Enrollment dispute has Nooksack tribe in turmoil

April 11, 2013


DEMING – Questions of tribal identity are pitting friends and relatives against one another as the 2,000-strong Nooksack Indian Tribe waits for the tribal court to rule on a move to disenroll 306 members.

Tribal Chief Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis has scheduled a May 1 hearing on legal challenges to the disenrollment filed on behalf of the affected people.

Meanwhile, Nooksacks who support the disenrollment are circulating recall petitions against two tribal council members, Michelle Roberts and Rudy St. Germain, who are among those facing disenrollment.

One of those affected, Norma Aldredge, said she faces loss of her home in a tribal housing project, where the $150 monthly rent enables her to survive on a $500 monthly Social Security check.

Not the least of her distress comes from the new animosity that divides her and her family from the rest of the community.

“I’m afraid to even talk to anybody because I don’t know who my friends are and who my enemies are,” Aldredge said. “Why do they hate us so much? Why don’t they just leave us alone?”

Nooksacks who support the disenrollment say it is not a matter of hate. They say it’s simply a matter of fixing an old mistake that allowed unqualified people to reap the benefits of tribal membership, including a share in the tribe’s limited resources.

Nooksack tribe member Abby Yates has a marketing business that is doing well right now, but a few years ago she was not doing as well and hoped to get into subsidized tribal housing. There was no room. As she sees it, some of the 306 improperly enrolled people are getting help with housing while real Nooksacks go without.

Yates and another tribal member, Leandra Smith, said elders in their families have never considered members of the Rabang, Rapada and Narte-Gladstone families to have authentic Nooksack ancestry. As they see it, these families are descended from members of the Skway tribe in British Columbia, but not from anyone they consider a true Nooksack.

Tribal council members moved to challenge the families’ membership in 1996. But the families packed the council chambers in a show of strength that some council members found intimidating, aqccording to Yates and Smith. The matter was dropped.

Yates commends Kelly and his allies on the council for taking up the disenrollment issue again.

“Sometimes, doing what’s right is very difficult,” she said. “We have a strong leadership on our council who are willing to do the difficult tasks. … The money that is there should go to the descendants who are truly Nooksacks. Our ancestors fought for that.

“Smith said there is nothing personal in the dispute, and said she has three nephews and several friends among those who may be disenrolled.

The disputed right to Nooksack membership hinges on a woman named Annie George, who died in 1949. The Nooksacks facing disenrollment are descended from her. They insist that Annie George was Nooksack and that her descendants qualify for membership under a provision of the tribal constitution opening enrollment to anyone with one-fourth Native American blood “who can prove Nooksack ancestry to any degree.”

But on Feb. 12, 2013, Chairman Kelly and five of the other seven members of the tribal council approved a resolution that approved disenrollment of Annie George’s descendants, based on a tribal ordinance that limits membership to descendants of those whose names appear on a 1942 tribal census, or those who can prove they are descendants of someone who got an allotment of tribal land in the early days. Annie George does not meet those tests, according to the disenrollment resolution.

On March 1, the council followed up with a vote to start the process of amending the constitution to delete the provision that opens membership to those with “any degree” of Nooksack ancestry. The March 1 council resolution describes that provision as “so ambiguous that it cannot be fairly applied and has potential for abuse.”

Those threatened with disenrollment see the constitutional amendment as evidence that Kelly and his allies will stop at nothing to get them out of the tribe.

In a sworn statement submitted to tribal court, council member Rudy St. Germain also complains that Kelly ordered him and the other council member facing disenrollment, Michelle Roberts, out of the closed council sessions where the issue was discussed. St. Germain contends that was improper because he and Roberts were, and remain, members of both the tribe and the council until the matter gets legal review.

In an email, Chairman Kelly said he could not comment while the matter faces legal review.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics. Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.