Four years ago, the Nooksack in Washington State announced that they were expelling hundreds of members, setting off a bitter debate over tribal identity.
In the fall of 2012, a 48-year-old fisherman and carver named Terry St. Germain decided to enroll his five young children as members of the Nooksack, a federally recognized Native American tribe with some 2,000 members, centered in the northwestern corner of Washington State.
He’d enrolled his two older daughters, from a previous relationship, when they were babies, but hadn’t yet filed the paperwork to make his younger children — all of whom, including a set of twins, were under 7 — official members. He saw no reason to worry about a bureaucratic endorsement of what he knew to be true. “My kids, they love being Native,” he told me.
St. Germain was a teenager when he enrolled in the tribe. For decades, he used tribal fishing rights to harvest salmon and sea urchin and Dungeness crab alongside his cousins. He had dozens of family members who were also Nooksack. His mother, according to family lore, was directly descended from a 19th-century Nooksack chief known as Matsqui George. His brother, Rudy, was the secretary of the Nooksack tribal council, which oversaw membership decisions. The process, he figured, would be so straightforward that his kids would be certified Nooksacks in time for Christmas, when the tribe gives parents a small stipend for buying gifts: “I thought it was a cut-and-dried situation.”
But after a few months, the applications had still not gone through. When Rudy asked why, at a tribal council meeting, the chairman, Bob Kelly, called in the enrollment department. They told Rudy that they had found a problem with the paperwork. There were missing documents; ancestors seemed to be incorrectly identified. They didn’t think Terry’s children’s claims to tribal membership could be substantiated.
At the time, Rudy and Kelly were friends, allies on the council. At the long oval table where they met to discuss Nooksack business, Rudy always sat at Kelly’s right. But the debate over whether Rudy’s family qualified as Nooksack tore them apart. Today, more than four years later, they no longer speak. Rudy and his extended family refer to Kelly as a monster and a dictator; he calls them pond scum and con artists. They agree on almost nothing, but both remember the day when things fell apart the same way. “If my nephew isn’t Nooksack,” Rudy said in the council chambers, “then neither am I.”
To Rudy, the words were an expression of shock. “It’s fighting words,” he said, to tell someone they’re not really part of their tribe. At stake were not just his family’s jobs and homes and treaty rights but also who they were and where they belonged. “I’ll still be who I am, but I won’t have proof,” Rudy said. “I’ll be labeled a non-Indian. So yeah, I take this very personally.”
To Kelly, the words were an admission of guilt, implicating not just the St. Germains but also hundreds of tribal members to whom they were related. As chairman, he felt that he had a sacred duty: to protect the tribe from invasion by a group of people that, he would eventually argue, weren’t even Native Americans. “I’m in a war,” he told me later, sketching family trees on the back of a copy of the tribe’s constitution. “This is our culture, not a game.”
The St. Germains’ rejected application proved to be a turning point for the Nooksack. Separately, the family and the council began combing through Nooksack history, which, like that of many tribes in the United States, is complicated by government efforts to extinguish, assimilate and relocate the tribe, and by a dearth of historical documents. An international border drawn across historically Nooksack lands only adds to the confusion. There were some records and even some living memories of the ancestors whose Nooksack heritage was being called into doubt. But no one could agree on what the records meant.
In January 2013, Kelly announced that, after searching through files at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in nearby Everett, he had reason to doubt the legitimacy of more than 300 enrolled Nooksacks related to the St. Germains, all of whom claimed to descend from a woman named Annie George, born in 1875. In February, he canceled the constitutionally required council meeting, saying it would be “improper” to convene when Rudy St. Germain and another council member, Rudy’s cousin Michelle Roberts, were not eligible to be part of the tribe they’d been elected to lead. A week later, he called an executive session of the council but demanded that St. Germain and Roberts remain outside while the rest of the council voted on whether to “initiate involuntary disenrollment” for them and 304 other Nooksacks, including 37 elders. The resolution passed unanimously. “It hurt me,” Terry St. Germain said later. Even harder was watching the effect on his brother, Rudy. “It took the wind right out of him.”
