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Disenrollments Place Washington Native American Tribe's Sovereignty In Jeopardy


A Native American tribe in Washington state kicked out about 15 percent of its members, members the tribe says don't belong. Now the tribe's sovereignty is in jeopardy. Emily Fox of member station KUOW reports.

EMILY FOX, BYLINE: The NookSack Tribe has a small reservation about 20 miles south of the Canadian border in northwest Washington. Margretty Rabang lives here with her husband, daughter and two little grandsons.

MARGRETTY RABANG: Come on, Momma. Go outside.


RABANG: Tell her, baby.

FOX: Rabang was one of the first to get disenrolled. She's been fighting eviction from her tribal home for months. The tribe wanted her out three days after Christmas.

RABANG: You know, I was upset. I said because, you know, I have my grandkids. We have Christmas. We've been in this house. And you guys are just going to kick us out.

FOX: Rabang is part of what is called the 306. It's an extended family of about 300 people. They've been told that their ancestors were erroneously enrolled as NookSack decades ago. They've all been kicked out of the tribe. They don't have access to fishing rights. They can't get tribal medical benefits. Rabang and dozens more have lost their jobs with the tribe. She also feels like she's lost her community.

RABANG: I thought these people were my friends. It just hurts. I just want it to be over.

FOX: And this fight isn't over. The federal government won't recognize the disenrollments. That's because they happened after the NookSack Tribe failed to hold a council election last March. That means the tribe hasn't had a legal government for a year. And millions of dollars in state and federal grants and contracts are on the line. That's because...

KALEEN COTTINGHAM: If they don't have a quorum or if they don't have a governing entity that has authority, they won't be able to sign our contracts.

FOX: Kaleen Cottingham is the director of Washington state's Recreation and Conservation Office. She says the NookSack Tribe can't legally sign off on $6 million from her office. That's a part of the $14 million the tribe says it's been denied from the state and federal government. It's now suing the feds because of it.

The current NookSack Tribal Council would not return multiple interview requests. And the federal government wouldn't agree to interviews because of pending litigation. But the federal government has sent letters to NookSack Tribe saying that if the council does not hold a fair election this month, it could come in and take control of tribal services such as the NookSack's law enforcement and medical programs.

DAVID WILKINS: That's very rare at this point in history.

FOX: David Wilkins is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. He says about 80 tribes have disenrolled members. But he's never seen a case like the NookSack.

WILKINS: This may well be the strongest case where the federal government has finally stepped in to finally stand up for the rights of those individuals facing disenrollment.

FOX: Wilkins says disenrollments really started happening in the 1990s. That's when tribal casinos became a factor. The fewer members in a tribe, the more money each member gets. But NookSack tribal members don't get big casino payouts.

Their casino's too small, says Michelle Roberts. She's among the disenrolled. But she points out tribal council members can often make six-figure salaries. She says what this is really about is a fight over control of tribal government. Her 300-member family makes up a strong voting bloc in the 2,000-member tribe.

MICHELLE ROBERTS: Our family is huge. And they don't like the power that we had when coming in.

FOX: Now many people in Roberts' family are struggling without tribal benefits. They've been told they aren't NookSack because they couldn't provide some birth certificates from generations ago.

ROBERTS: It's very draining to tell somebody that you don't belong somewhere, that your ancestry doesn't mean anything. It takes your identity away.

FOX: And the struggle of identity and sovereignty could become a bigger issue if the federal government steps in and takes over tribal services. For NPR News, I'm Emily Fox on the NookSack reservation.


Emily is a reporter and producer for Stateside and fill-in host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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