The Nooksack 306 and Tribal Sovereignty
306 members of the Nooksack Tribe were disenrolled in 2018 following claims of a wrongfully-enrolled ancestor. Now, 63 of these members face imminent eviction. What role should the federal government have in this decision?
In Article one of Section 8 of the United States Constitution, the American government gives to Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” By itself, this statement doesn’t seem too egregious; but it is how this article has been interpreted by the Supreme Court that has led to decades of contestation between Indigenous tribes and the U.S. government.
Three landmark Supreme Court cases between 1823 and 1832 were most responsible for setting this precedent. These three cases, nicknamed the Marshall Trilogy for the serving Chief Justice of the time, were essential in establishing federal supremacy over Native American affairs through Article one, Section 8. The interpretation set forth by these cases was that Congress held plenary power over indigenous tribes, granting them the ultimate authority to pass legislation governing Native Americans, even if the legislation conflicts with existing treaties.
Another key aspect of Government-tribe relationships is the repeated notion of the United States’ obligation to protect indigenous peoples in return for inhabiting their land. This notion of a “trust relationship”, as it is often called, has been used by the government in order to justify their interference in indigenous life and legislation. As can be expected through the U.S. government’s brutal history with indigenous peoples, this power has often been used especially immorally in overreaching the government’s stated power over indigenous affairs.
This long legal history, the surface of which has been barely scratched in the examples provided above, has been coming to the spotlight over the past month following the Nooksack Tribe’s decision to evict over 300 people from tribal housing following their highly-contested disenrollment in 2018, a process that was announced in 2013 and has been slowly evolving over the past nine years.
The Nooksack 306, as the disenrolled members call themselves, took legal action following the decision, but nothing came of the pursuit. Towards the end of 2021, the tribe’s police force was instructed to take action in evicting the remaining individuals from their tribal housing. The divide between the two sides drastically differ in their perception why the 306 members were disenrolled: the Nooksack 306 claim it was in order for rivals in the tribe to maintain political and economic power, while the Nooksack leaders say it was because the ancestor they traced their lineage to a woman named Annie George who was actually from a tribal band in Canada, whose daughters were mistakenly included in tribal records as being Nooksack after moving into Washington tribal lands in the 1980s.
With 63 people, including some elders over 80 years old, now facing eviction amid the ongoing pandemic, the spotlight has turned to the federal government, with some groups hoping they will intervene. In December of 2021, the federal government asked the Nooksack to halt evictions for 30 days in order for an investigation into possible civil rights violation, but the tribal leaders – who have been delaying evictions for months – want to move forward as soon as possible. Families were ordered to leave their housing by December 28th, but evictions have been temporarily halted due to winter weather and federal requests. The Nooksack 306’s twitter account reports that they “may be evicted from our housing” on February 1st.
This situation has brought forth the argument of what exactly the federal government’s role in moments like this should be. Some say that opening up the tribe to federal influence over tribal matters would just fall back into allowing the government to push their power past the legal limit, while others see this as the tribal leadership pushing their power to the point of needing to be checked by federal powers. As Last Real Indians, an indigenous-focused news source, writes: “Tribal sovereignty should not be used as a shield to hide these Indigenous human rights violations that are happening right here in America.”
What’s happening in Washington will undoubtedly help shape the narrative around tribal disenrollment across the United States for years to come. What role the federal government should have in indigenous affairs was an issue for centuries before the Nooksack 306, and will continue to be one after, but the immediate future of indigenous policy is taking shape in this small Washington tribe, and eyes across the country are watching.