Two days after the meeting, the tribal council began sending out letters notifying affected members that unless they could provide proof of their legitimacy, they would be disenrolled in 30 days. Word and shock spread quickly through the small, tight-knit reservation. The disenrollees, now calling themselves “the Nooksack 306,” hired a lawyer and vowed to contest their expulsion. “I told ’em, ‘I know where I belong no matter what you say,’ ” an 80-year-old woman who, in her youth, had been punished for “speaking Indian” at school, said. “ ‘You can’t make me believe that I’m not.’ ”
The Nooksacks who want the 306 out of the tribe say they are standing up for their very identity, fighting for the integrity of a tribe taken over by outsiders. “We’re ready to die for this,” Kelly would later say. “And I think we will, before this is over.”
Outside the lands legally known as “Indian Country,” “membership” and “enrollment” are such blandly bureaucratic words that it’s easy to lose sight of how much they matter there. To the 566 federally recognized tribal nations, the ability to determine who is and isn’t part of a tribe is an essential element of what makes tribes sovereign entities. To individuals, membership means citizenship and all the emotional ties and treaty rights that come with it. To be disenrolled is to lose that citizenship: to become stateless. It can also mean the loss of a broader identity, because recognition by a tribe is the most accepted way to prove you are Indian — not just Nooksack but Native American at all.
Efforts to define Native American identity date from the earliest days of the colonies. Before the arrival of white settlers, tribal boundaries were generally fluid; intermarriages and alliances were common. But as the new government’s desire to expand into Indian Territory grew, so, too, did the interest in defining who was and who wasn’t a “real Indian.” Those definitions shifted as the colonial government’s goals did. “Mixed blood” Indians, for example, were added to rolls in hopes that assimilated Indians would be more likely to cede their land; later, after land claims were established, more restrictive definitions were adopted. In the 19th century, the government began relying heavily on blood quantum, or “degree of Indian blood,” wagering that, over generations of intermarriage, tribes would be diluted to the point that earlier treaties would not have to be honored. “ ‘As long as grass grows or water runs’ — a phrase that was often used in treaties with American Indians — is a relatively permanent term for a contract,” the Ojibwe author David Treuer wrote in a 2011 Op-Ed for The Times. “ ‘As long as the blood flows’ seemed measurably shorter.”
Even for those early rolls, though, determining blood quantum was tricky; it was not a measure that tribal people used or something they kept track of. Government agents compiling base rolls in the 1800s sometimes simply guessed at the percentage of Indian blood; at the time, anthropologists used feet and hair width as a “scientific” test of blood degree in indigenous tribes. Many traditionalist Indians, known as “irreconcilables” or “blanket Indians,” were so suspicious of the government that they refused to be enrolled at all, making all their descendants unenrollable as well. In 1988 the historian Kent Carter coined a half-joking term for the millions who claim Indian ancestry but who, for a variety of reasons, don’t sort neatly into today’s official boxes: people with mixed tribal heritage; people whose ancestors were denied recognition by early government agents or died before registration was complete; people whose tribes, in the face of the federal government’s attempts to extinguish them, didn’t maintain the cohesion that same government would later require for recognition. Carter called them the “outalucks.”
Contemporary Indian identity is refracted through a tangled accumulation of 18th- and 19th-century understandings of biology and race, as well as several centuries’ worth of conflicting federal policies. The Constitution uses the word “Indian” twice but never bothers to define it. A congressional survey in 1978 found that, in addition to the different requirements used by tribes and individual states, federal legislation defined Native Americans in at least 33 ways. In 2005, one frustrated judge, quoting an earlier decision, described the legal definitions of Indian-ness as “ ‘a complex patchwork of federal, state and tribal law,’ which is better explained by history than by logic.” Given the web of criteria, courts are sometimes called upon to decide whether individuals, or even tribes, are “authentically” Indian. This has led to weighing things like whether twenty-nine 128ths constitutes a “significant degree” of Indian blood (a federal court ruled in 2009 that it did); whether someone who was “Indian in an anthropological or ethno-historical sense” was also Indian for the purposes of criminal jurisdiction if his tribe isn’t federally recognized (the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided he was not); and whether behaviors like eating fast food and driving cars show that a tribe’s culture had been abandoned and its land rights “extinguished” (in 1991, a Canadian court said that they did; the ruling was later overturned).
