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Gambling on tribal ancestry

As Indian casino profits soar, tribes reexamine who qualifies for a slice of the winnings - and thin their ranks.

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"People are being voted out of their tribe and losing their identity so others can benefit from monies," accuses Jon Velie, an attorney representing some of the disenrolled Pechanga. He charges that individuals on the enrollment committee are trying to consolidate political power, control the key leadership jobs, and then illegally increase their wealth by reducing the total number of tribal members eligible for shares of casino profits.

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Mr. Velie's defense of his clients' Pechanga bloodline is to launch an offense - he charges that the enrollment committee members, many of whom are from the same extended family, are themselves the "iffy" members of the tribe. Their ancestors, he says, were adopted into the tribe and so have no right to call the kettle black. "It's a classic case of non-Indians trying to kick the real Indians out," he says, solemnly.

Tribal attorney Alex Baghdassarian and tribal spokesman Russell Murphy declined to comment on these counterallegations.

So far, the California courts have followed the law that says tribes, as sovereign nations, are shielded from lawsuits filed against them in state or federal courts - and have refused to rule on the case or order a restraining order on the enrollment committee, as plaintiffs had demanded. But Riverside Superior Court Judge Charles Field did not throw out the case, as the tribe had demanded, indicating to some that he might take jurisdiction in the future, and raising eyebrows.

Gomez knows how hard it will be for an outside judge to interfere in tribal membership issues, but he holds out that this case might be an exception. The enrollment committee, he explains, has "acted outside the authority granted to them by the tribe," and thus can no longer be protected by sovereign immunity.

"It's just like saying - I don't have to serve a black man because it's my restaurant," chimes in Velie. "States would argue that these were discriminatory Jim Crow laws. In like form, we say the enrollment committee members are also acting outside the law and illegally. So we cannot rely on them to judge the case themselves." Velie calls the judge's decision to keep the case open a "significant, precedent-setting victory" for his clients.

Who decides tribal membership?

But most Indian law experts are skeptical that in the long run the California court will step further into such swirling waters.

"Membership disputes go to the core of a tribe's status and sovereignty," says Colin Cloud Hampson, a San Diego lawyer specializing in federal Indian law. "The tribe should be the sole determiner of membership and the Supreme Court has upheld this setup. Californian courts are not well positioned to get involved."

Carole Goldberg, an Indian law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees: "This is a case worth watching," she says. "But I don't see how a judge is going to legally interfere here. This is a question of who belongs. And that is clearly an internal matter."

Telling the tribe who to allow in would be like the United Nations dictating who should be considered American citizens, argues Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro in a statement released last month. Mr. Macarro's own cousin, Arlene Macarro Lloyd, incidentally, has been refused membership for years. "Decades of jurisprudence hold that enrollment matters ... are determined by tribal law and tradition," says Macarro.

Meanwhile, as the dispute plays out, many in Temecula wonder if the tribe will ever be able to live peacefully together again.

When Gomez's first son was born two years ago, he received flowers from the tribal council, he recalls. When his second son was born a month ago, there was nothing of the sort. He was fired from his tribal job while on paternity leave, he says.

"Money corrupts," he concludes. "There are things which have occurred that I don't think can heal. No matter how it ends, it will never be the same."