The agreement calls for restoring federal funding to the Nooksack tribe and a special election that may finally put a bitter disenrollment fight to rest. But already, around the tribal lands northeast of Bellingham, people are crying foul.

Share story

The Nooksack tribe may finally be on the verge of solving a long-running, disenrollment dispute that sparkedlawsuits, a showdown with the federal government and an order to close the tribe’s last remaining casino.

A memorandum of agreement between Nooksack Chairman Bob Kelly and Michael Black, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, calls for temporarily restoring the tribe’s federal funding and a special election Dec. 2 for four council seats.

Some 300 Nooksack members whom Kelly and his council allies purportedly disenrolled will be allowed to vote and run for office, according to the agreement, signed in late August. If anybody requests it, the feds may send an observer to watch the handling of ballots. Election results will go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for certification.

The agreement paved the way for the reopening, over the weekend, of the Northwood Casino in Lynden. The National Indian Gaming Commission had ordered it shut due to questions about the tribal council’s legitimacy.

Kelly, in a statement, said he was glad that the agreements with the Interior Department and gaming commission “will allow our people to move forward on our journey of self-government once and for all.”

But nothing is ever simple when it comes to the Nooksack saga — which despite the small size of the tribe, around 2,000 people, has become a national symbol of escalating disenrollment nationwide amid money and power struggles. Already, around the tribal lands northeast of Bellingham, people are crying foul.

Kelly’s critics point to his appointment of Katrice Rodguez to be election superintendent. Rodguez is the sister of Katherine Canete, a council member running for re-election who is allied with Kelly.

“That’s just a conflict of interest,” said Herman Almojera, who is challenging another incumbent for the position of vice chairman.

Carmen Tageant, a council member subject to a previous recall that was not recognized by the feds, agrees. “I fear they will rig this election, too,” she said.

“Those of us in ‘Indian Country’ often say ‘we are all related to each other in some way,’ and finding a qualified candidate that was not somehow related to one of the candidates to serve as the election superintendent would almost be impossible,” Kelly responded by email.

He maintained, more broadly, that he has the support of “an overwhelming majority of the Nooksack people.”

His is not one of the seats up for re-election. That will happen next year, when he said he intends to run for a third term.

But this election, if fair, will certainly gauge what Nooksack members think of everything that has gone on under his leadership.

Few have spoken out in recent years. About three months ago, though, Almojera, who served on the tribal council in the 1990s, started organizing meetings of ordinary members.

“I got tired of what’s been going on,” he said.

He described himself as determinedly on the fence about the so-called “Nooksack 306,” those targeted for disenrollment. Although he is skeptical of Kelly’s insistence that their bloodline is not sufficiently tribal, he has friends who fall on the both sides of the issue. “The people are divided for sure,” he said.

What really concerns him, Almojera said, is the millions of dollars pulled by the federal and state governments.

And he worried that might not be the last of it. At some point, he said, the feds “could delist us as a tribe.”

Out of Almojera’s meetings came a petition to the BIA calling for an election that was long overdue. One scheduled for March 2016 never took place.

With an election now happening — the primary is Nov. 4 — Almojera has called a meeting for Tuesday evening. “A time for change,” reads the meeting announcement. Meanwhile, the Nooksack 306 are getting together a slate of candidates.

“We’ve got a lot riding on this election,” said Michelle Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Nooksack 306.

Not only do she and members of her extended family risk being kicked out of the tribe, but they may get evicted from their homes and lose their health care.

Given alarm about how the election is being handled, Roberts said, they wasted no time in putting in a request for an observer. And they are asking the BIA: Do they have to wait until ballots are counted to get one, or can an observer come right now?