Indigenous Affairs

Federal court says former Nooksack woman is under tribe's jurisdiction

'I was scared every time they rang the doorbell'
February 23, 2022 at 5:55 a.m.
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Updated February 24, 2022 at 11:48 a.m.
The Nooksack Indian Tribe Community Building near Everson.
The Nooksack Indian Tribe Community Building near Everson. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

By JULIA LERNER
Staff Reporter

Elile Adams has been to court close to 50 times in the last five years. 

Each month, her summons would come with police officers at her front door and the ring of a doorbell. 

“I was scared every time they rang that doorbell,” she told Cascadia Daily News. “When I hear a doorbell now I get anxiety because of that. They just keep summoning me to court.”

Adams says the continued harassment she faces is retribution for supporting the Nooksack 306, a community of more than 300 former-Nooksack tribal members who were formally removed from the tribe in 2018 following a bitter legal battle. Her lawyer, Gabe Galanda, also represents the 306.

In 2017, Adams sought a temporary protection order through the Nooksack courts against the father of her child. The judge involved in the case, Raymond Dodge, turned the domestic violence protection order into a custody case and asked the Nooksack Tribal Police chief to investigate Adams for “possible custodial interference,” according to her court appeal. 

The two weeks when she had the DV protection order in place “were like the best two weeks of my life because I felt safe, knowing that protection order was in place,” Adams said. “Two weeks after that, it was April and I had a hearing and it turned from DV protection order to a custody parenting plan.”

The father in question, not a Nooksack tribal member, has not spoken to Adams nor seen the child in years,  Adams said. 

“The child's father, he hasn't really been around since 2017,” explained Galanda, an Indigenous rights attorney. “This really became Ray Dodge against Elile Adams. He kept bringing her in and bringing her in and bringing her in [to court], and he had her investigated for custodial interference. Interfering with whom or what? Because the dad isn't around.”

In 2019, Dodge had Adams arrested for missing one of the many custody court dates while on Tribal Canoe Journey

Initially, Adams didn't know why she was being arrested. 

“I didn't know what I did wrong,” she said. “I'm protecting my child. If I stole something or if I've broken the law, then yeah, that's understandable, but out of the blue, cops came to my residence when I just got off of Canoe Journey, and I just didn't know what was happening.”

According to a complaint filed with Whatcom County on Adams' behalf, Dodge prepared, signed and issued an arrest warrant for Adams' failure to appear with several charges, including four counts of custodial interference and one count of contempt.

Tribal leadership reiterated Thursday that Adams’ case is simply a custody dispute.

“She refused to provide supervised visitation to the father of her children,” they told CDN. “The Tribal Court ordered her to appear to explain her actions, she repeatedly refused.”

The four charges of custodial interference, though, are complicated: how could there be interference with custody when the other custodian doesn't attempt to see the child? 

“It's a custodial parenting action where the dad is in absentia,” Galanda told CDN. “The dad isn't even there.”

Throughout the disenrollment battle, Adams and her father were vocal supporters of the 306, which Adams says made her a target.

“I felt like, because I was party to the 306, that I was a target for them to keep harassing me,” she told CDN. “It became really overwhelming … because of a personal vendetta and greed and whatever that comes with the disenrollment.”

Galanda agreed. 

“This is about disenrollment insofar as Elile, like her father, are not disenrolled and have not been proposed for disenrollment, but they spoke up for those who are being disenrolled,” Galanda said. 

Throughout the ongoing legal battles, Adams says Dodge acted “in bad faith,” and that the Nooksack Court doesn't have jurisdiction over her case, her life or her child. 

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a federal court that holds jurisdiction over Washington, disagreed last week, announcing after a years-long suit “Adams cannot show that the Nooksack Tribal Court 'plainly' lacks jurisdiction.”

The decision, filed Feb. 15, says Adams failed to show the Nooksack Tribal Court “acted in bad faith,” or that the court lacked jurisdiction because she was arrested on off-reservation allotted land. 

“If this isn’t bad faith by a tribal court, there is no such thing,” Galanda said.

Leadership at the Nooksack Indian Tribe was pleased with the court’s decision. 

“The Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals once again reaffirms the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Nooksack Indian Tribe,” according to a press release from Nooksack tribal leadership.

“We expect Gabe Galanda to file more frivolous lawsuits and complaints, and our attorneys stand ready to again successfully defend our Tribe and our staff against his ongoing harassment,” said Roswell Cline Sr., Chair of the Nooksack Tribe in a statement. 

“The Nooksack Tribe will not be distracted or deterred by those who oppose our sovereignty. We will continue to focus on our good work of restoring salmon habitat, providing resources for our people and building a new health clinic in the region.”

Adams, who renounced her Nooksack citizenship in 2019, says Dodge has been harassing her for years, so she had to take “drastic measures.”

“I had to sacrifice my membership from the Nooksack,” Adams said. “I had to basically uproot my home where I lived for the first 30 years of my life to move to a different reservation because I didn’t want them to keep harassing me. I had to get out of [Dodge’s] clutches.”

It is incredibly rare for a tribal member to renounce their tribe. 

“It is almost unfathomable for an Indigenous person to [leave their tribe],” Galanda said. “She sought asylum with the Lummi Nation by relinquishing her Nooksack citizenship and becoming a citizen of the Lummi Nation. It just speaks to the desperation she has felt while in this white judge’s clutches since 2017 when she went to him for domestic violence protection.”

Tribal leadership told CDN Adams made the choice to leave the tribe.

“She voluntarily relinquished membership in order to evade legal responsibility for violating a Nooksack Tribal Court Order,” they said.

The next step, Galanda says, is to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“Within 90 days of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, we will file a petition for certiorari, which means a review by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he told CDN. “We hope to convince the Supreme Court generally that Indigenous persons deserve habeas corpus protection when persecuted like Elile has been persecuted by Nooksack judicial actors. More specifically, we hope to convince them that there must be teeth to the U.S. Supreme Court’s bad faith exception to tribal court exhaustion.”

The Nooksack Indian Tribe does not expect to hear this case in the Supreme Court.

“The Ninth Circuit dispensed with oral argument because it concluded that this case wasn’t worth their time,” they told CDN. “It breaks no new law and has no interesting facts on which to apply settled law, so we think it’s unlikely to move forward.”

The Nooksack Tribal Court and Judge Dodge did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.

This story was updated Feb. 24, 2022, at 11:48 a.m. to reflect the response from the Nooksack Tribe.

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