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.