Ethnic cleansing – the forced removal of a population from a designated piece of territory – is nothing new in America. The earliest example was the forced transfer of upward of 46,000 Indigenous Peoples from their homelands in the south during the seven years following the passage of Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. The forced removal of tens of thousands of people an odious act by the dominant white settler society that was eager to grab indigenous lands. (Related story: The Battle for Hickory Ground)
But during the past decade or so, a growing number of American Indian tribes have implemented a new kind of ethnic cleansing – tribal disenrollment. Most often tribes try to eject members in order to maximize per capita payments from casino profits for the remaining members. But the Nooksack Indian Tribe’s council members have been accused of “cultural genocide” in a lawsuit challenging their attempt to disenroll hundreds of Nooksack citizens.
On March 15 attorneys from the Seattle firm of Galanda Broadman filed a complaint for equitable relief in the Nooksack Tribal Court against Chairman Robert Kelly, five other council members and other tribal officials for “act[ing] beyond the scope of their authority as tribal officers in their official capacities” in their attempt to remove 306 Nooksack enrolled tribal members. According to the tribe’s Constitution, members must be of Nooksack ancestry and have one-quarter Indian blood, the lawsuit says. “This is an action to prevent cultural genocide on 306 enrolled members of the Nooksack Indian Tribe, each of whom is of Nooksack ancestry and each of whom possesses at least one-fourth degree Indian blood,” the court document says. The attorneys also filed a request for an emergency injunction to stop the tribal council from implementing the disenrollment. The court will hold a hearing on the request on May 1.
The common thread among the 306 members facing disenrollment is their mixed Filipino and American Indian heritage. The members descend from three families – the Rapada, Rabang and Narte-Gladstone families – and all three families are descendants of Annie George, a full-blooded Nooksack ancestor whose children married Filipinos and integrated into regional migrant worker communities to survive. They worked in fields and canneries throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Eastern Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.
Moreno Peralta, spokesman for the families, told Indian Country Today Media Network that the families believe they are being dispossessed of their Nooksack identity because of their mixed Nooksack and Filipino ancestry.
“The tribe has two casinos, but we don’t see this as a per capita case because throughout the years as tribal members we haven’t really seen any checks from the casinos. We get a small distribution at Christmas time – a couple of hundred dollars,” Peralta said. “This is purely and simply a matter of tribal family politics and vengeance. But it is of the grossest kind. That is because Bob Kelly and his faction are attempting to eliminate us from the tribe because we are part Filipino. It is racism and cultural genocide that we are facing.”
On February 12, 2013, the tribal council passed Resolution 13-02: Initiating Involuntary Disenrollment for Certain Descendants of Annie James (George), claiming that the 306 members were erroneously enrolled because the original declaration of Nooksack tribal membership given to their ancestors was incorrect. The resolution claims that membership relies on two provisions of the tribe’s Constitution: “all original Nooksack Public Domain Allottees, and their descendants living on January 1, 1942 [at the time of a census], and all persons born to or lineal descendant of any enrolled member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe subsequent to January 1, 1942, provided that such persons possess at least one-fourth Indian blood.” The resolution claims that Annie George was not an original Nooksack Public Domain Allottee or a lineal descendant of an original Public Domain Allottee living on January 1, 1942. But the plaintiffs argue that the Constitution does not require proof of ancestry from a person listed on the official census roll of 1942. Instead, they argue in their lawsuit that the Constitution “provides that members include those ‘persons who possess at least one-fourth (1/4) degree Indian blood and who can prove Nooksack ancestry in any degree.’” No one disputes that the 306 members facing disenrollment possess more than 1/4 Indian blood and have Nooksack ancestry, Peralta said.
“Mr. Kelly, who, mind you, is not of Nooksack descent but was adopted into the tribe, is spearheading this disenrollment process and that leaves a very bad taste in a lot of folks’ mouths,” Peralta said. “For us it’s been really scary and upsetting to a lot of folks, like folks who have to go to the doctor for different reasons, and for myself talking to my children and with other people and asking. ‘Why is this happening to us?’”
