In February 2013, Michelle Roberts, along with around 300 other Nooksack Indians, received a letter informing her that she was being ejected from her own tribe. The missive came from the tribal council of the Nooksack, a 2,000-person federally recognized tribe whose homeland is tucked into Washington state’s lush northwestern corner. Roberts and her kin, wrote the council, couldn’t adequately prove their ancestry, and thus “did not meet the requirements for membership contained in the Nooksack Tribe’s constitution.” They were being disenrolled.
To many of the group now known as the “Nooksack 306,” the notice came as a shock. Membership in a federally recognized Indian tribe confers material benefits like housing and medical care; perhaps more than that, it is a source of identity. As one tribal court has put it, “Tribal membership completes the circle for the member’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of human life.” Just as the United States can set the criteria for becoming an American citizen, tribal governments have the right to decide who gets to enroll. The Nooksack Tribal Council, however, wasn’t deliberating over admitting new members. It was booting out existing ones.
It soon became apparent that the outcasts would have little recourse, at least through the tribe. A follow-up letter in early 2014 instructed outraged disenrollees to dial in to a conference call, during which callers could expect to wait for up to two hours. Each had only 10 minutes to present an appeal, and they were not permitted to ask questions. Tough luck if you dialed in late, or if your call was dropped. To Gabriel Galanda, the attorney who represents the 306 and a Native American himself, the Kafkaesque process proved that the tribe’s bureaucracy had no interest in hearing out its purged members. “Can you imagine a 75-year-old elder trying to dial in to a conference call?” Galanda demands. “She wouldn’t even know what she was talking to. It’s like lambs to the slaughter.”
More than three years after the council initiated disenrollment proceedings, however, the Nooksack 306 soldier on — still members in the tribe’s rolls, if not in the eyes of their foes. “They’ve already started this process a few times, and we’ve stopped them in their tracks,” Galanda says. According to the Nooksack Constitution, disenrollment ordinances have to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Galanda has appealed to the agency every step of the way, repeatedly forcing the tribe to postpone ousting the 306. In March, the council retaliated by disbarring the legal gadfly from tribal courts. Judge Susan Alexander, however, ruled that the tribe had denied Galanda due process. “The court is on neither ‘side’ here,” Alexander wrote. “But the tactics being employed by (the tribe) are surely confounding.”
Behind the byzantine politics lie deeper issues. The Nooksack Tribe is far from the only one to cast out its own members: According to David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, at least 70 tribes have initiated proceedings for disenrollment or banishment, a related process that entails excommunication from tribal lands, over the past two decades. While each tribe presents a unique case, money, power and internecine quarrels are common threads. So, too, are challenging questions about the origins and meaning of tribal belonging.
The disenrollment movement’s legal roots sprouted in 1978, when a landmark Supreme Court case, Santa Clara Pueblo vs. Martinez, upheld the Pueblo’s decision to deny membership to the children of tribal member Julia Martinez because their father was Navajo. Although Martinez sued the Pueblo under the Indian Civil Rights Act, the court held that tribal nations possess “sovereign immunity,” a doctrine that protects them from suit. In the decades since, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies have used the decision to justify not intervening in membership disputes. The upshot is that disenrollees typically can’t expect aid from courts, Congress, or the Department of the Interior, where the BIA is housed.
“After Santa Clara,” writes Steve Russell, a Cherokee and former Texas trial court judge, in Indian Country Today, “disenrollment became a robust and unreviewable tool to settle political scores or to give expression to racism or to simply acquire a greater share of limited tribal resources.”
Indeed, the usual rationale is money — particularly in California, which Wilkins calls a “crazy cauldron of disenrollment activity.” More than 30 Golden State tribes, such as the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, have taken disenrollment actions. As Andrea Appleton explained in a 2009 High Country News feature, “Each of these tribes runs a multimillion-dollar casino, and the fewer the enrolled members, the bigger the cut for those who remain.”
While many disenrollment battles have pecuniary roots, the Nooksack's conflict is more personal, and more complex. The Nooksack 306 trace their lineage back to Annie George, whom they describe as a full-blooded Nooksack whose children married Filipino migrant workers. George’s descendants, many of whom call themselves Indipinos, were enrolled in the tribe in the 1980's. Over time, those descendants — the Rabang, Rapada and Narte-Gladstone families — gained political power. Resentment simmered, and some tribal members claimed that the three families were taking over government programs. Several Rabangs were also convicted of smuggling drugs across the Canadian border, engendering further animosity.California is far from the only state with disenrollment woes. In 2015, for instance, Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde upheld a decision to excise 86 members — even though they were descended from Chief Tumulth, the leader who signed the 1855 treaty that created the tribe’s reservation. Wilkins, who’s writing a book on disenrollment, estimates that somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 Indians have been affected nationwide. “What we’re seeing is a scary pattern of tribes violating the civil rights of citizens,” he says.
By December 2012, the Rabangs were out of power, and Annie George’s lineage came under the microscope. Her name did not appear in a 1942 tribal census, nor did she receive one of the Nooksack’s original land allotments; therefore, the tribal council claimed, her descendants lacked sufficient documentation for membership. The tribe’s members later voted to modify the Nooksack Constitution, removing the provision under which George’s relatives had enrolled in the first place. “(I)t would be unfair to our community if we were to allow these people to remain members in the absence of any proof,” Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly wrote.
