Carmen Tageant, a former council member for the Nooksack Tribe, alleges she has been harassed, both physically and online, for refusing to go along with the removal of hundreds of people from the rolls. Courtesy photo

Bureau of Indian Affairs reaffirms oversight in Nooksack Tribe dispute

The Trump administration is continuing to assert oversight in a long-running and highly-charged leadership and disenrollment dispute within the Nooksack Tribe.

Some within the tribe expressed optimism after the Bureau of Indian Affairs reached an agreement last fall with Bob Kelly, the disputed chairman on the reservation in Washington state. The deal called for a new council election, one in which hundreds of people who were being kicked off the rolls were able to participate.

But hopes have been dashed since the December vote. The BIA has called more than 100 ballots into question, a number so large that it could sway the outcome of the results for the four council seats that were on the general election ballot.

"Our immediate reaction to the general election results was that the total vote count appeared to be about 100 votes too high," said Michelle Roberts, a tribal citizen who serves as a spokesperson for those who have clashed with Kelly and his faction. "It now appears to have been 126 votes too high. We have no doubt the election was a sham."

Separately, a former council member who opposed the disenrollment purge, has filed two lawsuits in connection with the struggle. In one, Carmen Tageant alleges she was "assaulted and battered" by the tribe's police chief earlier this month when she attempted to file as a candidate in an upcoming election. In the second, she says an unnamed individual has engaged in a "cyber-harassment" campaign against her by posting personal and threatening information about her online.

The lawsuit alleges the individual behind a Facebook profile is connected to Kelly and his faction. Some on the social media site believe the person controlling the "Keith Williams" account is actually Kelly, though there is little direct proof of that at this point.

According to the complaint, Tageant has "suffered severe emotional trauma. Ms. Tageant has been unable to sleep. Instead of focusing on her professional career, Ms. Tageant has had to worry about her safety and the safety of her seven children. She has had to work hard to repair her professional and personal reputations."

Results from the Nooksack Tribe's December 2017 election were posted on Facebook but the Trump administration has not determined whether they are valid.

Throughout the drama, Kelly has remained in power. As part of the agreement reached last year, he was recognized as a "person of authority" by the BIA in order for the tribe to continue receiving millions of dollars in federal funds and in order for the tribe to maintain its government-to-government relationship with the United States.

Just last week, the highest-ranking political official at the BIA said the Department of the Interior would "extend" Kelly's status at least through the next council election. At the same time, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Tahsuda said the results of the last vote -- the one with the 100-plus ballots being questioned -- are still being reviewed.

"This interim recognition shall remain in effect until the department renders a final agency determination on the validity of the tribe's December 2017 election, or until March 30, 2018, whichever occurs first," Tahsuda wrote in the January 16 letter to Kelly.

The next council election is presently scheduled for March 17. The chairman's seat is supposed to be among those on the ballot, according to the tribe's elections office.

Before reaching the agreement with Kelly, the Trump administration had harsh words for him and his faction. Government attorneys called their council "unelected, unrecognized, and illegitimate" in federal court papers last year.

Even the National Indian Gaming Commission got involved, ordering the tribe to shut down its casino last summer because of the leadership struggle. The Nooksack Northwood Casino reopened three months later, with Kelly promising to correct numerous "violations" of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

Kelly has long supported the disenrollment purge. He contends a group known as The Nooksack 306 and others are not entitled to tribal citizenship because he says they are "non-Indians."

The BIA has not disputed the tribe's authority to determine its citizenship standards. But the agency, during the final year of the Obama administration, said the mass purge took place without a valid council.

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