DEMING — In his big gray truck, Gabriel Galanda makes a notable entrance into a Nooksack tribal-housing development of a couple dozen modest homes, set on a winding road about a half-hour east of Bellingham. Many residents, members of a big clan who move easily in and out of each other’s homes, appear with platters of fry bread, chicken adobo, baked halibut, salads, cupcakes and pies.
It’s a feast befitting their biggest defender, one who has made their small tribe of a couple thousand members well-known throughout Indian country, and not in a good way. The Nooksack tribal government for the past three years has been trying to disenroll the clan and its extended family — which would strip all 306 of them of tribal membership.
And for the past three years, Galanda, a Seattle-based Native American lawyer, has been fighting it. The cause has taken Galanda on a journey, personal and professional, that taps into the heart of what it means to be Native American.
It has led him to challenge what he calls an “epidemic” of disenrollment among not only the Nooksack, but tribes across the country, afflicted with factional fighting and questions of how to divide casino riches. They include the Snoqualmie Tribe, where a controversy over disenrollment and banishment erupted seven years ago; the Cherokee Nation, embroiled in a long-running court battle after trying to kick out descendants of slaves owned by the tribe; and dozens of California tribes.
“It comes down to power and greed — if not one, then the other,” Galanda says.
The fights can be all-consuming. On Dec. 10, the Nooksack tribe closed one of its two casinos, citing financial problems. Galanda and his clients contend that the tribe had a hard time fixing them because of its internal turmoil.
The lawyer greets his clients warmly and piles up on food in the small community hall where about 20 people gather.
He rises to speak. In March, he reminds them, the Nooksacks will hold a tribal council election. “You have to win,” he said.
His shotgun legal strategy is ongoing, but he has long told his clients their fight is most likely to be won politically. Settle on your candidates, he tells them, and then go “table to table, doorstep to doorstep.”
Whatever happens in the election, he goes on to say, “there’s no question we’ve won handily in the court of public opinion.”
In June, the National Native American Bar Association issued an ethics opinion that cast the stripping of tribal citizenship, without due process, as a human-rights issue.
Galanda has taken his campaign to social media — “it’s all about Facebook, about the likes and shares,” he says — and to academia. In a paper published by the Arizona Law Review in May, he makes the case that disenrollment is a non-Native concept, stemming from century-old federal policies that prodded tribes to determine who did and didn’t belong.
David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, has been writing about disenrollment for 20 years. He estimates that at least 70 tribes have kicked out 3,000 to 8,000 members.
Yet, he allows, “nobody has been able to make the waves that Gabe has.”
“I’ve known Gabe since he was a young kid,” recalls Ron Allen, the longtime Jamestown S’Klallam council chair. “He grew up in my backyard.”
Port Angeles, to be exact, where Galanda and his single mom lived in a damp basement apartment where mushrooms grew when it rained. In high school, he took a job as a receptionist for a former prosecutor, who years earlier had sent his dad to prison on an assault charge. The onetime prosecutor ended up encouraging Galanda to go to law school.
“I’m kind of proud of him,” Allen says. Yet he contends that Galanda’s agitation on disenrollment “meddles with tribal politics. It stirs up and creates a lot of dissent.”
An unusual call
In early 2013, Galanda got an unusual call. “Brother, I need your help,” the caller said.
When Adaline Aure described the crisis, Galanda’s first reaction was “Ick.”
“Even if I wanted to do this, there’s no way I can really help these people,” he thought. Most tribes, including the Nooksack, claim “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits.
And, he recalls, “when I was coming up, I was taught, you don’t go against the tribe. Tribes have fought so hard to survive.”
In his Wedgwood office, a cluster of the would-be disenrolled introduced themselves as the children of Annie George’s three daughters.
Her descendants claim George as their link to the Nooksacks. The tribe once agreed.
But resentments brewed, especially after a handful of George descendants were convicted in the early 2000s of smuggling drugs across the Canadian border.
In 2012, one family member serving as tribal chair lost re-election. The new powers that be questioned George’s credentials.
Every tribe has different and often complicated enrollment rules. In the Nooksack case, there isn’t agreement on what the rules are, although they are generally understood to include one-quarter Indian blood quantum and proof of lineage to a Nooksack on a 1942 census roll or to one who received a federal land allotment.
“It doesn’t warm our hearts to do this,” says tribal Chairman Bob Kelly, adding that those slated for disenrollment simply don’t have the necessary documents.
Michelle Roberts, spokeswoman for the 306, insists her family knows where it comes from, noting her grandmother took great pride in being a Nooksack. “We don’t want to lose her history,” she says.
The family stands to lose other things as well, including their houses, many of them federally subsidized and doled out by the tribe.
Hearing their story, Galanda was moved. No matter what documents they had, he said he instinctively knew one thing: “They were tribal.” It was their tone of voice, their body language, even their family tensions. “It’s almost like love at first sight. It was tribal at first sight.”
Galanda’s ancestors were Native American, Scandinavian, Portuguese and Austrian — a mixed heritage that caused him to question his identity during his formative years.
But he says he kept remembering his grandmother, born on California’s Round Valley Indian Tribes reservation, putting him on her knee and saying: “You’re Nomlaki and Concow. Don’t ever forget it.”
“Before I undertook this work,” Galanda says, “I was really caught up in blood quantum.” Now, he says, “I don’t really care.”