An election Saturday could determine the future of hundreds of Nooksack Indians fighting what is likely the largest tribal disenrollment in Washington history.
Since its inception in early 2013, an effort by the Whatcom County tribe to strip
306 Nooksacks of membership has deeply divided the tribe. Saturday’s vote could bring that disenrollment to a halt.
The tribal council’s decision in February 2013 to expel some of the tribe’s 2,000 members was based on the belief they don’t meet membership requirements — specifically that a common ancestor of the 306 was neither listed in records from 71 years ago nor allotted tribal land.
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The “Nooksack 306,” as they became known, banded together and have waged a legal battle in tribal and federal courts to preserve their membership along with the social network, housing, health care and fishing and hunting rights that go with it.
Many of them depend on fishing and hunting for their livelihoods.
The disenrollment was stayed in January pending an appeal in tribal court.
“We really feel like we have an edge [in the election], where some people are second-guessing what is happening,” said Moreno Peralta, who is among those being disenrolled.
George O. Adams, who is challenging incumbent Bob Kelly for chairman said he backs the 306.
“If elected, my goal is to reverse the wrongdoing of disenrollment; reconcile the hurt,” he wrote in his candidate statement.
Three candidates who are challenging the current tribal secretary and two council members are also anti-disenrollment.
According to a section of Nooksack Constitution originally approved in 1973, enrolled members of the Deming, Whatcom County-based tribe must have appeared on the 1942 tribal census, received an original 1942 tribal-land allotment or be a descendant of someone who met either of those conditions.
The 306 members
are all descendants of a woman named Annie George, who they say was a full-blooded Nooksack. But she is not listed as an original land allottee, and she is not on the 1942 census. Descendants say she is listed on other censuses and in other tribal members’ probate papers.
Saturday’s vote doesn’t specifically address disenrollment, but the Nooksack 306 are treating the election as a referendum on the effort, said Gabe Galanda, a lawyer representing the members. Three of the four anti-disenrollment candidates won the primary election. Kelly, who favors disenrollment, won the three-way, Feb. 15 primary by just three votes.
“The stakes in this election couldn’t be any higher for my clients,” Galanda said. “Their very existence weighs in the balance.”
The Nooksack 306 say
the disenrollment process is the culmination of tribal tensions that have existed for decades.
Kelly and other current tribal council members did not return requests for comment, but Kelly has told media in the past that it would be unfair to the tribe to allow the group to remain without proof of membership.
Adams said in his candidate statement that the action of the tribal council “puts shame on our Nooksack Tribe by following a misguided policy of self-genocide practices.”
“They did not follow the oral tradition of our ancestors,” he wrote.
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530