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From the time he was a young boy paddling a homemade raft in Puget Sound, Phillip Narte grew up believing he was a Nooksack Indian.

“It was ingrained in us that we needed to be on the water, that we were Indian and water was in our blood,” said Narte, now 56.

The Nooksack Tribal Council disagrees. Earlier this year, the council voted to disenroll 306 members because the council believes they don’t meet membership requirements.

As a result, Narte and 305 others are no longer considered members of the tribe.

The “Nooksack 306,” as they’ve become known, banded together to fight the largest tribal disenrollment in Washington history. The legal battle has been waged in tribal and federal courts, spilling over into questions about identity and the tribe’s future.

Earlier this month, two days before disenrollment hearings were supposed to start, the proceedings were stayed by the tribal court of appeals. But last week, under a tribal court ruling, disenrollment hearings were stayed for only six of the 306.

Disenrollment hearings are slated to begin Wednesday, although an emergency request to reinstate a stay for all 306 is pending before a tribal court of appeals.

That appeal process will last at least four months as the court decides whether the disenrollment process violates the Nooksack Constitution.

For now, the Nooksack 306 are still members of the tribe.

Questions of ancestry

The Nooksack Indian Tribe, based in Deming, Whatcom County, has about 2,000 members. Enrolled members 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 tribal council says the 306 do not meet these membership requirements.

According to tribal court documents, the tribal council met in late December and discussed enrollment recommendations for a tribal member’s children. A few weeks later, the council

learned the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t have documents to support the

children’s eligibility.

It also was missing files proving ancestry for more than 300 enrolled Nooksack tribal members, Chairman Bob Kelly said, according to court documents.

On Feb. 4, Kelly informed the council that the process had started to disenroll the 306 members because there were no files supporting their membership. Later that month, the group received the disenrollment letters.

Without membership status, the group loses medical and housing benefits as well as hunting and fishing rights.

Moreno Peralta, of the Narte-Gladstone family, said they would lose much more.

“I feel like I will be losing my heritage and my culture,” Peralta said. “It’s where I am from. They are telling me, ‘You are not Nooksack, you are not a tribal member,’ but I have been a tribal member my whole life.”

The 306 members designated for disenrollment are all descendants of Annie George, who they say was a full-blooded Nooksack. Her children married Filipinos and moved to migrant-worker communities in Washington. George is not listed as an original land allottee or on the 1942 census, according to her descendants.

Tensions within the tribe have existed for decades, members say. The 306 members of the Rabang, Rapada and Narte-Gladstone families say they were enrolled in the 1980s, about a decade after the tribe became federally recognized.

The group alleges its disenrollment is racially motivated because of their Filipino ancestry. Members likened their disenrollment to an “ethnic cleansing.”

The tribe, however, has a long history of intermarriage with Filipinos, a tribal judge wrote in court documents, making their argument “that they are targeted because of their Filipino ancestry questionable.”

Members of the tribal council did not respond to numerous requests for an interview, but in a written statement to The Bellingham Herald, Chairman Kelly denied the disenrollment process was because of race or politics.

“We have been respectful and patient throughout this process, and it would be unfair to our community if we were to allow these people to remain members in the absence of any proof,” Kelly wrote.

Self-governing nations

It’s up to individual tribes to decide who is an enrolled member. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that tribes are self-governing nations and not racial groups, saying tribes could determine their own memberships.

Historically, membership was determined not by race, but by identity and allegiance, said David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a Lumbee Indian. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 encouraged many tribes to adopt a blood quantum requirement, and most tribes use one-quarter tribal blood as the standard, according to Wilkins, who has researched tribal enrollment.

But blood doesn’t define who is an Indian, Wilkins said. When he was working on a master’s thesis about how the federal government defined “Indian,” he asked a Navajo family what made someone Navajo. Three sisters came up with three different answers.

“Identity doesn’t flow from blood,” Wilkins said. “What makes you Lumbee or Navajo are the principles or beliefs you have been taught, the lands you have lived on and so on.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs says it doesn’t keep numbers on disenrollment processes because it is a tribal issue, but Wilkins said he thinks upward of 8,000 people have been disenrolled across the nation, predominantly in California.

The federal government has been hesitant to get involved in tribal internal affairs, according to Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington and an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. A group of Snoqualmie members experienced a rare legal victory in 2009 when a federal court judge overturned their banishment and disenrollment.

Disenrollment decisions are not only about membership, but also about belonging, Raquel Montoya-Lewis, chief judge of the Nooksack Tribal Court, wrote in a court decision.

“Cultural and tribal identity lay at the heart of how we know ourselves. … Belonging to a tribe gives tribal members a sense of home, of connection to a community, whether one lives there or not,” Montoya-Lewis wrote.

Legal options

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, a half-dozen family members facing disenrollment sat under a tree across the highway from the Nooksack River Casino. They posted handmade signs that read “Disenrollment equals genocide” and “Boycott Nooksack tribal businesses.”

“Even if you change one person, it’s a start,” said Jeannie Campbell, a granddaughter of Annie George and Andrew James.

As the group sat on lawn chairs, Narte opened a binder filled with documents and flipped through membership papers and historical letters. They talked about what will happen next.

The disenrollment process has created a wedge in the community, said Rick George, a tribal member who is not being disenrolled. He joined the group sitting under a tree on the edge of the highway.

“My family”

“These family members, to me, are Nooksack,” he said. “Our lands were here before anyone was here, before the reservation was here. These guys are my family.”

The group has exhausted many legal options, including trying to stop the disenrollment in tribal court. On Aug. 6, the court dismissed the group’s suit. Montoya-Lewis wrote in the decision that the court recognized the “serious implications of this case,” but that the court’s obligation was to follow the law of the Nooksack Indian Tribe.

“Membership and enrollment decisions impact individual lives in the deepest possible ways and those decisions cannot be taken lightly,” Montoya-Lewis wrote.

Tribal members who are disenrolled could apply for re-enrollment, but the tribe voted in June to eliminate a section in the constitution stating members could be enrolled by having one-quarter Indian blood and proving Nooksack ancestry “to any degree.” Without that section, many in the group won’t be able to apply for re-enrollment.

They won’t take the membership issue out of tribal court, said Gabe Galanda, who is representing the members. Two members did file a suit to block the election in federal court. A temporary restraining order was denied in June, but the lawsuit continues.

The members may still go through disenrollment hearings, but Galanda said his clients will keep fighting.

“This tragedy would not happen anywhere else in America but in Indian Country,” Galanda said.