|Writer discusses the removal of 306 people from the Nooksack Tribe of
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 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.
One such mass disenrollment is now being waged by the Nooksack Indian tribe of Northwest Washington State. The Nooksacks are a federally recognized Indian tribe with more than 1,800 enrolled members. About 550 live on a Reservation of nearly 3,000 acres.
For 75 years Sonia Lomeli has lived with the belief that she is a Nooksack Indian.
Lomelli formally enrolled in the Tribe in 1980’s about 30 years ago, when the Tribe approved her application. If the current Tribal Chairman, Robert Kelly has his way Lomeli and more than three hundred of her relatives will be terminated, or “disenrolled” from the Tribe. On February 14 of last year Lomeli received from the Tribe an ominous “notice of intent to Disenroll.” The notice informed her that she could attend a meeting of the Tribal council where termination of her tribal membership would be on the agenda. The Council later voted to terminate her tribal status along with 305 of her relatives.
Born in 1938, Lomeli has fond childhood memories of participating in Nooksack spiritual traditions. Along with her family she visited Nooksack smokehouses on and off the reservation. The smokehouse, also called a longhouse by Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest, is a spiritual place of rebirth. She recalls cooking in the sacred Noooksack “burning” events that honored her Nooksack ancestors.
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