The Nooksack Tribe in northwestern Washington is on the path to having a legal government again after it held a council election over the weekend.
That election was supposed to happen two years ago, when half of its seats expired.
Because the tribe didn’t have a quorum, the federal government said it didn’t have a legitimate government, and the feds got involved.
They withheld tens of millions of dollars, took over tribal health services and shut down the Nooksack Casino.
The results of the recent election could have a big impact on the tribe's ongoing fight over disenrollment.
Reporter Emily Fox sat down with Kim Malcolm to explain.
Let’s go back to March of 2016 when the Nooksack tribe was supposed to hold this election. What was happening at the time?
Fox: The Tribal Council was working towards kicking a family of about 300 people out. This is a tribe of about 2,000 people so we are talking about 15 percent of the tribe.
When you’re disenrolled, not only does that impact your identity, but it will also impact financial benefits that you have through the tribe. So not only was the tribe supposed to hold an election, they were also trying to kick a big extended family out of the tribe.
Why did the tribe want to disenroll this extended family?
The tribe said the family didn’t have the right documentation to prove they are Nooksack, specifically the birth certificate of a great great grandmother. I should also note that at the time, the Tribal Council was working on changing the rules to make it harder to qualify to be a Nooksack tribal member.
On the other side: The family, or the 306, said the tribal chairman had a personal vendetta with the family. They also say this was a power move to keep the current tribal leadership in power. Many people in the 306 used to work for the tribe and hold positions on Tribal Council.
From numbers I’ve seen and conversations I’ve had with former council members, you can actually rack in six figures a year if you get a role on Tribal Council.
When you kick out a large family, which makes up about 15 percent of the tribe, there’s less competition for those Tribal Council seats.
What happened with disenrollments?
The Tribal Council started kicking people out of the tribe around Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2016. People were getting threats to be kicked out of their tribal housing, they couldn’t get free medical service anymore and some lost out on federal income assistance.
Things got so bad that the feds took notice and they said, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t kick these people out of the tribe because you aren’t a legitimate government. Remember, you guys didn’t hold that election when half of your seats expired. So because your tribe lacks a quorum, you can’t sign off on state and federal contracts.’
So the tribe was losing out on tens of millions of dollars. The feds end up shutting down their casino, and also took over their health services because they said, you’re still not providing these services to these 300 people that we say actually weren’t legitimately kicked out of the tribe because you’re not a legitimate government.
Where do things stand with the tribe now?
The federal government and the tribe came to an agreement a few months ago. The tribe agreed to hold elections two years late in exchange for gaining back control of tribal services and the casino, and then money started flowing back into the tribe on an interim basis.
But then the tribe said, ‘Okay, we have an agreement with the federal government, we can now go back and kick people out of the tribe.’
At this point, the 306 have lost out on services again and they were not allowed to vote in the primary election or this weekend’s election.
What were the results of the tribal election this weekend?
The tribal chairman is out. He didn’t even make it past the primary. We aren’t quite sure why. Now we have a new tribal chairman. His name is Ross Cline.
To note, Cline was found guilty in Seattle for embezzlement and theft among other things while in his role as tribal administrator in the mid 1990s.
He is pro disenrollment. So is basically everyone on Tribal Council right now.
It looks like disenrollment is here to stay, but the 306 say they are not done with their fight.
I talked with a woman named Deborah Alexander yesterday. She is a part of this family that is being kicked out of the tribe and here’s what she had to say:
It’s very hard for me to live in a community where, when I open the door, the first thing I see are people who hate my children and my family. Somebody asked me, ‘Why do you want to stay where nobody wants you there?’ Because this is where my father is from. This is where my great grandma was from. That’s why I stick it out.
What do you think the bigger issue is?
Indigenous culture is very much ... based on kinship, this idea that we’re all related.
A lot of tribes, they base something called blood quantum on whether you can be part of the tribe or not – meaning how much Native American blood do you have.
As a result of generations getting older and people intermarrying with people who are not Native American or not a part of their tribe, your blood quantum will get lower and lower and lower.
And as that blood quantum gets lower and lower and lower, if tribes don’t change how you can be a part of a tribe, then people won’t be able to sign up, or become a member.
And when you’re not a member of a tribe, you are probably not going to attend pow wows or traditional ceremonies and you lose connection to that indigenous culture and less and less people will be a part of it. And then the culture itself will start to dwindle.
KUOW reached out to the Nooksack Tribal Council for this story, but they didn't respond to our requests.