Modern Native Americans — who in 2017 are still issued cards by the federal government certifying their “Degree of Indian Blood” — are used to, if not necessarily comfortable with, the need to “prove” their identities in ways that may seem strange to people of other ethnicities. Tribes set their own membership requirements, but in order to be recognized by the federal government, they must also prove their historical continuity and have generally hewed to the methods it has established. Tribes have on occasion been warned that federal recognition, and thus their treaty-guaranteed rights, can disappear if their membership becomes unclear. When, in 1994, the Blackfeet Nation considered doing away with its blood-quantum requirement, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official warned that a tribe that “diluted” its relationship with its members might find that “it has ‘self-determined’ its sovereignty away.” Today, most tribes use direct descent from tribal members listed on historical rolls and blood quantum. For a 2003 book, “Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America,” the Cherokee scholar Eva Marie Garroutte interviewed Native people about what it felt like to be defined in this way. Many said they saw blood quantum as a helpful guidepost and a guard against fraud or against people who identify as Indian without cultural understanding. Others regarded it as odd, even offensive. An Ojibwe man joked that he is also “part white, but I don’t have the papers to prove it.” A Cree-and-Anishinabe woman replied, “I don’t like being talked about in a vocabulary usually reserved for dogs and horses.”
Lately, though, old debates about identity have taken a harsh new direction. Loss of tribal acceptance, which was once rare and seldom permanent, has become increasingly common over the last two decades. David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota who has followed the phenomenon since the mid-1990s, says there has been a surge in disenrollment that involves between 5,000 and 9,000 people in 79 tribes across 20 states. Even the dead have been disenrolled and, in some cases, exhumed from their graves, against tradition and taboo, to have their DNA tested.
The ejection of tribal members is most prevalent in small tribes with casinos on their land; “per capita” profit shares go further when split fewer ways. Many of the most famous cases have been in California: Following the opening of a new tribal casino in 2003, the Chukchansi, in Coarsegold, disenrolled more than half of approximately 1,600 tribal members, and battles among factions eventually led to an armed takeover of the casino. But disenrollment also happens where casino money isn’t a major factor (the Nooksack have one casino and another recently closed, but don’t make enough money from gaming to issue per capita payments) or isn’t a factor at all, as in tribes where factions hope to consolidate political power or settle grudges or simply believe that people were mistakenly let in. Robert Williams, chairman of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, told me that some tribes have recently begun to hire membership consultants to help trim their rolls. “It’s almost become an industry in some parts of Indian Country,” he said.
The National Native American Bar Association issued a resolution in 2015 denouncing loss of membership without due process, while the Association of American Indian Physicians warned that such loss of identity could cause serious grief and depression. In general, though, the voices against disenrollment have been few. A 1978 Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, held that, due to its sovereignty, a tribe cannot be sued for discrimination for accepting the children of male members who married outside the tribe but not those of female members who did. It has been widely interpreted as giving tribes the right to determine their membership requirements, even if individual rights are compromised. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, out of respect for sovereignty, has repeatedly declined to intervene in internal membership disputes.
Native leaders, leery of inviting scrutiny that could undermine tribal sovereignty, have been reluctant to speak out. “They tend to view any interference in such matters as an intrusion of the thin end of an infinitely expandable wedge against which they must exercise constant vigilance,” writes Garroutte. Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam — a Western Washington tribe that disenrolled six members for insufficient blood quantum — says that “the topic is rising” and eliciting strong emotions, but it’s not appropriate to tell other tribes what to do: “It would be like Oregon saying to Washington, ‘You’re not managing your affairs properly.’ ”
Of the sweeping lands that historically made up Nooksack territory — it once stretched from the glaciated heights of Mt. Baker to the rocky shores of Puget Sound — the tribe now owns about 2,500 acres, bought from private owners in the last 50 years. The reservation is centered in Deming, an unincorporated town of a few hundred people, with pockets of tribal housing scattered beyond it. Most Nooksack tribal members do not live on the reservation; many of them, or their ancestors, followed opportunities in the more developed southern Sound or in other parts of the country.
Adelina Narte-Parker, 64, lives across the Sound, closer to the Olympic Mountains. A great-granddaughter of Annie George, the common ancestor who unites the Nooksack disenrollees, and a cousin of Rudy and Terry St. Germain’s mother, she was among the first of the 306 accepted as Nooksack decades ago. One afternoon as we sat on her porch watching ships come and go from Seattle, she showed me the letter the tribe sent her in 1983, announcing her new membership. Overhead, a bald eagle wheeled; inside, her husband, a painter, made sketches for a portrait of Annie George. He was working from an old, grainy photograph that he wasn’t sure depicted George. A relative found it in a shed, and the features were indistinct. “Once you title something,” he said, laughing, “it is what you say it is.”
