinking about all the different cousins that have gone to counseling now, and have gone on depression medication,” she said, “and all the other elders who are sick or have taken leave from work because they can’t handle the stress.”

This tension has also rippled through the tribe’s activities. Some regular tribal gatherings have stopped, because organizers said they fear conflict. Roberts also said the council has not held a public meeting since this process started, despite several requests. When the council does convene by phone, Roberts said her comments have been muted.

“Disenrollment is expanding throughout Native America, with Native nations in at least 17 states engaging in the practice,” writes David E. Wilkins, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in the topic. Wilkins, a member of the Lumbee Tribe, said tribes often base the cuts on bloodlines, whereas disenrollees tend to say it’s really about power and money.

“It seems clear that Native disenrollments will continue unabated until and unless a more powerful countervailing force emerges at the national level – in the form of a Congressional act or Supreme Court ruling - that might stymie the ever expanding number of tribal disenrollments,” Wilkins concludes.

Mixed Reactions

Inside the Nooksack River Casino in Deming, the few tribal members playing slots said they hadn’t heard about the proposed disenrollments.

One woman who was driving a tribal van and declined to give her name said she hadn’t followed the issue closely. She then asked, “Don’t they have their own people somewhere else?”

Roberts said that even when fellow members do support the 306, they don’t do so publicly. Nobody wants to risk their job or standing in the tribe, she said.

One small comfort, Roberts said, is the encouragement from several other tribes that have reached out with this message: “We’re all Native, we’re all one, and we all belong."