Among the named plaintiffs in the case are 74-year-old Sonia Lomeli; Terry St. Germain, a 48-year-old long time tribal fisherman with eight children, who worries about how he’ll feed his family if his tribal hunting and fishing rights are taken away; and Norma Aldredge, a 65-year-old woman who lives on $500 a month with her husband in a tribal housing complex on a rent-to-own program and suffers stress-related symptoms. The suit is also filed “on behalf of those similarly situated,” meaning the other tribal members among the 306 the council wants to disenroll.
Lomeli, a Nooksack tribal member since the 1980s, said in a declaration in the lawsuit that she is terrified at the prospect of her family’s disenrollment. She has five grown children, all enrolled Nooksack members. “I live in a home that I own on Nooksack tribal lands. I am scared about what could happen to my home and to me. If we are evicted, where would I go? I cannot afford to find or rent a new home. I don’t even have enough money to pay for first/last deposit,” she said. Lomeli lives on around $900 a month in social security income. She takes care of a disabled daughter and she herself depends on tribal medical care including transportation to a kidney dialysis center three times a week. “I am afraid I will die if they disenroll me,” Lomeli said.
According to the court document, Kelly held a special meeting on December 19, 2012 to talk about pending enrollment applications. Tribal Enrollment Officer Ron Bailey, who is a defendant in the case, attended the meeting and testified that the children of Terry St. Germain, a plaintiff, were ineligible for enrollment because of “incomplete files” and “missing documents.” Kelly said he would contact the regional Bureau of Indian Affairs office about the missing documents. At the regular monthly meeting on January 8, 2013, Kelly said the BIA was missing documents not only for the St. Germain children but also for more than 300 enrolled Nooksack members. The next day, Bailey sent a hand-written letter to St. Germain saying, “Your Kids [sic] do not meet Constitutional requirements for eligibility for membership in the Nooksack Tribe.”
Since that date, Kelly has refused to hold the constitutionally-mandated monthly meeting, according to the lawsuit, but at an executive session on February 12, 2013, Kelly ordered Tribal Council Secretary Rudy St. Germain and Councilor Michelle Roberts to leave the meeting because they were going to be disenrolled. The council then passed the Involuntary Disenrollment Resolution 13-02 and two days later Kelly began to issue a Notice of Intent to Disenroll to each of the 306 members.
The lawsuit says that Kelly and the councilors have violated numerous aspects of the Nooksack Constitution and Tribal Law in their efforts to terminate the Rapada, Rabang and Narte-Gladstone families, including refusing to call the mandated monthly public meeting, starting the disenrollment through enrollment staff who serve at the pleasure of the Council, rather than through the Nooksack membership; amending the Tribal Elections Ordinance to disenfranchise the 306 proposed disenrollees of their voting rights; amending the Tribal Judicial Code to assert sovereign immunity against any action against the Tribal Council in order to also prevent the 306 proposed disenrollees from suing; passing a resolution to ask the Department of the Interior secretary to help amend the Tribal Constitution to delete the eligibility section of the Constitution that requires members to possess at least one-fourth degree Indian blood and any degree of Nooksack ancestry; and by adopting “a nepotism policy” in attempt to disqualify Tribal Council Secretary Rudy St. Germain and Councilor Michele Roberts from serving on the council.
Asked why Kelly and the tribal council are trying to disenroll the mixed race members at this particular time, Peralta said, “I really can’t say. There are a lot of unanswered questions. They don’t want to hold the required monthly meetings so that we could go in front of them and say, ‘What is this really all about? Why are you guys doing this to us?’” Peralta said.
Kelly did not respond to an e-mail asking for his perspective on the lawsuit.
“To me, the disenrollment is genocide,” Peralta reiterated. “For them to wipe us out of the tribe and wipe us out of the history of the tribe is a big piece of it for me. I’m always proud to say I’m Native American and from a federally recognized tribe. For them to do this is beyond me. It’s not anything other than people doing this to their own people. It’s really gross and disgraceful and out in Indian country you get frowned upon if you’re part of that. I want to say, ‘Why are you doing this to your own people?’”