In Washington, the Nooksack 306 fight to stay in their tribe
In February 2013, Michelle Roberts, along with around 300 other Nooksack Indians, received a letter informing her that she was being ejected from her own tribe. The missive came from the tribal council of the Nooksack, a 2,000-person federally recognized tribe whose homeland is tucked into Washington state’s lush northwestern corner. Roberts and her kin, wrote the council, couldn’t adequately prove their ancestry, and thus “did not meet the requirements for membership contained in the Nooksack Tribe’s constitution.” They were being disenrolled.
To many of the group now known as the “Nooksack 306,” the notice came as a shock. Membership in a federally recognized Indian tribe confers material benefits like housing and medical care; perhaps more than that, it is a source of identity. As one tribal court has put it, “Tribal membership completes the circle for the member’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of human life.” Just as the United States can set the criteria for becoming an American citizen, tribal governments have the right to decide who gets to enroll. The Nooksack Tribal Council, however, wasn’t deliberating over admitting new members. It was booting out existing ones.