After she got her letter of acceptance, Narte-Parker recalled, she was quick to tell her family, and then to write back to the enrollment director: “We were all jubilant, laughing, full of joy, jumping, screaming, crying, and the greatest overwhelming feeling of belonging somewhere.” She was proud, she wrote, to finally know where she came from, “and prouder still to be a Nooksack Indian.”
Narte-Parker didn’t set out to be a member of the Nooksack tribe. She grew up well south of Nooksack lands, following her parents as they sought work in the fields, orchards and canneries of Washington State. Her father was Filipino and her mother was Indian, raised on a Shxway reserve in British Columbia. Her mother always said she was part Shxway, a Canadian band within the Stolo nation, through her grandfather, and part Nooksack, through her grandmother Annie George. Annie George’s three daughters — Narte-Parker’s grandmother and her two aunts — all married Filipino farmworkers. The family spoke Halkomelem, a native language that was widely spoken in what is now British Columbia but also in the Nooksack River valley until the mid-20th century; it eventually largely replaced the original Nooksack language, Lhechalosem. As a child, Narte-Parker would sometimes drive north with her mother to visit family, and they would stop off in Nooksack territory to visit a man they called Uncle Louis.
In 1983, Narte-Parker, her mother and one of her great-aunts decided they wanted to learn more about their heritage. They went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Everett, Wash., and then to the Nooksack enrollment office in Deming, to work on a family tree. Narte-Parker’s mother told the enrollment director that her grandmother’s name was Annie George, and that her grandmother’s siblings had been named Louis, Amanda, Frank and William. Annie George wasn’t on the family trees the tribe had, and she wasn’t listed on any of the censuses it used, but Louis George was on a Nooksack tribal census from 1942. In a probate document, they found Annie’s name: Four interviewees described her as Louis’s half sister. The enrollment director encouraged the women to apply for membership, and they did. Within a month, the council sent them word that they had been accepted.
Narte-Parker was the 777th enrolled member of the Nooksack tribe. Many of her relatives quickly followed. (Some also enrolled, separately, as Shxway.) As more houses became available, more members of the three families moved to reservation lands. Before long, the descendants of Annie George became an influential voting bloc, and their members were being elected to council seats and hired to run tribal offices.
While some elders welcomed them, others were skeptical. The sisters had never lived on Nooksack land. Some elders had no memory of them; others remembered them visiting but thought of them as Shxway. Kelly heard, indirectly, that elders in British Columbia didn’t remember the sisters’ being born there, but rather, showing up suddenly as young children — the beginning of his suspicions that, though they “had teachings,” the sisters weren’t Annie’s real daughters at all but non-Indian children she had taken in. Roberts showed me copies of two of the sisters’ birth certificates, reissued later in their lives, listing Annie and her husband as their parents. Other members of the tribe remembered knowing some of the 306 further south in the 1950s, when their families were doing agricultural work; at the time, they said, the families identified as Filipino. They certainly hadn’t been around in the 1960s or ’70s, when the tribe was writing its constitution — when, as Kelly put it, the council “took a look around at who was here when they passed it, and they wrote their criteria for that, based on who was here — this is who Nooksack’s going to be.”
The debate continued into the 1990s, when the tribe did an enrollment audit of one of the three families descended from Annie’s daughters, the Rabangs. They were ultimately found to be enrollable, but not before an ugly confrontation. In 2000, after a number of Rabangs were arrested for smuggling marijuana into the United States from Canada, some elders told The Associated Press that “a clan of outsiders masquerading as Nooksacks” was “controlling tribal government.” Bob Kelly now calls Narte-Parker and the other first enrollees from her extended family “Trojan horses.”
The Nooksack, as is the case with many tribes, have not always been known by their modern name. Rather, Nooksack, which is also rendered Noxwsá7aq, was the name of one of many villages scattered along what is now called the Nooksack River. When white settlers arrived in the mid-19th century, they applied the name of the village to all the people in the valley. Noxwsá7aq translates to “always bracken fern roots,” on which people of the village are said to have subsisted during a time of famine. One tribal member told me that she thinks the name captures something of what it means to be Nooksack. It makes her feel like a survivor.
