The Nooksack Tribe of Washington has removed 298 from the rolls as of November 23, 2016. Photo by The Nooksack 306

Leader of Nooksack Tribe defends purge of 'non-Indians' from rolls

The Nooksack Tribe of Washington has removed 289 "non-Indians" from the rolls, Chairman Bob Kelly confirmed on Wednesday.

In his first public remarks since the mass purge began, Kelly did not address claims that his tribe is functioning without a valid governing body. Instead, he characterized the action as a means of correcting mistakes in the rolls.

“This has been a long and difficult process, and the Nooksack people are glad it’s finally over,” Kelly said in a press release issued before the Thanksgiving holiday. “Both tribal and federal law recognize that sovereign tribal nations have the right to determine their own membership."

According to the press release, the dispute began in 1983, when certain individuals were "erroneously or fraudulently" enrolled in the tribe. Many of those who were removed are part of a group known as The Nooksack 306 and Kelly said they were unable to prove their citizenship.

"The individuals disenrolled today all failed to show that they are lineal descendants of Nooksack tribal members, or that they have at least ¼ degree of Indian blood," Kelly said. "Each was provided a disenrollment hearing, with advance notice, as well as an opportunity to provide proof of membership to satisfy the enrollment criteria set out in the Nooksack Constitution. They either would not, or could not, prove their status as Native Americans, and in fact, they didn’t even try.”

The hearings referenced by Kelly took place over the phone -- not in front of the tribal council -- and lasted, at most, 10 minutes for each person, according to accounts shared by The Nooksack 306. Participants derided the proceedings as a mockery of their rights.

"I stood firm in my ways, spoke from the heart and on behalf of my late mother and grandmother," Toni Jones, who was among those disenrolled, said in an account shared by the group. "I will not be bullied by a fake council and I am not scared to stand up to them and speak the truth. Our history is not made up, first of all we have our oral history and second we have the documentation to prove our Nooksack heritage."

The tribe's press release comes after both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service warned Kelly about the lack of a quorum on his nine-member council. According to the two agencies, four seats on the governing body have been vacant since March, and any actions taken since then -- including the mass disenrollment -- are not considered to be valid.

Yet nether agency has appeared to take any punitive actions thus far. Deborah Alexander, who was among those removed, on Monday said she has been denied medical and dental services at a clinic the tribe operates under a self-determination contract with the IHS.

But failing to comply with the contract could eventually result in some sort of action, the IHS told Kelly in a November 18 letter, a copy of which was posted by Turtle Talk. Although the letter wasn't specific, federal agencies have gone so far as to withhold federal funds in similar governance disputes.

To address the apparent lack of a quorum, the tribe is holding a primary on December 17. But an official 2016 voter's list does not include any of the people who were removed in the purge.

The list appears to contain fewer than 600 names so the tribe has cut its rolls by about 33 percent with the removal of the 289 people.

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