While some non-Filipino tribal members have allied with the 306, others side with Kelly. Katrice Romero, director of the tribe’s housing department, was born and raised in Nooksack country; growing up, she says, her elders told her that the disputed families weren’t legitimate members. Romero's own bloodline is a point of pride, proof of her forebears’ suffering and perseverance. “I have a family tree that goes back 10 generations, and I can visit those ancestors in cemeteries,” she says. “This family, they don’t have anyone in a Nooksack cemetery, they don’t have any Nooksack elders who can vouch for them.”
Although Michelle Roberts and her kin have staved off disenrollment in court, the consequences have nonetheless been severe. Roberts says she was fired from her job at the tribe’s casino and forced from her position on the tribal council. Nieces and nephews lost school supply stipends. Should the disenrollment process succeed, the 306 stand to lose access to housing programs, fishing rights and medical benefits — a troubling development particularly for the diabetics and kidney dialysis patients among them.
The psychological trauma may be even more severe. In a 2015 resolution urging tribes to reconsider disenrollment, the Association of American Indian Physicians cited the “grief, depression, anxiety and more serious mental health problems” that follow the deprivation of cultural identity. Roberts says the tribe has already begun to deny her family’s existence. They’re no longer invited to ceremonies, and allies have been discouraged from showing their support. “You bump into people, and you don’t know whether to say hello or walk away,” she says. “I know several people who’ve gone on depression medications. It’s been very grueling.”
Although the legal battle drags on, politics may ultimately decide the 306’s fate. The Nooksack Tribal Council had been scheduled to hold elections this winter, and four council positions were up for grabs. Though the council sought to prevent the 306 from voting, a judge ruled that they remain eligible to cast a ballot as long as they are members. In response, the council has simply refused to hold the election.
But that stance, says Michelle Roberts, is unconstitutional. In absence of an election, Roberts claims, the expired council positions should be vacated. “That would leave the tribe at a standstill, because they wouldn’t have a quorum to do any sort of business,” she says. A shutdown could compel the tribe to stage the election, giving the 306 and their allies an opportunity to vote their adversaries out of office. The two sides are effectively playing an elaborate waiting game: Galanda and the 306 seek to prolong the appeals process long enough to force an election, while the council seeks to stave off the vote until the federal government issues its ruling. The tribe has also initiated a recall election against councilwoman Carmen Tageant, a non-306er who supports the families' membership.
For now, the 306 are prevailing in at least one court: that of public opinion. An anti-disenrollment social media campaign has gathered momentum online, and prominent Native Americans like Sherman Alexie have criticized the trend. In 2015, the Spokane Tribe voted to amend its Constitution to ban disenrollment, and the Native American Bar Association warned that “tribal citizenship is being increasingly divested or restricted without equal protection at law or due process of law. … This cannot stand.”
Meanwhile, the debate rages ferociously on Facebook, where some tribal members have criticized the 306’s claims. To Katrice Romero, Galanda’s appeals to the Bureau of Indian Affairs risk impinging on the tribe’s hard-won independence. “Part of being a sovereign nation is determining our own membership, our own citizens,” she says. “We have an inherent right to govern our own people.” Romero says this disenrollment isn't about hate or greed; rather, tribal officials are simply trying to protect the integrity of the Nooksack’s membership. “We don’t have enough resources to take care of our people as it is. Our housing and medical resources are very limited, and our natural resources are scarce. I consider the Nooksack Tribe victims of ethnic fraud, really.”
But Galanda contends that such insular notions of belonging are part of the problem. In a 2015 article for the Arizona Law Review, the attorney argues that disenrollment and racialized membership concepts like “blood quantum,” the formula for how much Native blood a person must possess to join a tribe, aren’t Indian norms. Instead, they’re the legacy of American laws, like the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, had the effect of subjugating, assimilating and even threatening to eradicate Native Americans. “Traditionally, before the federal government shackled resources to race, most tribes regarded ethnic boundaries as fluid,” Appleton wrote in High Country News in 2009. “Social kinship, not biology, was the tie that bound.”
Two hundred years of cultural and literal genocide, however, have supplanted traditional notions of community. “If you talk to any Indian in any tribe, there is no word for disenrollment,” Galanda says. He is careful to point out that the federal government, and the race-based criteria it foisted upon Indians, is ultimately to blame for turning membership into a commodity. Still, he remains fiercely critical of unaccountable tribal governments that marginalize members with impunity. It’s one thing to assert sovereignty by controlling who gets in; it’s another to pull the rug out from under vulnerable people.
For his part, David Wilkins prefers to call the process “dismemberment” — an evocative double-entendre that conjures not only a sovereign body exiling members, but a physical body chopping off its own limbs. After all, says Wilkins, blood isn’t the only thing that makes an Indian; culture, beliefs, and connection to place also shape identity. Practicing the politics of exclusion, Wilkins adds, leads only to extinction. “This gets at the heart and soul of what it means to belong to an indigenous community today.”
Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that notable Native Americans had “savaged” the trend of disenrollment. That editorial oversight has been corrected. The term “savage” has been used for years as a way to dehumanize Native Americans, a use which HCN had no intention of furthering. This article was also corrected to reflect the complicated legacy of the Indian Reorganization Act and federal Native American policy.