BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Some 30 minutes northeast of Bellingham in a neighborhood cut out of dense forest, you'll find a group of disenrolled Nooksack Tribe members fighting with all they have to keep their namesake and their homes.
“That’s where we’re all going to have to stand up and we’re not moving. I don’t know what we have to do … it’s going to get ugly,” said Robert Rabang, a disenrolled member of the Nooksack Tribe.
In 2013, the Nooksack Tribal Council began the process of “disenrolling” more than 300 members of the tribe - a group that calls themselves the Nooksack 306.
This winter, 63 of the disenrolled members who remain on tribal-managed land are fighting eviction.
Tribal leadership says that a Canadian ancestor from the 19th century wasn't a legal Nooksack, therefore her relatives aren't eligible to enroll in the tribe or to qualify for tribal benefits.
Santana Rabang refers to herself as a disenrolled member of the Nooksack Tribe and was a teenager when this process started nearly a decade ago. Rabang has lost her tribal benefits and so have the elders.
“They’re using the fact that our ancestral name wasn’t listed on a colonial document from 1942. That’s the main excuse that they’re using that we’re not Indigenous,” Rabang said.
The Nooksack Indian Tribe has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. They were recognized by the United States federal government in 1855 and today have a population of approximately 2,000 members.
Gabe Galanda is a Seattle-based Indigenous Rights Lawyer who's representing members of the Nooksack 306.
“The damage here is irreparable. I’m not convinced this tribe will ever be the same or will ever be a tribe again,” Galanda said.
“If the 306 don’t belong there is nobody who is Nooksack that belongs. That’s what the powers that be are flirting with,” he continued.
Galanda has long argued government overreach on behalf of the Nooksack Tribal Council and recently petitioned the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Biden administration to intervene.
Federal intervention in indigenous matters is rare in the United States given the notion of tribal sovereignty. The constitution grants federally recognized Indian tribes the right to regulate internal affairs.
On Thursday, a notice was prepared by three United Nations High Commissioners on Human Rights experts and, according to the UN, may be the first diplomatic action on record to address potential Indigenous human rights violations in the U.S.
In a formal statement, the commission urged the United States to “halt” what they call “imminent forced evictions” of dozens of former Nooksack indigenous tribe members housing in Whatcom county.
In a statement, the tribe called the UN’s investigation “riddled with falsehoods” and accused members of failing “to conduct even the most cursory investigation.”
According to the tribe, the UN did not contact them before issuing the statement and also says there are eight members facing eviction, contradicting the Nooksack 306 claim of 63 residents.
Last week, in an interview with KING 5 before the United Nations statement was released, Nooksack Tribal Chairman Ross Cline said he maintains the enrollment of the members was a “fraud” and goes on to say the members and their decedents were never and will never be Nooksack.
Tribal leadership said they consider this issue resolved internally and say they plan to move forward with evictions.