That’s a fair description of Nooksack history, especially in the last few hundred years. For centuries, the people fished their own river valley but also traveled regularly, including to what is now Canada’s Fraser River, to fish for salmon or gather shellfish. They intermarried and formed alliances with their neighbors on both sides of what is now an international border. When white settlers arrived and introduced new diseases, many of the Nooksack died. By some counts their numbers plummeted to 450 from perhaps 1,200. In the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot, in which Coast Salish tribes ceded their lands to the federal government in exchange for small reservations and the right to continue fishing, hunting and gathering, the Nooksack received no reservation. Instead, as settlers moved onto their lands, they were told to go live with the Lummi, in their new reservation by the coast. Most refused. Of those who remained, some filed homestead claims on their own lands; others scattered in search of a livelihood. For the next hundred years, as far as the federal government was concerned, the tribe essentially ceased to exist.
This is not an unusual story. The federal government used the law as “a mighty, pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” as Teddy Roosevelt said to Congress in 1901. He was referring to the General Allotment Act, under which tribally owned land was carved into small parcels and handed out to individuals. It was a huge blow to the stability and sovereignty of tribes: Within 20 years, Native people lost ownership of 90 million acres. It was also the beginning of the government’s reliance on blood quantum to determine Indian status. Those deemed “half-bloods” or less were regarded as more responsible and given more freedom to handle their land. Even many “progressive” reformers saw assimilation into white society as the best way to transform tribal members into citizens. “Kill the Indian in the student so we can save the man!” went the famous slogan of a superintendent at one of the 500 boarding schools that Native children, forcibly separated from their families, were made to attend.
Some Nooksack people, unrecognized by the federal government, stayed on their lands and continued to operate as a tribe. In the 1920s, they joined other Northwest tribes to sue the federal government for lands lost; in the 1930s, even though they weren’t considered eligible to participate, they voted to accept the Indian Reorganization Act, in which the government backed away from its assimilationist policies and instead encouraged tribes to be self-governing and self-sufficient. (A decade later the United States ended its government-to-government relationships with tribes and returned to promoting assimilation, before changing its policies and pushing self-government again.) In the 1960s, a committee of Nooksacks opened a bid for federal recognition. They gained title to one acre of land in Deming, the first Nooksack Reservation, in 1970, and full federal recognition in 1973. Like many tribes, they adopted a constitution based on a model that the Bureau of Indian Affairs developed during the reorganization period in the 1930s. The new constitution restricted Nooksack membership to recipients of early land allotments, recipients of a 1965 government settlement or people who appeared on a 1942 tribal census. Their direct descendants could also be enrolled, provided they had “at least one-fourth (1/4) degree Indian blood.”
The Nooksack weren’t alone in seeing long-lost applicants turn up after the tribe was officially recognized. Ron Allen, the tribal chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam, told me it was common, in the last decades of the 20th century, for the “inner-circle communities” of northwestern tribes to be surprised by a “wave” of people who started coming back to places their families once left. He credits the political advancement of tribes, which made members of the broader society feel that it was “O.K. to be Indian.” Tribes generally welcomed the new arrivals, he said, but still, “it was like, ‘Where are all these Indians coming from?’ ”
The most outspoken critics of disenrollment call it a form of genocide. Others don’t go quite so far but still view the practice as an outgrowth of policies designed to suppress Native American identity — “to control us, to assimilate us, and ultimately, to extinguish us,” as John McCoy, a Washington State senator and member of the Tulalip Tribes, neighbors to the Nooksack, wrote in an op-ed for the Indian Country Media Network earlier this year. Robert Williams, of the University of Arizona, argues that disenrollment is a remnant of “colonialism and good old-fashioned American racism, with Indians left to deal with the mess.” In a 2015 tweet, Sherman Alexie, the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene author, put it even more emphatically: “Dear Indian tribes who disenroll members, you should be ashamed of your colonial and capitalistic bullshit.”
The first person to reply to Alexie’s tweet — thanking him for speaking out when others were silent — was Gabe Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian tribes in California and the lawyer whom the Nooksack 306 hired to represent them. The next replies came from some of Galanda’s other clients: former members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who were disenrolled in 2014. Grand Ronde was formed in 1857 when the federal government forced at least 27 tribes and bands to leave their homelands, which ranged from California to Washington, and move to a reservation in Oregon. The 86 Grand Ronde disenrollees descend from a man known as Chief Tumulth, who signed one of the treaties that created the reservation. Decades after they enrolled, tribal officials noted that Chief Tumulth failed to appear on the official base roll, made the year it was founded. It was true: He was hanged the year before, by a lieutenant of the U.S. Army.
