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Disenrollments could cost Nooksack tribe sovereignty

caption: Nooksack tribal police stand outside the courthouse during a disenrollment hearing in 2013.
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1 of 2 Nooksack tribal police stand outside the courthouse during a disenrollment hearing in 2013.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

The sovereignty of the Nooksack tribe is in jeopardy.

This comes after the tribe kicked out about 15 percent of its members — members the tribe says don’t belong.

The Nooksack reservation is about 15 miles east of Bellingham. Margretty Rabang lives here with her husband, daughter and two little grandsons.

Rabang was among the first to be disenrolled. It happened about a year ago. She’s been fighting eviction from her tribal home for months. The tribe wanted her out three days after Christmas.

“You know, I was upset, because I have my grandkids, we have Christmas, we've been in this house and you guys are just going to kick us out,” she says.

Rabang is part of what is called The 306. It’s an extended family of about 300 people. They’ve been told that their ancestors were erroneously enrolled as Nooksack decades ago. They’ve all been kicked out of the tribe. They don’t have access to fishing rights. They can’t get tribal medical benefits. Rabang and dozens more have lost their jobs with the tribe. She also feels like she’s lost her community.

Through tears she says, “I thought these people were my friends. It just hurts. I just want this to be over.”

But the fight isn’t over. The federal government won’t recognize the disenrollments. That’s because they happened after the Nooksack tribe failed to hold a council election last March. That means the tribe hasn’t had a legal government for a year. Millions of dollars in state and federal grants and contracts are on the line.

As Kaleen Cottingham, director of Washington state’s Recreation and Conservation Office explains, “If they don't have a quorum, or if they don't have a governing entity that has authority, they won't be able to sign our contracts.”

Cottingham says the Nooksack tribe can’t legally sign off on $6 million from her office.

That’s part of the $14 million the tribe says it’s been denied from the state and federal government. It’s now suing the feds because of it.

The current Nooksack tribal council did not return multiple interview requests. And the federal government wouldn’t agree to interviews because of pending litigation. But the federal government has sent letters to the Nooksack tribe, saying that if the council does not hold a fair election this month, it could come in and take control of tribal services such as the Nooksack’s law enforcement and medical programs.

David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, has been tracking tribal disenrollments for decades. He says about 80 tribes have disenrolled members. But he’s never seen a case like the Nooksack.

“This may well be the strongest case where the federal government has finally stepped in to finally stand up for the rights of those individuals facing disenrollment,” he says.

Wilkins says disenrollments started happening in the 1990s. That’s when tribal casinos became a factor. The fewer members in a tribe, the more money each member gets.

But Nooksack tribal members don't get big casino payouts, as their casino is too small, says Michelle Roberts. She's among the disenrolled. But she points out that tribal council members can often make six-figure salaries. She says this is really about a fight over control of tribal government.

Her 300-member family makes up a strong voting bloc in the roughly 2,000 member tribe.

“Our family is huge, and they don't like the power that we had when coming in,” Roberts says.

Now many people in Robert’s family are struggling without tribal benefits. They’ve been told they aren’t Nooksack because they couldn’t provide some birth certificates from generations ago.

“It's very draining to tell somebody that you don't belong somewhere that your ancestry doesn't mean anything. It takes your identity away,” Roberts says.

This struggle of identity and sovereignty could become a bigger issue if the federal government steps in and takes over tribal services.

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