Tribe sues feds over withholding of $14M

Gene Johnson
Associated Press

Seattle — An American Indian tribe in northwestern Washington is suing the federal government, saying it has wrongfully been denied nearly $14 million in a flap over its efforts to kick out almost 300 members.

In November, following a years-long fight that included some unusual legal maneuvers by the Nooksack Tribe, the tribe’s chairman announced that the 289 members had been booted because they had insufficient Indian blood. He said they shouldn’t be entitled to tribal rights or benefits, which can include housing, health care and educational support.

Those purportedly kicked out have been fighting to remain, however, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has refused to recognize the expulsions because four tribal council members — half the council — had remained in office after their terms expired and no election was held to replace them.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Monday, the 2,000-member tribe — or at least the remnants of its council — argued that the government’s decision interferes with its right to govern itself. Due to the bureau’s decision, the tribe has been denied $13.7 million in state and federal grants for medical services, housing and salmon habitat restoration, among other things, the complaint alleged.

“The composition of the Nooksack Tribal governing body is a matter of internal tribal concern and an inherent and exclusive power held by the Tribe,” the lawsuit said. “Federal interference over matters of internal tribal concern is generally prohibited.”

The controversy over the tribe’s membership has featured the tribal council disbarring an attorney for the people facing expulsion, and then firing a tribal judge who invalidated that maneuver. After a tribal appeals court ruled against the council, the council created a tribal supreme court — and appointed three of their own members as justices.

After claiming to have completed the disenrollment, the tribe, based 80 miles north of Seattle, held new council elections last month, and now says it has seven tribal council members — enough for a quorum.

But the federal government has declined to recognize any actions taken by the council since last spring, when the four-year terms of four council members expired. Because no elections were held then, the ensuing decisions were illegitimate, the government said.

The complaint argued that Nooksack law allows for council members to remain after their terms expire.

In October, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs began warning that the tribe’s federal funding was at risk. The government is required to ensure that federal trust funds are spent in connection with “duly authorized” tribal councils, wrote Lawrence S. Roberts, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

In his most recent letter, in December, he warned that if the tribe didn’t hold legitimate elections by March 31, the bureau would take over providing services to tribal members directly — including to those purportedly kicked out. He also warned that tribal police should not try to evict them from tribal housing, or the bureau would also take over policing on the reservation.

The bureau did not return a phone message seeking comment on the lawsuit, which seeks to recover from the federal government grants that the feds and Washington state are withholding. Washington state is not named as a defendant. It’s not clear how the tribe could recover from the feds money Washington is withholding; a lawyer for the tribe did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Gabriel Galanda, a lawyer for those facing disenrollment, called the lawsuit “a transparent ploy by the holdover council to cling to power.”

“They don’t even have standing to bring the suit on behalf of ‘the tribe,’” he said. “They stopped being ‘the tribe’ when they refused to have an election last March.”