I thought of this last spring as I watched Narte-Parker leaf through old letters and family trees, newspaper clippings and documents. “We didn’t make the laws,” she said. “We just got stuck in the middle.”
After the first disenrollment letters went out to Nooksack members, Galanda appealed to tribal courts and the Department of the Interior and managed to delay the disenrollment hearings. Meanwhile, the 306 tried to make sense of what documents they could find to illuminate their past. They had no birth certificate for Annie, so they turned to old censuses and to 19th-century church records kept by the Archdiocese of Vancouver, marking the sacraments of birth, marriage and death. They found that Annie’s birth mother, Marie Siamat, was buried in December 1875, two days after giving birth to Annie, and that her father (variously recorded as Chief Matsqui, George Kot kro itmentwh, George Roelkwemeldon, George Tekwomclko, George Matsqui and so on) remarried a woman named Madeline Jobe.
Indian censuses taken during Annie’s childhood repeatedly recorded her living with George and Madeline. Michelle Robert’s grandmother remembers her mother, Annie, referring to Madeline as the woman who raised her and as “Mother.” The 306 think this is compelling evidence Madeline adopted Annie. The council remains unconvinced. Kelly says that citing Madeline as an ancestor — their only tie to recognized base rolls — was a blatant lie.
If Madeline didn’t count, the family responded, they should still qualify for membership under Section H of the Nooksack constitution, which allows the enrollment of “persons who possess at least ¼ Indian blood and who can prove Nooksack ancestry to any degree.” Records indicate that Matsqui was considered a Nooksack village even after the Canadian border was established to the south, and Matsqui George was a chief of the village. In a U.S. census from 1910, Louis George indicated that both his parents, Madeline and Matsqui George, were Nooksacks from Washington, and that he was a full-blooded Nooksack. Besides, the 306 like to point out, Kelly’s own family was adopted by the Nooksacks; it is originally from a different Canadian tribe.
Kelly suggested that the 306 disenroll themselves and reapply under Section H. But he soon called for a referendum to remove Section H from the Nooksack constitution. He said later that this change was unrelated to the 306 and was instead a much-needed tightening of loose enrollment laws that could have let “almost anybody” in. The amendment passed with 61 percent support.
As part of their defense, the 306 produced letters from anthropologists. One cited not just the requirements for Nooksack membership provided in tribal code but “historical documents, family oral history and well-established concepts of identity, affiliation and membership within anthropology regarding the social organization of the Coast Salish peoples.” But for some tribal members, this only served to undermine his case. “It’s not a club,” a woman named Mary Brewer, who recently gave up her membership in the Lummi tribe to enroll as a Nooksack, told me. “My mom has about 10 different tribes in her ancestry, and she meets the requirements for only two.” Their family lost title to 80 acres on the Yakima reservation because they didn’t have high enough blood quantum to be enrolled there; they were sorry to lose the land, she said, but respected the rules by which modern tribes operate. Brewer’s mother, Diane, said she had two grandchildren whose blood quantum is one-quarter. “We’ve been telling them, better marry Native or else it’ll die out,” she said.
“The 306 say, ‘Disenrollment isn’t traditional,’ ” Mary said. “Well, enrollment was never traditional!” It is, however, the way things work now. “It’s not, ‘this guy took care of me, and that’s how we did it in the olden days,’ ” Brewer continued. “If you don’t have documentation, then you’re not Indian.”
In more than 30 years of membership, Annie’s descendants became interwoven in the life of the tribe. They married other Nooksacks and had kids; those kids had kids. But once the disenrollment process began, people chose sides. “It was just like a light switch,” Elizabeth Oshiro, one of the 306, told me. People she knew for years “all of a sudden had a different heart.”
With the hearings repeatedly delayed as lawsuits made their way through the tribal court system, both sides formed Facebook groups to argue their cases and regularly debated or taunted each other online. (Their competing slogans were “We Belong” and “We Are Nooksack.”) “While some people challenge the idea of tribal enrollment, referring to it as ‘Western thinking’ and an imposed system on American Indians,” posted Katrice Romero, the tribe’s housing director, “that tribal enrollment number is what holds the United States government accountable to the American Indian people and its trust responsibility to tribes; a responsibility that my ancestors fought, struggled and sacrificed for.”
