On March 15, 2014 a very important vote will take place on the Deming, Washington Reservation of The Nooksack Indian Tribe. The Tribe has attempted a mass disenrollment of more than 300 enrolled tribal members. Represented by Gabe Galanda of Galanda Broadman, several lawsuits have been filed in tribal court and in federal court. Elections of the Tribal Council and its officers, however, could alter the balance of power and the attempted purge.
Galanda says that the elections are essentially a referendum on the disenrollment. “The results of the primary signaled that the current Council lacks a mandate for that mass disenrollment,” he says. “In the general election the Nooksack People, who have been silenced in all political forums for the last fourteen months, will rightfully have a say in the matter.”
In the case of most American Indian tribes, historically the tribes have had the power to determine tribal membership. For centuries tribes “banished” people as punishment for serious offenses. In recent years, however, a trend has been evident with tribes canceling membership, or “disenrolling” tribal members due to claims of inferior membership qualification.
While the most recent trend evidences the most cases arising in California, the practice is not exclusive to California and there are cases throughout the United States. Recent mass disenrollments are spreading along the West Coast to Washington and Oregon as well. Although there is no way to know exactly how many Indians have been disenrolled, the numbers are substantial. One activist group says at least 5,000 tribal members were disenrolled in California alone between 2000 and 2008.
Motivation for the disenrollment trend nationally is hotly debated. Some experts point to internal personal squabbles or political factional differences as the source of the trend. Others point to the simultaneous enrichment of tribes from casino gambling. Tribal governments universally deny that greed or power is motivating disenrollment, declaring that they are upholding membership rules established in valid internal constitutions. As proof, they say they are removing people with tangential connections to the tribe, who joined primarily for benefits, services, scholarships and in some instances monthly checks financed by the casino profits.
Galanda believes that the federal law, the Indian Civil Rights Act and the Tribe’s own Constitution guarantees the Nooksack 306 constitutional rights that have been violated and he’s hoping to convince the courts that he’s right. So far he has been unsuccessful in the tribal courts but neither Galanda nor his clients are giving up.