An appeals-court ruling reversing disenrollment of 66 Grand Ronde tribal members could be a “watershed” moment for Indian Country, affecting hundreds in Washington state, among others.
In a ruling that Seattle lawyer Gabriel Galanda calls a “watershed decision for all of Indian country,” a tribal appeals court in Oregon reversed the disenrollment of 66 people who claim descent from a chief that helped establish the Grand Ronde reservation in Oregon.
The three-member Grand Ronde Tribal Court of Appeals opined that the tribe waited far too long — 27 years — to correct an alleged error that allowed the 66 to be enrolled.
That ostensible error “would be nearly impossible and very injurious to undo,” the court opined in the Aug. 5 decision, affecting “crucial issues as cultural and personal identity,” as well as tribally provided benefits such as health care, housing and per capita payments from casino revenues.
“Tribal citizenship is as important as is U.S. citizenship,” the judges went on to declare. For that reason, they said, tribal governments should have the burden of proof when seeking to kick members out.
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Galanda, who represents the 66 and has become a vociferous opponent of disenrollment around the country, said he believed the ruling would affect a number of tribes that have cited years-old enrollment errors as they attempt to purge members. One of those tribes is the Nooksack, near Bellingham, which has been fighting to kick out roughly 300 members represented by Galanda in an epic battle now stretching into its fourth year.
Yet, the latest developments in the Nooksack case — with the tribal court clerk and police chief refusing to enforce appellate-court orders — suggest that the Grand Ronde decision may not be the last word. “It should be final but it may not be final,” Galanda said.
Indeed, Grand Ronde chair Reyn Leno indicated in a Facebook post over the weekend that he planned to question the appeals judges about their decision. While he didn’t say he would refuse to honor it, he called the ruling “a huge infringement on our tribal sovereignty.”
Neither Leno nor other members of the Grand Ronde tribal council returned phone calls seeking further comment Monday.
“It’s been a roller-coaster 48 hours,” said Debi Anderson, a 61-year-old Portland resident who has been serving as spokesperson for those disenrolled by the tribe. “We’re very, very excited, of course.”
She said that the appeals judges — all of them Native American — validated feelings that she had often struggled to explain. “I hadn’t felt before that it was understood what the loss of citizenship meant to tribal people. It’s the loss of culture. The loss of family … It’s an identity thing. It’s who you are.”
Then came Leno’s comments, which she called “disheartening.”
Still, she said, Leno was only one of nine council members. She said the majority supported reinstating membership, making her hopeful that the council would respect the ruling.
If it doesn’t, it’s unclear what recourse the disenrolled have. “We are evaluating all legal options,” Galanda said.
The Nooksack case hardly points the way. In March, the tribal council fired its judge for issuing a ruling critical of that government’s disenrollment campaign and its disbarring of Galanda without notice or explanation.
The issue of Galanda’s disbarment went to the tribal appeals court, which in May ordered a Nooksack court clerk to accept pleadings from Galanda and his partners, but she would not.
The appeals court found the clerk in contempt and ordered Tribal Police Chief Rory Gilliland to arrest her. The chief did not.
Then, the appeals court ordered the chief to show, by Aug. 3, why he should not be found in contempt and fined $1,000 a day.
Michelle Roberts, a spokesperson for the Nooksack members facing disenrollment, said Monday she did not believe the chief had yet done so.
Neither the chief nor the court clerk could be reached for comment. Council leaders did not return phone calls seeking an explanation.
“I think the council there is on a slow train to disaster,” said James Diamond, director of a University of Arizona tribal-justice clinic. “There’s only so long [council members] can hold out,” he said.
He likened the situation to President Nixon’s self-destructive intransigence during Watergate, as he fired everyone who didn’t agree with him.
In disenrollment cases, he suggested, tribes may ultimately be held accountable through their lawyers, who can usually be disciplined by state bar associations.
Roberts recently filed complaints with the Washington State Bar Association against two attorneys who have counseled the Nooksack, including Ray Dodge, who is now the tribal judge. He could not be reached for comment.
According to Roberts and letters related to the complaints, the bar association is investigating.