“Talk in English!” ordered Nooksack Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly at a special public meeting last February.
The words made Deborah Alexander’s blood boil. For three years she’d heard her children and their families slandered and gossiped about. For three years she’d remained silent as they were ostracized for being members of the Nooksack 306. She’d kept quiet as lies were told about them and tribal benefits withheld from them.
But witnessing Kelly order Nooksack elder George Adams to speak English in a tribal council meeting was just too much. She couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“Next thing I knew I was standing up there and I got upset because they kept telling him to quit talking. ‘Talk in English.’ And I said, ‘Why can’t he talk? Why can’t he speak in his language?’ And I said a few other choice words that I don’t want to repeat because I got upset. And I left,” Alexander told ICTMN.
A day and a half later she said she was fired as the tribe’s GED teacher. Three months after that she was disenrolled. Alexander’s account was confirmed by other sources and supports, but Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly’s office has not responded to requests for comment.
The elder whom Alexander defended, George Adams, is the last remaining speaker of the Nooksack language, Lhéchelesem. In 1977, the last fluent speaker of Lhéchelesem, Sindick Jimmy, passed away, leaving only a few partial speakers.
In 2000, Adams began working with linguist Brent Galloway, transcribing taped interviews with elders. He already knew much of the language and studied the tapes himself, improving his ability to speak it. On May 31, 2002, Adams gave the first public speech in Lhéchelesem since 1976. He later developed an after school hybrid immersion language program for Nooksack students.
But he supported the Nooksack 306, the tribal members who’ve been fighting the council to keep from being disenrolled since 2013. Members of the 306, clients of Native attorney and ICTMN contributor Gabe Galanda, have gone public with their story to raise awareness of the impact disenrollment has had on the fate of the tribe’s language, Lhéchelesem. Meanwhile, support for the tribal council’s efforts to disenroll the 306 remains strong within the tribe.
The council says the 306 are all descended from an ancestor named Annie George. An audit of tribal membership records discovered her name was missing from the 1942 tribal census, a requirement to prove Nooksack blood.
The tribal council began disenrollment proceedings in December 2012. The 306 descendants of Annie George received certified letters in February 2013 notifying them of the pending disenrollment.
Adams is not among the 306, but considers himself the 307th because he feels he could just as easily be next. He feels the conflict is between ancient oral tradition and the modern rule of law, a point he tried to make by speaking to the council in Lhéchelesem, intending to repeat his words in English afterward.
“So the issue was they’re claiming that this one person named Annie George was not Nooksack. And so I spoke in my language that no, these people here, that is their great-grandmother and for some of them it’s their great-great grandmother, Annie George. Annie George’s mother and father were Nooksack. But for sure their father, Matsqui George was Nooksack. And this is not only said in documentation, but it’s been a tradition in the family from way back.”
Adams said he stood and began speaking Lhéchelesem after Kelly announced tribal enrollment cards would not be issued to the Nooksack 306. For three years the council had already denied benefits to children of the 306 for school supplies and they’d been left out of the yearly Christmas distributions. If their appeal of the disenrollment fails, the 306 will also lose medical benefits and in some cases even their homes. But not issuing them new enrollment cards even before the case is decided prompted Adams to stand and defend them in the traditional way he had learned from his elders.
“So I said this in the language and I was told to speak English. And then I said, ‘Do you understand?’ And that was to Bob Kelly, the chairman. ‘Do you understand?’ And I said it in the other dialect to be sure. There was no response. So that told me they don’t have any upbringing and there’s no way that they could start up and say what I said was wrong.”
In 2014, Adams ran against Kelly for the position of Tribal Chairman. He felt Kelly was misusing tribal authority and was persecuting the descendants of Annie George because they represented a rival political faction within the tribe. He said they made the 306 into a scapegoat upon which the tribe’s current financial problems are being blamed. Last November the tribe closed the Nooksack River Casino, one of two casinos the tribe operates in Whatcom County, because of long-running financial problems.
“They’re trying to make a scapegoat. They’re fabricating things and they’re trying to say it enough times that people believe them, spreading lies about the family,” Adams alleged to ICTMN.
Adams ran against Kelly on a platform promising to stop the disenrollment proceedings. He lost by about 50 votes in a highly contested election.
“Three days before the election they fired me ‘at will,’“ Adams remembered. “They were trying to intimidate other employees. I was an employee of the tribe with the Nooksack language program.”
When Adams was fired, the after school Lhéchelesem language program ended.
“Without Mr. Adams providing after school language instruction, there are few options for youth to access this education,” wrote Michael Shepard in his doctoral thesis, “The Substance of Self-Determination: Language, Culture, Archives and Sovereignty,” (University of British Columbia, 2015).
“Nooksack is an exceptional case,” Shepard wrote, “as linguistic knowledge is heavily concentrated in one tribal member and that person has now become controversial.”
Adams feels the disenrollment proceedings show a lack of respect for traditional ways. He said this was dramatically demonstrated at the meeting in February when Kelly had him, a 66-year-old tribal elder and the last remaining speaker of the Nooksack language, escorted out of the building by tribal police.
“I told them in our language, ‘You folks put your head down.’ That’s how our ancestors would admonish somebody who’s out of line. ‘Put your head down. Shame on you.’ And that’s when I was summarily escorted out the door.”
Alexander, who stood and defended Adams, now feels soured by the tribe’s ruthless treatment of her and her family. A day and a half after she spoke up at the meeting, she said the Nooksack Police served her with papers. The council was firing her “without cause” from her job as the tribe’s GED instructor. In May she was disenrolled because the council felt she was dually enrolled with the Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska. Alexander said she was not given enough time to respond before the council voted to kick her out. The tribal authorities have not responded to requests for comments on this allegation, either.
Since the passing of linguist Brent Galloway in August 2014, the fate of the Nooksack language, Lhéchelesem, now lies primarily in the hands of its last speaker, Adams. Yet, instead of working to save this vital component of their culture, to former and current members it appears the tribal council has focused tremendous energy into the disenrollment proceedings.
“It’s funny that they spend all this energy and time to do this,” Adams said, “almost like a self-destructive wanting on their part.”
In the meantime, the future of the Nooksack language remains unclear.