In last week's cover story, we looked at allegations of racism in the tiny Sauk-Suiattle tribe, and the difficulty of seeking redress due to a legal principle known as sovereign immunity. A lawsuit raising eerily similar issues was filed on Friday in the Nooksack Tribal Court.
The suit stems from an attempt by tribal leaders to disenroll 306 members--allegedly because they are part-Filipino."This is ethnic cleansing pure and simple," says Moreno Peralta, a spokesperson for the four plaintiffs and their relatives, in a statement to Seattle Weekly. "Our Chairman and his faction are trying to wash the Filipino blood out of the Nooksack Tribe.
Tribal Chair Robert Kelly has not yet returned a request for comment.
In mid-February, the 306 affected members of the tribe-- located in Deming, northeast of Bellingham-- received a letter signed by Kelly. "We regret to inform you that you have been identified as subject to disenrollmnet," it read, according to a copy provided by the plaintiffs. The letter cited a resolution passed by councilmembers on Feb. 12--those councilmembers, at least, who hadn't been kicked out of the meeting because they too would be disenrolled.
The reason given was that the targeted members--all of them descendants of one couple, Annie George and Andrew James--supposedly had not been enrolled correctly. Previous requirements held that members be descendants of people who received original allotments of Indian land, which neither George nor James had apparently, or were on a census dating back to 1942.
But the rules were changed to allow anyone who had one-quarter Indian blood and who could prove Nooksack ancestry. Those facing disenrollment meet the current rules, even though they have a mixed heritage due to ancestors that married Filipino migrant workers during the Depression, according to plaintiffs' lawyer Gabe Galanda.
"This isn't the situation that you sometimes see, where a tribe is trying to disenroll someone who has 1/132 degree of Indian blood," he tells SW. "These are Indians. All have Nooksack blood. That's indisputable."
Peralta hints that the bad feelings toward his family members is related not only to race but to federal drug-smuggling charges brought against members of the clan more than a decade ago. Even then, there was a move to oust the family that some felt had inflitrated the tribe, bringing crime and corruption, according to a 2000 Los Angeles Times story.
"We are keenly aware of mistakes that a few of our family members made several years ago," Peralta says. But that does not make all of us guilty by blood relation." He adds: "We are not a 'Filipino Gang,'" apparently a reference to how some within the tribe continue to see family members.
On Monday, a tribal judge held a conference call with lawyers for the tribe and plaintiffs, according to Galanda. He says the tribe argued that its code does not give the court jurisdiction over enrollment matters. Galanda countered that the suit deals with broader issues, such as due process. The judge reserved comment and scheduled a hearing for next week.
The attorney says he expects tribal officials to also raise sovereign immunity in court. That's the principle that prohibits governments from being sued unless they expressly waive their immunity. Cities, counties, states, and the federal government have all granted broad immunity waivers, but most tribes have not, allowing little redress even in cases of gross misconduct.
Galanda points out that when tribal officials passed a resolution launching an enrollment purge, they passed another expressly asserting their sovereign immunity. He is arguing that such immunity doesn't apply because Nooksack tribal officials acted contrary to their own tribal code. For starters, he says, disenrollment is supposed to follow a complaint by a member, yet there was no such complaint.
In the Sauk-Suiattle case, currently pending, the plaintiffs are making a similar argument that officials acted outside the scope of their authority. Those plaintiffs claim to have been fired because they are non-Indian.
Ironically, one of those fired who did not join in on the suit against the Sauk-Suiattle, a lawyer named Rickie Armstrong, is now tribal counsel for the Nooksacks. Reached by e-mail, he declined comment on any parallels he might see.
Please see the complaint filed by the plaintiffs in the Nooksack case on the following page.