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'We’ll Always Be Nooksack': Tribe Questions Ancestry Of Part-Filipino Members

Adelina Parker lets up on the gas as she drives through her childhood stomping grounds.

“Up there, that was all Filipino farmers and strawberry fields,” Parker says, motioning toward a school and apartments that occupy this land.

Berries covered this central part of Bainbridge Island when Parker was a kid. She’s 60 now, a grandmother.

“This here was the old home,” Parker says as she pulls up to a modest rambler. Parker’s parents have died, and the home has a new owner.

Berries used to cover this property, too. A thin tangle of raspberries is all that remains.

Those berry brambles run through Parker’s family history. She’s part of a cross-cultural community of Filipino-American and Native American families that trace their roots back to the strawberry farms that once carpeted Bainbridge Island.

Many of these families also trace their ancestors back to the Nooksack Tribe, near Bellingham.

In February, the Nooksack Tribal Council called their ancestry into question, saying that 306 people were erroneously enrolled.

“It was just shocking,” Parker says, shaking her head.

Like Parker, all of the potential disenrollees are mixed-race Filipino-Native American.

Tracing The Nooksack-Filipino Connection

With her brown skin, Parker is accustomed to questions about her heritage.

Her mother was Native American, and her father came from the Philippines.

“Indipino is what ended up what we called ourselves,” Parker says.

Just down the road from Parker’s childhood home, the island’s historic Filipino-American Hall sits next to former berry storage shed.

Inside the hall, black-and-white portraits of Filipino men and Native women line the walls, along with their Indipino offspring.

Parker points out some of the Filipino founders, including Felix Narte, Felix Almazon, Toby Membrere, Dan Bucsit and Anacleto Corpuz.

These photos tell a common story about how the two sides of these families came together.

Filipino men came to the Northwest in the 1920s and 30s to look for work. On Bainbridge Island, Japanese berry farmers hired the Filipinos as laborers and on occasion, the farms also recruited extra workers from local tribes.

Parker likes to tell the story about when a Filipino man visited her mother’s tribe in British Columbia.

“He drove a 1925 flatbed truck, and he just drove up into this road, and he saw my mother walking,” she says. “He parked the car and he says, ‘Hey, kid – where’s your parents? Would you like to come pick berries on Bainbridge Island?’”

Parker’s grandparents took up the offer, along with other Native families.

In time, romances sprang up between Filipino men and Native women.

“They fell in love with each other working in the fields,” Parker says laughing.

When World War II broke out, the US government ordered Japanese families on Bainbridge Island to relocate to internment camps. On many abandoned farms, the Filipino men stepped in as caretakers.

When the Japanese owners returned home, some gifted land to the Filipinos. It encouraged the men to settle down and get married.

Blending Two Cultures

Parker is a second generation Indipino. She says her folks were a good match.

“They liked songs,” she says. “They listened to radio, and they liked to dance.”

Many of the Filipino men played music and the Native women kept up traditional tribal dancing.

Three languages were spoken in Parker’s family home. Her father spoke a dialect from the Philippines called Ilocano, her mother spoke a Nooksack language called Halkomelem and, of course, English was the common denominator.

Filipino flavors dominated the meals but Parker’s mom also cooked Native favorites, including lots of salmon. Parker says her parents made up a salmon adobo soup, sort of a fusion of Filipino and Native food.

It’s just part of the blend that happened throughout the community, as these two cultures merged together.

'We’ll always be Nooksack'

At a park near the Bainbridge ferry dock, Parker rolls out a poster-size paper showing a carefully hand-drawn family tree.

“This is me, Adelina Gladstone-Narte,” she says. She traces the line to her great-great-grandmother, Annie George. It’s through Annie George that Parker enrolled in the tribe in the 1980s, as did all the 306 members facing disenrollment.

All her life, Parker has collected her family history. Now, she tells her grandchildren these stories about their Nooksack ancestors and about the tribal dances and spiritual gatherings she attended with her mother.

But with her Nooksack membership at risk, Parker wonders, “What am I going to tell them? What happened to us? How we were disenrolled?”

Her concern is for all the members facing disenrollment, especially elders. They stand to lose access to tribal benefits, like heath care and fishing rights.

Wiping away tears, Parker tries to soften to blow.

“It wouldn’t take being Nooksack away,” she says. “We’ll always be Nooksack.”

Tuesday: In part two of this story, we travel to the Nooksack reservation for a closer look at the tribe’s disenrollment tensions.

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