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Feds to Nooksack Chairman: La-La-La-La! We Can't Hear You!

The Department of the Interior notified Nooksack Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly it does not recognize any of the Nooksack council's actions after March 24.
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In a letter dated October 17, the Department of the Interior notified Nooksack Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly it does not recognize any of the Nooksack council's actions after March 24. On that date the council fell below quorum when several council members' terms were up and no new elections had been held to replace them.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Lawrence S. Roberts told Kelly, “Accordingly, I am writing to inform you and the remaining council members that the Department will only recognize those actions taken by the council prior to March 24, 2016, when a quorum existed, and will not recognize any actions taken since that time because of the lack of a quorum.”

This effectively wipes out the council's recent attempts to thwart the Nooksack 306, who are fighting to keep from being disenrolled. In March, Nooksack Tribal Court Chief Judge Susan Alexander was preparing to force the council to hold an election to fill the open council seats and reestablish a quorum, but the council fired her first. Critics speculated this was done to prevent the 306 from voting and potentially unseating members who favored disenrollment. During that same period the council disbarred the lawyers representing the Nooksack 306 from practicing in tribal court and refused to accept any motions they attempted to file.

The 306 and their lawyers then approached the Nooksack Court of Appeals, which is composed of judges from the Northwest Intertribal Court System (NICS). In May the appeals court ordered the Nooksack court clerk to accept motions filed by Galanda Broadman, the formerly disbarred legal firm representing the 306. In June, the appeals court held the court clerk in contempt for refusing to accept motions from them. In July, the Appeals court found the tribe “ceases to operate under the rule of law.”

In September, six professors of Indian law submitted an “amicus” brief to the appeals court expressing “grave concerns regarding patent violations of ICRA [Indian Civil Rights Act]....” The court clerk rejected this brief as well.

On September 30, Bob Kelly and the Nooksack Tribal Council formed the Nooksack Supreme Court and made Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly the Chief Justice. They then sued the appeals court, disbarred the 306’s lawyers for a second time, and filed a motion to vacate 14 of the appeals court’s decisions.

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The letter from the Department of the Interior came on the same day the newly created Nooksack Supreme Court was set to begin expediting disenrollment of the Nooksack 306, who now number 331 as additional names have been added to the list.

The letter stated, “We will not recognize any actions until duly elected officials are seated in accordance with the tribe’s constitution and bylaws.”

In addition to this ultimatum, Assistant Secretary Roberts included a thinly veiled threat to bypass the Tribal Council and begin administering services directly to tribal members if the tribe continued ignoring its own constitution.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will examine any self-determination contracts or funding agreements it has with the tribe to ensure the tribe’s compliance with all contract provisions. In the event of non-compliance, BIA will take action to reassume the particular federal services in whole or in part, and provide direct services to currently enrolled tribal members.”

This admonishment from the federal government appears to run contrary to the Obama administration’s policy of staying out of tribal politics and not infringing on tribal sovereignty. But the letter also states, “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.”

In other words, the federal government can’t tell a tribe how to run itself, but it can refuse to do business with a tribe if it feels the tribe is not following its own constitution.

When contacted for a comment, Kelly replied in an email that he hadn’t yet received the letter. He wrote, “We will have no extended comment until the letter has been officially received and we have had sufficient time [to] discuss the matter internally.”