Seattle lawyer Gabriel Galanda, a longtime defender of Native American rights, is fighting what he calls an ‘epidemic’ of tribal disenrollment.

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DEMING, Whatcom County — In his big gray truck, Gabriel Galanda makes a notable entrance into a Nooksack tribal-housing development of a couple dozen modest homes, set on a winding road about a half-hour east of Bellingham. Many of the residents, members of a sprawling clan who move easily in and out of each other’s homes, appear with platters of fry bread, chicken adobo, baked halibut, salads, cupcakes and pies.

It’s a feast befitting their biggest defender, one who has made their small tribe of a couple thousand members well-known throughout Indian country, and not in a good way. The Nooksack tribal government for the past three years has been trying to disenroll the clan in this housing development and its extended family — which would strip all 306 of tribal membership.

And for the past three years, Galanda, a Seattle-based Native American lawyer, has been fighting it. The cause has taken the 39-year-old Galanda on a journey, personal and professional, that taps into the heart of what it means to be Native American.

Driven by his own family’s history and identity, Seattle lawyer Gabriel Galanda has been fighting against an epidemic of disenrollment, in which Native American tribes strip members of their tribal citizenship. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

It has led him to challenge what he calls an “epidemic” of disenrollment among not only the Nooksack, but tribes across the country, afflicted with factional fighting and questions of how to divide casino riches. They include the Snoqualmie Tribe, where a controversy over disenrollment and banishment erupted seven years ago; the Cherokee Nation, embroiled in a long-running court battle after trying to kick out descendants of slaves owned by the tribe, and dozens of California tribes.

“It comes down to power and greed — if not one, then the other,” Galanda says.

The fights can be all-consuming. On Dec. 10, the Nooksack tribe closed one of its two casinos, citing financial problems. Galanda and his clients contend the tribe had a hard time fixing them amid its internal turmoil.

On this cloud-heavy day, the lawyer greets his clients warmly and piles up on food in the small community hall where about 20 people gather.

He rises to speak. In March, he reminds them, the Nooksacks will hold a tribal council election. “You have to win,” he stresses.

His shotgun legal strategy is ongoing, but he has long told his clients their fight is most likely to be won politically. Settle on your candidates, he tells them, then go “table to table, doorstep to doorstep.”

Whatever happens in the election, he goes on to say, “there’s no question we’ve won handily in the court of public opinion.”

In June, the National Native American Bar Association issued an ethics opinion that cast the stripping of tribal citizenship, without due process, as a human-rights issue.

In September, author Sherman Alexie weighed in with an expletive-laced tweet castigating disenrolling tribes as “colonial and capitalistic.”

A month later, the Association of American Indian Physicians passed a resolution asking tribes to reconsider disenrollment on health grounds, given the grief and depression brought on by being cast adrift.

Galanda’s hand could be seen in these developments. As a member of the bar association’s board, he urged it to take action. And one of his clients, an Oregon physician facing disenrollment from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, brought the matter to the doctors’ group.

Gabriel Galanda speaks recently to Nooksack members who are facing possible disenrollment. He said he instinctively knew they are part of the tribe: “It’s almost like love at first sight. It was tribal at first sight.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Gabriel Galanda speaks recently to Nooksack members who are facing possible disenrollment. He said he instinctively knew they are part of the tribe: “It’s almost like love at first sight. It was tribal at first sight.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Galanda has taken his campaign to social media — “it’s all about Facebook, about the likes and shares,” he says — and to academia. In a 92-page paper published by the Arizona Law Review in May, he makes the case that disenrollment is a non-Native concept, stemming from century-old federal policies that prodded tribes to determine who did and didn’t belong.

David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, has been writing about disenrollment for 20 years. He estimates that at least 70 tribes have kicked out anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 members.

Yet, he allows, “nobody has been able to make the waves that Gabe has.”

“You don’t go against the tribe”

“I’ve known Gabe since he was a young kid,” recalls Ron Allen, the longtime Jamestown S’Klallam council chair. “He grew up in my backyard.”

Port Angeles, to be exact, where Galanda and his single mom lived in a damp basement apartment where mushrooms grew when it rained. In high school, he took a job as a receptionist for a former prosecutor, who years earlier had sent his dad to prison on an assault charge. The onetime prosecutor ended up encouraging Galanda to go to law school.

“I’m kind of proud of him,” Allen continues.

Yet he contends Galanda’s agitation on disenrollment “meddles with tribal politics. It stirs up and creates a lot of dissent.”

By early 2013, Galanda had left the law firm Williams Kastner to start a small practice devoted to Indian country, a booming legal arena after the arrival of casino-fueled development. He got an unusual call. “Brother, I need your help,” said the voice on the phone.

Later, Galanda would joke that Adaline Aure had him at “brother.” In truth, when she first described the crisis playing out even as she talked — two council members, evicted from a meeting, waiting nervously outside tribal council chambers while the rest of the council discussed disenrolling their relatives — Galanda’s first reaction was “ick.”

