A disenrollment dispute within the Nooksack Tribe continues to make waves. Photo: The Nooksack 306

Nooksack Tribe remains without recognized council as Trump administration digs in

The Nooksack Tribe remains without a recognized governing body as the Trump administration continues to put the squeeze on an "illegitimate" group of leaders.

The Washington-based tribe has been denied access to an estimated $14 million in federal funds amid a long-running dispute over election and enrollment matters. And the situation will continue for the foreseeable future because a judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the ruling faction on the reservation.

The faction can't represent the "Nooksack Indian Tribe," Judge John C. Coughenor concluded on Thursday, because it is not recognized by the Department of the Interior. Although the agency's stance took shape during the final year of the Obama era, the new administration has dug in with a remarkably harsh view of the "unelected, unrecognized, and illegitimate" group.

"These are very rare circumstances," Coughenor observed.

Coughenor's 12-page decision rehashes the turmoil that threatens health care, housing and even judicial services on the reservation, all because a group led by Bob Kelly, the chairman of the ruling faction, is clinging to power. According to Interior, his group has has disenrolled more than 300 citizens and has refused to call elections in defiance of tribal law.

Coughenor did not rule on the merits of those claims -- indeed he cautioned that he cannot intrude on tribe's sovereign affairs. But he said Interior's refusal to recognize the Kelly faction is owed "deference" in light of the facts in the record.

As a result, both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service stand on solid ground in withholding funds from the Kelly's disputed group. And both agencies are reclaiming authority that had been previously granted to the tribe.

In mid-March, the BIA began distributing flyers in the Nooksack community, announcing that it will re-assume control of a general assistance program. Later in the month, the IHS informed Kelly that it would be taking over health care services for eligible Nooksack descendants, even those who had been removed from the rolls late last year.

The actions have given hope to The Nooksack 306, whose members are among those derided by Kelly as "non-Indians." The group supports Interior's conclusion that the tribal council ceased to be legal in March 2016.

"Both the executive and judicial branches of the United States government have now affirmed what we have literally been saying since March 24, 2016: the Kelly faction lacks any legal authority whatsoever," Michelle Roberts, a spokesperson for the group, said on Thursday. "Until they conduct a full and fair and tribal council election, they are and will remain illegitimate."

Separately, members of the Nooksack 306 are suing Kelly and his allies in federal court. They have invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law that is more commonly used to break up criminal entities.

The disenrolled Nooksack citizens are also intervening in an administrative proceeding that affects the tribe's federal funding stream. In another sign of the shift at the federal level, the IHS didn't even object to their motion to join a case that Kelly brought to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

Turtle Talk has posted recent documents from Nooksack Indian Tribe v. Zinke, the now-dismissed lawsuit filed by the Kelly faction, and Rabang v. Kelly , the RICO lawsuit filed by members of The Nooksack 306.

Documents from the IBIA case, Nooksack Indian Tribe v. Director, Portland Area, Indian Health Service, are also available.

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