Accusations of racism are pitting members of the same Indian tribe against one another.
Leaders of the Nooksack nation are trying to kick out hundreds of people, saying they're not legitimate members of the tribe. Among them is 74-year-old Sonia Lomeli. She spent 17 years teaching children at the reservation's Head Start program. Now, she feels betrayed by those who once considered her “family.”
This month Lomeli and 305 other members of her extended tribal family received a letter telling them they were being “disenrolled” from the tribe. That would mean Lomeli, and all the rest, would lose their homes, their health care, their identities.
“Oh, my God. Where will I go?” she wondered aloud. “I would probably just give up and die, I guess.”
Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly claims a Canadian ancestor from the 19th century wasn't a legal Nooksack, which would nullify the enrollment of any descendants. There appears to be no paperwork to prove or disprove this claim. Members of that family, however, claim there is something else at work here.
“Racism,” said Adeline Aure, another one of the 306. “It is so racism.”
All of the families affected have Filipino blood in their lineage, about 15 percent of tribe’s total population. Aure says that doesn't make them any less Nooksack.
“This is the same tribe. This is the same people that are hurting one another. It is so foul. It is so wrong.”
The families would also lose out on their shares of Nooksack casino winnings. Other tribes in Washington have been accused to trying to expel marginalized members in order to maximize profits.
The Snoqualmie Tribe has been locked in a similar dispute for the past few years. More than 60 Snoqualmies were either disenrolled or banished from the tribe just before the Snoqualmie Casino opened in 2008. Many of the banished members blame "casino greed" for the division of the tribe, which has over 600 members.
While there is no proof of that with the Nooksack, it all has Sonia Lomeli wondering whether other families could be next.
“We're all on pins and needles wondering what's gonna happen to us," she said.
Those 306 Nooksacks are suing the tribe to block their expulsions.
Calls to Nooksack chairman, Bob Kelly, were not returned by news time Tuesday. Other members of the tribe contacted KING 5 and denied any hint of racism. They say this is an issue that dates back decades.