Nooksack people

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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Whatcom County
English, Nooksack
American Indian panentheism, Christianity, other
Related ethnic groups
other Coast Salish peoples

The Nooksack (/ˈnʊksæk/; Nooksack: Noxwsʼáʔaq) are a federally recognized Native American people in the Pacific Northwest Coast. The tribe lives in the mainland northwest corner of Washington state in the United States along the Nooksack River and near the small town of Deming (in western Whatcom County). They have more than 1,800[1] enrolled members.

In 1971, the tribe was ceded a one-acre (4,000 m²) reservation after they received federal recognition status from the United States government. They subsequently have increased reservation land to 2,500 acres (10 km²) by purchasing land and putting it in trust with the federal government; this includes 65 acres (260,000 m2) of tribally owned trust land. Like most Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, prior to European settlement, the Nooksack relied on fishing as well as gathering for sustenance. Federal court decisions in the 1970s have affirmed their and other Native American traditional rights in Washington state to fish and gather food in this way.

As of the 2000 census, the Nooksack Indian Reservation, at 48°53′03″N 122°20′54″W / 48.88417°N 122.34833°W / 48.88417; -122.34833 in Whatcom County, had a resident population of 547 persons living on 2,720 acres (11 km2)) of land. Of these residents, 373 persons, or 68.2 percent, identified as being solely of Native American ancestry. The remainder of the tribe mostly lives in the area but some live in more distant larger cities.


The Nooksack language (Lhéchalosem) belongs to the Salishan family of Native American languages, and is most similar to the Halkomelem language of British Columbia, of which it was once considered a dialect. As of 2016, the last fluent speaker of Nooksack and its dialects is George Adams, a 70-year-old elder of the tribe.[2]

In the late 20th century, observers thought the language had become extinct around 1988. In the 1970s the linguist Brent Galloway worked closely with another fluent native speaker. He worked toward creating a dictionary of their language but it is unclear if that work was published before his death. His book Dictionary of Upriver Halkomelem (2009) covers a language that was in the same region but distinct from that spoken by the Nooksack people.[3]


The tribe elects members of an 8-person council, with half the positions elected in alternating years. The tribal chairman is elected as one of the eight, as are the vice-chairman, treasurer and secretary. All terms are for two years. The tribal council sets policy and passes laws affecting members.

The tribe also has a judicial branch, a tribal court.

Disenrollment controversy[edit]

In the early 21st century, the tribe has become embroiled for years in a bitter political controversy that resulted in 306 living descendants of ancestor Annie George being disenrolled by a 2013 tribal council decision under the leadership of tribal Chairman Bob Kelly. The council questioned the membership of 306 members, all living descendants of elder Annie George and her three daughters.[2] George's name did not appear in a 1942 tribal census, which has been the basis required for documenting descent for tribal membership, nor was she granted land. The 306 comprise about 15 percent of the tribe, and are all descendants of Annie's daughters, who married Filipino migrant workers.[4]

Their descendants enrolled in the tribe in the 1980s, about a decade after it achieved federal recognition. Over time members of these Rabang, Rapada, and Narte-Gladstone families gained political power in the tribe. Other tribal members resented them, as well as worrying about some members prosecuted for drug trade.[4]

Notices were sent out to the 306 in February 2013, informing them of disenrollment. People opposed to the disenrollment marched in March 2013 in Seattle, the largest city in the state, in protest.[5] The families hired Gabriel Galanda, a Native American attorney, to represent them, and he has consulted with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

In March 2014, the disenrollment case was pending in tribal court, which, a KUOW reporter noted, usually decided in alliance with the majority on the tribal council. This would have been the largest mass disenrollment by any tribe within Washington state.[5]

The 306 say that Annie George is documented as a daughter of Matsqui George, leader of a Nooksack village in what is now British Columbia.[6] Ancestral tribal members were split when Canada and the United States established boundaries across former common land. Opponents of Kelly's position have said the disenrollment decision was political, and that Kelly was trying to get rid of critics before the next council election. Votes were very close among candidates in the primary election in the spring of 2014.

Kelly allegedly fired tribal employees who supported or were members of the Nooksack 306. In addition, "the tribal council allegedly fired a judge who was about to rule against them, disbarred the attorney representing the 306, and by most accounts refused to hold new tribal elections until after the 306 are officially disenrolled."[2] Judge Susan Alexander ruled that the tribe could not disbar Galanda from representing these clients in court.[4]

After a close primary, four tribal council positions were up for election in March 2014, but the council refused to call elections until the appeal was finished on disenrollment of the Nooksack 306.[5] Elder George Adams, the tribe’s election superintendent, believed the council had gone too far.[2] He "invoked the right of General Council, an ancient tradition meaning the voice of the people. According to tradition, the tribe gives authority to its leaders, but in extreme cases of misuse this authority can be revoked by the tribe, which acts together as a single unit, the General Council."[2]

On July 14, 2016, a General Council meeting was called in order to conduct a special election of the four open council seats. The more than 200 attendees met off the reservation to ensure they did not have interference. They elected four interim council members and also invalidated the recall of Carmen Tageant from the Tribal Council, returning her to office.[6]

Elected as vice chairman was Bob Doucette, who had served on the council in the 1970s; Bernadine Roberts, also a former council member, was elected treasurer. Jeremiah Johnny and Ron Roberts were elected to the two council positions, and Tageant was returned to her seat.[6][7]

The majority of the council now opposes disenrollment of Annie George's descendants. But Chairman Bob Kelly has said he won't recognize this General Council election as valid.[2] His supporters on the council include Secretary Nadene Rapada and member Bob Solomon.[6] Still ahead is an election to be supervised by the BIA.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-09-20. Retrieved 2008-10-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Frank Hopper, "After Disenrollment Conflict, Nooksack 306 Heal With Paddle to Nisqually", Indian Country Today, 11 August 2016; accessed 12 August 2016
  3. ^ Notice of Brent D. Galloway, Dictionary of Upriver Halkomelem, UC Publications in Linguistics, 141
  4. ^ a b c Ben Goldfarb, "In Washington, the Nooksack 306 fight to stay in their tribe", High Country News 17 April 2016; accessed 12 August 2016
  5. ^ a b c Liz Jones, "Disenrollment Controversy Looms Over Nooksack Tribal Council Election", KUOW, 14 Mar 2014; accessed 12 August 2016
  6. ^ a b c d Richard Walker, "Nooksack Citizens Elect Four New Council Members, Return Recalled Member To Office", Indian Country Today, 8 August 2016; accessed 12 August 2016
  7. ^ Hu, Jane C (2020-02-01). "One woman took a stand against tribal disenrollment and paid for it". High Country News. Retrieved 2020-02-11.

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