The Nooksack Tribe of Washington is under fire in federal court after disenrolling more than 300 of its citizens. Photo: The Nooksack 306

Trump administration calls out Nooksack Tribe for 'abuses of power'

The Trump administration is taking a tough stance against the Nooksack Tribe, accusing its disputed leaders of operating an illegitimate government that doesn't deserve federal funds.

In a strongly-worded brief filed on Monday, government attorneys said the Department of the Interior will not recognize the council headed by longtime Chairman Bob Kelley. The submission described his faction as an "unelected, unrecognized, and illegitimate group" of individuals who ousted more than 300 of their fellow citizens, refused to convene elections and dismantled the tribal judiciary, all in an attempt to maintain power on the reservation in Washington state.

"The Secretary has concluded that it is past time for these abuses of power to stop, at least insofar as a government-to-government relationship with the United States serves in any way to enable the Kelly faction to retain its grip over the tribe," the 28-page brief states in reference to Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new leader of the department.

Because Kelly and his group are illegitimate in the eyes of Interior, the brief argues they can't sue the government on behalf of the tribe. It calls on a federal judge to put an end to the lawsuit, which was filed in early February, after President Donald Trump took office.

"Absent recognition, the Kelly faction lacks the authority to file and prosecute an action in this court against the Secretary in the name of, and on behalf of, the Nooksack Indian Tribe," the filing states.

Kelly and his council, not surprisingly, have taken a different view of the dispute, calling it a matter of self-determination and sovereignty. They are seeking a preliminary injunction in hopes of restoring an estimated $14 million in federal funds for programs and services on the reservation.

"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," attorneys for the Kelly faction wrote in a March 16 brief. "Federal interference over matters of internal tribal concern is generally prohibited."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, in the past, has temporarily withheld funds from tribes experiencing leadership or internal crises. And in at least one high-profile situation, Congress temporarily cut off housing funds to a tribe as part of a citizenship dispute that remains unresolved.

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