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Disenrollment Controversy Looms Over Nooksack Tribal Council Election

KUOW Photo/Meghan Walker
A group gathered in downtown Seattle in September to protest what could potentially be the biggest tribal disenrollment in Wash. history.

Members of the Nooksack tribe near Bellingham will cast votes in a high-stakes election this Saturday. The outcome could change the fate for hundreds of members facing disenrollment from the tribe.

This membership controversy within the Nooksack Tribe surfaced about a year ago. The tribal council questioned the ancestry of 306 members, about 15 percent of the tribe, and moved to disenroll them.

The issue is still pending in tribal court.

Now, half of the council is up for election. Candidates for and against the disenrollment are vying for those spots, and the races are tight.

Attorney Jim Diamond specializes in Indian law in Stamford, Conn., and has closely followed this case. “The fate of the population of the Nooksacks is in the hands of the Nooksacks themselves,” Diamond said. “If the council changes, then I think you will see policy change.”

Members facing disenrollment stand to lose access to tribal benefits, like housing, health care and fishing rights.

Diamond said the tribal council and tribal court have control over disenrollment. He expects the court would continue to support the position of the council majority, even if it shifts to a majority against disenrollment.

“I think the court will once again affirm the majority of the council. That’s what the court has done time and time again,” he said.

Last month’s primary election suggests Saturday’s vote count will be a nail-biter. Only three votes separated the candidates for council chairman, and another race was split by just seven votes.

Year started with KUOW: 2006