What’s considered the largest proposed disenrollment of tribal members in Washington state is still moving forward, following a tribal court’s ruling this week. Leaders of the Nooksack Tribe near Bellingham aim to cut ties with 306 of its 2,000 members – that’s 15 percent of the tribe.
Moreno Peralta is one of the members facing disenrollment. His grandmother was full Nooksack and he’s one-quarter. Growing up, he recalls hearing his grandmother’s stories about their Nooksack heritage.
“Being told my whole life that this is who we are and this is where we come from, and for them to take this away – it would be a huge loss to my life,” Peralta said.
Without Nooksack membership, Peralta stands to lose several tribal rights, including the right to hunt and fish. He relied on that benefit for 16 years as a commercial fisherman. But Peralta said other members stand to lose a lot more.
“Because they live on tribal land and they have housing, or they rely on tribal health care services, it’s detrimental for them,” he said. “Everyone I know up there is up in arms about it.”
In February, the Nooksack Tribal Council sent letters to the 306 members, saying the individuals lacked proof of tribal ancestry and were subject to disenrollment.
But Peralta, who’s acting spokesman for the affected families, thinks racial issues are also a factor. Peralta thinks the families have been targeted because they are part Filipino.
Some members challenged the disenrollment in tribal court, but this week Nooksack Tribal Chief Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis ruled that the council can proceed.
Council members did not respond to KUOW's interview requests. But in a written statement, tribal chairman Bob Kelly rejected claims of racial bias. He also said it’s unfair to the Nooksack community to allow people to stay enrolled without proof of their lineage.
The council relies on a 1942 tribal census to see who qualifies for membership. Peralta, and many in his predicament, are descended from a Nooksack woman whose name does not appear on that list.
The tribe will hold a hearing for each member facing disenrollment, giving them a chance to prove their lineage. Attorneys for the group say they’ll also continue to fight these membership cuts in court.