“Even if I wanted to do this, there’s no way I can really help these people,” he thought. Most tribes, including the Nooksack, claim “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits.

Plus, he recalls, “when I was coming up, I was taught, you don’t go against the tribe. Tribes have fought so hard to survive.”

He sent Aure and her relatives on what he calls a “referral merry-go-round” until finally he said, “Well, just come and meet with me.”

Many of the 306 Nooksack tribal members facing disenrollment wear this button. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Many of the 306 Nooksack tribal members facing disenrollment wear this button. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

In his Wedgwood office, a cluster of the would-be disenrolled introduced themselves as the children of Annie George’s three daughters.

Her descendants claim George as their link to the Nooksacks. The tribe once agreed.

But resentments brewed, especially after a handful of George descendants were convicted in the early 2000s of drug smuggling across the Canadian border.

In 2012, one family member serving as tribal chair lost re-election. The new powers that be questioned George’s credentials.

Every tribe has different and often complicated enrollment rules. In the Nooksack case, there isn’t agreement on what the rules are, although they are generally understood to include one-quarter Indian blood quantum and proof of lineage to a Nooksack on a 1942 Census roll or to one who received a federal land allotment.

“It doesn’t warm our hearts to do this,” says tribal Chairman Bob Kelly, adding that those slated for disenrollment simply don’t have the necessary documents.

Michelle Roberts, spokeswoman for the 306, insists her family knows where it comes from, noting her grandmother took great pride in being a Nooksack. “We don’t want to lose her history,” she says.

The family stands to lose other things as well, including their houses, many of them federally subsidized and doled out by the tribe.

Hearing their saga, Galanda was moved. No matter what documents they had, he said he instinctively knew one thing: “They were tribal.” It was their tone of voice, their body language, even their family tensions. “It’s almost like love at first sight. It was tribal at first sight.”

Galanda’s own ancestors were Native American, Scandinavian, Portuguese and Austrian — a mixed heritage that caused him to question his identity during his formative years.

But he says he kept remembering his grandma, born on California’s Round Valley Indian Tribes reservation, putting him on her knee and saying, in her smoky, gravelly voice, “You’re Nomlaki and Concow. Don’t ever forget it.”

“Before I undertook this work,” Galanda says, “I was really caught up in blood quantum.” Now, he says, “I don’t really care.” He has settled instead on an expansive, evolving notion of “belonging” that takes into account lineage without precise blood calculations or federal documents.

When your tribe doesn’t want you

Galanda also looks to some tribes, including the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who have changed their constitutions to limit disenrollment.

Others are also rethinking tribal-membership rules. “We have to stop using blood quantum because that leads to our extinction,” says John McCoy, the state representative from the Tulalip Tribes, referring to the effect of intermarriage.

“Besides dogs and horses, we’re the only ones who count blood quantum,” adds Blackfeet Nation member and incoming Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez, who worked closely with Galanda at Williams Kastner setting up a tribal practice group.

Still, Reyn Leno, Grand Ronde council chair, asserts: “Blood gives you the right to what we have.”

Members of Leno’s tribe, whose reservation lies about 60 miles southwest of Portland, get roughly $4,000 a year in per capita payments from casino profits, plus a pension of more than $1,000 a month if they’re seniors.

“There was a feeling that people were receiving benefits that shouldn’t have been,” Leno says. So the tribe launched an enrollment audit that in September 2013 resulted in roughly 80 members receiving disenrollment letters.

You feel very isolated when your tribe doesn’t want you.”

“You feel very isolated when your tribe doesn’t want you,” says Debi Anderson, one of those who received a letter.

She says the expulsion was particularly unexpected because her family descends from Chief Tumulth, who signed the treaty that created the Grand Ronde reservation.

But the chief, who was hanged by the Army, never lived on reservation lands. Partly for this reason, his descendants were retroactively deemed ineligible for membership.

Galanda’s view: “Commercialism has supplanted tribalism.”

He felt similarly when he waded into a disenrollment fight among California’s Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians (relatives of the Round Valley Nomlaki). In the summer of 2014, both sides hired armed guards to patrol the tribe’s $100-million-a-year casino. Allegations swirled, meanwhile, of embezzled money, gold and a private jet.

Galanda represented several council members who were among the dozens disenrolled. He says he helped them as much as he could before a new tribal election sealed their fate.

Closer to home, Galanda has also faced uphill battles.

In September, a Grand Ronde court upheld disenrollment of members there. Galanda is appealing. His numerous motions are usually met with defeat in the Nooksack court as well.

Earlier this year, however, he finally obtained a stay in the Nooksack case based on his argument that disenrollment procedures, according to the tribal constitution, must be approved by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The secretary’s final decision is pending.

Galanda is not counting on it. Hence his exhortation to his clients go out and win the community’s hearts and minds.

He tells them this: If tribes can’t resolve these disputes themselves, “at some point, somebody else is going to decide who’s an Indian.”