On the reservation, Michelle Roberts found that people who babysat for her as a child or attended her wedding would no longer make eye contact with her. “The most important thing isn’t friendship,” says Diane Brewer, who no longer speaks to her former best friend, one of the 306. “The most important thing is the tribe.”
In the summer of 2013, Roberts was fired from her job as the human-resources manager at the Nooksack River Casino. Later, when she tried to count the number of disenrollees and their allies who lost tribal jobs, she got to 58. At first, Kelly told me he wouldn’t comment on personnel decisions but later said, “We got rid of all them a long time ago.” Rudy St. Germain was fired from his job as the casino’s landscaping manager and had to move his two boys into a relative’s house when he couldn’t make rent. “Those were dark days,” he told me. Today he works in a pork-processing plant.
Roberts and St. Germain couldn’t find resolution in the council. Kelly began insisting that meetings be held over the phone. He’d received threats, he said, and it wasn’t safe to meet in person. When St. Germain and Roberts spoke, no one seemed to be able to hear them. I asked Kelly whether he muted them. He shrugged and said: “Probably. I muted a lot of people.” (He says they weren’t supposed to be on the call in the first place.) The following winter, Kelly scheduled the first in-person council meetings in months on the Friday, Saturday and Monday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend; the Nooksack constitution allows for council members to be removed from office if they miss three monthly council meetings in a row. St. Germain and Roberts, who were out of town, tried to reach the council by phone or email. At the third meeting, the council declared their seats empty and appointed two new members to replace them. “It was the only way we could get them off council,” Kelly told me later. Rudy said, “I was lost for words.”
By that time, Kelly was calling the 306 scam artists. “Nobody stepped forward and claimed them!” he told me repeatedly. “You don’t show up and just insert yourself into someone else’s family tree.”
With an election looming and four of eight council seats expiring, the council asked the tribal court judge to keep pending disenrollees from voting. After the judge refused, the council declined to schedule the elections. The incumbents remained in office, but some argued that, without an elected quorum, the tribe had no viable government.
Several lawsuits, including one called Kelly v. Kelly, brought by a group that included the chairman’s sons, were filed to force elections, but amid litigation, the council abruptly fired the tribe’s judge. The council also barred Galanda from practicing in the tribe’s courts, saying he’d behaved unethically by citing an opinion he wrote while serving as a judge for another tribe; the court began to return all of his filings unopened. An appellate court directed the chief of police to arrest and imprison the court clerk if she continued to reject filings; when the chief of police refused, the appellate court held him in contempt, began levying a fine of $1,000 a day and wondered, in its ruling, if “at Nooksack, the rule of law is dead.” (The council contends that, because the courts are under the jurisdiction of the council, these fines and rulings are meaningless.) Two of the remaining council members whose seats did not expire and who have resisted disenrollment (one is the mother of Kelly’s sons and is now married to one of the 306) were targeted with petitions calling for their recall. One of the recalls succeeded. The charge was treason.
In July, some of the disenrollees and their allies scheduled what they called a general council meeting. To avoid the tribal police, they met on the grounds of an old logging show. Several people showed me text messages they received from tribal employees who said they’d been warned that they would be fired if they attended. Later, thinking Kelly might consider the meeting a kind of coup, I asked him what he thought of it. He shrugged. “It was meaningless,” he said. “It’s not real. It’s make-believe.”
George Adams, who taught Lhechalosem language classes for the tribe until he was fired early last year (he’s such a fervent supporter of the 306 that he likes to call himself “307”), called the meeting to order; he spoke in Lhechalosem, though he is considered the only remaining fluent speaker. (He learned the language by studying old recordings a quarter century after the last native speaker died.) Adams charged four witnesses with committing the proceedings to memory in order to later share what happened. “Remember these names,” he told the crowd, “because this is how we survived for thousands of years.”
People rose to speak. “My enrollment number is six, so there you go,” said one man, by way of introduction. Another said, “I’m 71 years old, and I’m kind of ashamed to call myself a Nooksack right now. Years ago, our people never asked, ‘Where you from?’ They welcomed you to their table.” A woman asked how the decisions of this council could be considered valid when there were so few people, around 200, present. People began to speak of shutting down the tribe altogether, to force the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had consistently declined to intervene, to call new elections.
