This weekend’s tribal council election on the Nooksack reservation near Bellingham leaves an uncertain future for hundreds of its members. The tribe has sought to remove about 15 percent of its people in what would be the largest tribal disenrollment in Washington state’s history.
On Saturday, Nooksack voters elected two people who oppose the disenrollment and two people who support it to the tribe's governing council. Tribal members described a record turnout for the election with more than 700 of the tribe's 2,000 members casting votes.
Nooksack member George Adams said he saw a message in the split vote.
“It is obvious that it is not a mandate for them to go forward on this disenrollment," Adams said. "Our struggle is still on.”
Adams unsuccessfully ran for chairman of the Nooksack Tribal Council, vowing to halt the disenrollments.
Nooksack leaders have moved to cut 306 members from the tribe because of questions about their ancestry. It’s one of the many disenrollment struggles that have become increasingly common across Indian country.
Incumbent chairman Bob Kelly was re-elected by a narrow margin. He and other current tribal officials declined to comment, but in a previous statement, Kelly said it would be unfair to let people remain in the tribe without any proof of ancestry.
This membership struggle has deeply divided the tribe for the past year. The case whether to proceed with the disenrollment effort remains pending in tribal court.
Nooksack member Ron Miguel said some members have called for a recount in the council race between Robert Solomon and Felisisimo Johnny, which was split by seven votes. It’s unclear if tribal election officials would conduct a recount, or when the vote would be certified.
Adams said his supporters are also considering a challenge to some aspects of the election, contending that some candidates improperly used tribal resources to support their own campaign.
Adams and Miguel said they are among 13 Nooksack members who were fired from their tribal jobs on March 12, three days before the council election. Miguel served as general manager of the Nooksack Northwood Casino and Adams is a native language specialist who taught in an after-school program with Nooksack youth.
“I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to the kids,” Adams said. He plans to appeal his termination.
Representatives of Nooksack families facing disenrollment also said they plan to press forward with their legal fight to remain a part of the tribe.