When you disenroll members of your tribe, are you empowered or just more conquered?
"Brother, brother, I need your help."
That was the first thing Gabe Galanda heard when he picked up his phone four years ago. The women on the other end was a member of the Nooksack 306, a group the Nooksack Tribe has been working to disenroll.
The tribal council claims the 306 members failed to prove their tribal lineage. And late last month, the tribe finally did remove them from its rolls.
But the fight isn't over. Twice this month, the Whatcom County Superior Court has intervened in that disenrollment process.
Galanda is a Seattle attorney, but he's a member of the Round Valley tribe in California. He agreed to represent the group in their effort to remain members of their tribe. He didn't know that would mean a bitter four-year legal fight.
"I just thought here and now they need help," said Galanda. "I would apply the craft I had learned as a litigator and see where it took us."
At the time, Galanda also didn't know this case would take him into an investigation of why disenrollment exists and where it came from in the first place.
In the 1930s, the U.S. government helped many tribes set up constitutions that included language of membership, not citizenship. That distinction would prove to be key.
"Member, of course, connotes country club, not government," he said. "But nonetheless, the United States suggested that tribes were membership organizations."
A member organization can enroll or disenroll at will. Many Native people that tribes should have the right to disenroll people.
But Galanda couldn't find any tribal traditions of disenrollment in his research. He now believes it grew out of a centuries-old body of federal law designed to exterminate Native Americans.
Galanda developed a simple, insightful question to ask tribes: How do you say "disenrollment" in your native language?
"The answer is always no," he told KUOW's Jeannie Yandel. "There is no word in traditional dialect or language that equates to disenrollment, which just exclaims my point: this is not an indigenous way. It is not a traditional way. This is a way of termination that's introduced by the United States upon us."
Galanda challenges even the way tribes determine if a person belongs. The base rolls tribes are using from the late 1800s, he said, were generated by the U.S. government and were "wildly inaccurate." The idea of using "blood quantum" came in the 1930s. Using these tactics would be participating in the colonial system.
"Are you acting in a self-determinate way, or are you acting in a conquered way?" he asks. "I'm suggesting there are healthier, more holistic, more traditional ways than using federal devices of termination and assimilation to decide who belongs."
So today, four years after that phone call, Galanda said he has a new understanding of what it means to be Indian. That new understanding is part of why he said he's on a crusade against disenrollment now.
"I believe disenrollment is wrong. I believe it is contributing to the demise of Indian people," said Galanda. "I personally strive to end the injustice that I think is disenrollment."
The Nooksack tribe declined to comment on this story.