Adams asked for a vote. The crowd decided that the four expired seats on the tribal council were vacant, that everything the government had done since the canceled elections was invalid and that they should vote in four new officers — none of them disenrollees — from their own ranks. “This has to do with 10 generations from now,” one of the newly elected officers said. He described the worst-case scenario: for lots of people to be cut off from the tribal community, “to be just a person roaming around, trying to figure it out for themselves.”
The new treasurer, Bernadine Roberts, a short, dark-haired woman (“Stand up please,” Adams told her. “Oh! You are standing!”) who enrolled three years after the tribe was officially recognized, told me that until she moved to the reservation from Seattle, she “was one of those urban Indians that didn’t know much.” She gave a brief acceptance speech about what it meant to her to reconnect to her family’s past. “My grandmother said we were going home, and I didn’t know what she was talking about,” she said. “But I know now.”
In July, after the meeting at the logging show, some of the Nooksack 306 joined in the intertribal Canoe Journey, an annual event in which hundreds of members from dozens of Northwest tribes spend weeks paddling the coast to and from one another’s lands for meals, dancing and ceremonies. They named their canoes — hand-carved, with seating for 15 — for Annie’s daughters, and shared them with people of the Shxway band. Some Nooksacks told me this was ridiculous: the sharing with the Shxway, the names, participating at all. The Nooksack, they said, are known for racing narrow, fast war canoes, not paddling wide traveling canoes. Near the end of the journey, the canoes crossed Puget Sound and came to shore on a sandy beach in Seattle. George Adams, in the center canoe, stood and addressed two elders from the Muckleshoot tribe, which was hosting that day. “We are all one,” he said, “carrying on the tradition of knowing who you are and where you come from.”
The following month, the 306 celebrated what they saw as a hopeful precedent when the Grand Ronde Tribal Court of Appeals overturned the disenrollment of Chief Tumulth’s descendants, holding that it was unfair to subject tribal members to “such an extreme sanction” after accepting them for nearly three decades. Elsewhere, a few tribes have rejected disenrollment altogether. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in California amended their constitution to ban disenrollment in 2013. The Spokane tribe of Washington did the same in 2015, as part of more than two dozen constitutional changes meant to better reflect the historical complexity of the tribe.
But the Nooksack dispute dragged on. In October, the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed Kelly that it would not recognize any actions of the tribal council because it failed to hold elections in March 2016, stressing that it wasn’t telling the tribe who counted as a member but simply responding to the “exceedingly rare situation” of a council’s lacking a quorum. The tribe scheduled new elections and certified the results of a referendum to disenroll the 306. But the bureau would not recognize the results: by excluding pending disenrollees from voting, the tribe had violated its constitution and the rulings of its court of appeals.
So when the 306 received letters informing them that their 10-minute disenrollment hearings had finally been scheduled to take place on the phone in November, they weren’t sure what to do. Some, including Rudy St. Germain, refused to participate on the grounds that the hearings were illegitimate. Others scheduled their appointments, then called in to tell the council they didn’t recognize its authority.
Michelle Roberts called from Canada, where she was staying with Shxway friends. “Annie George was Nooksack because her father was Matsqui George, and he was Nooksack,” she said. “We are all Nooksack. I am Nooksack. I can’t say that more and mean it more.”
A voice came on the line. It was Bob Solomon, who holds one of the expired council seats and is a descendant of Madeline Jobe: “I have never heard anybody say that you were adopted by Madeline Jobe. You are not my relative through Madeline.”
“Yes, we are,” Roberts said, her voice rising. “The document proves it, my grandmother proves it, the oral history proves it.”
“That’s your story,” he said. “That’s not mine.”
A week later, the day before Thanksgiving, Kelly announced that the tribe had removed the names of “non-Indians who had been erroneously enrolled in the Tribe” from its membership list. Those who called and those who didn’t, all were gone. “It’s finally over,” he wrote.
But of course it wasn’t over. The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services, which enforce the government’s treaty responsibilities to provide housing and health care to the tribe, did not recognize the disenrollment of the 306 and maintained they were still entitled to their services. In late December, the Bureau of Indian Affairs warned that the tribe’s failure to hold valid elections put all its federal funding at risk.
There were now two sides offering two competing realities, each telling the other it was illegitimate. The 306 would be another chapter in the long, strange history of who decides who is — and who isn’t — an Indian.