Bureau of Indian Affairs questions Nooksack Tribe's government

The Nooksack Tribe of Washington is trying to remove more than 300 people from the rolls. Photo by The Nooksack 306

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is taking an unusually "rare" step when it comes to a crisis within the Nooksack Tribe of Washington.

The tribe lacks a full governing body, according to the BIA. As a result, the agency won't recognize any actions taken by the council, a decision that impacts a disenrollment dispute on the reservation.

"In rare situations where a tribal council does not maintain a quorum to take action pursuant to the tribe's constitution, the Department of the Interior does not recognize actions taken by the tribe," Larry Roberts, the de facto leader of the BIA, wrote in a letter on Monday. "This is one of those exceedingly rare situations."

According to the BIA, the tribal council has lacked a quorum since March 2016. Since then, Chairman Bob Kelly and other leaders have taken some unusual actions in an attempt to keep The Nooksack 306 off the rolls.

Those actions include the firing of a tribal court judge who has sided with The Nooksack 306 in various stages of their case, the disbarment of attorneys from the Galanda Broadman law firm who are representing the disenrollees and the creation of an entirely new Supreme Court whose chief justice happens to be Chairman Kelly.

"I want to be clear that the department is not interpreting the tribe's constitution or interfering in internal tribal matters," Roberts told Kelly in the letter. "The department fully respects tribal sovereignty and tribal law. Rather, we are underscoring that pursuant to our government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Nooksack Tribe, we will only recognize action taken in accordance with the tribe's constitution and bylaws."

Roberts further offered to help the tribe fill the five vacant seats on the council. But he noted that any election must be open to "all" enrolled members.

Prior to being fired by the tribe, the judge handling the Belmont v. Kelly disenrollment lawsuit said The Nooksack 306 should be allowed to vote while their case proceeds.

Additionally, Roberts said the BIA will review the tribe's self-determination contracts or funding agreements to ensure compliance.

The disenrollment dispute started more than three years ago. Tribal leaders -- Chairman Kelly among them -- said individuals within The Nooksack 306 group fail to meet membership criteria.

Prior to the dispute, membership was open to anyone with Nooksack blood. The Nooksack 306 individuals share a common ancestor with Nooksack blood.

The tribe subsequently restricted enrollment to people who were granted allotments and to descendants of people who appeared on a 1942 roll. The Nooksack 306 ancestor does not meet either of those requirements.

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