Gambling on tribal ancestry

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

An ill wind is blowing through the Pechanga tribe. Sure, there have been problems before. A land dispute here, a water crisis there. But nothing like what's happening now. Elders nod coldly when they see one another at tribal gatherings. Certain kids are ostracized at the reservation playground, and housewives shuffle quickly down the aisles at Albertsons supermarket without as much as a howdy.

It all started sometime in late 2002. Rumors were heard, allegations were made, lineages were scrutinized, voices were raised, and, at the end of it all, the enrollment committee moved to throw some 130 members out of the 1,200-strong tribe.

The members targeted are hopping mad. "They did it to our face," says John Gomez Jr., one of the plaintiffs in the suit filed two months ago against members of the tribal enrollment committee. "They presented a memo saying there are 'issues' about our ancestor Manuela Miranda. False and absurd! We know who we are."

According to the Pechanga constitution, full membership requires proof of lineal descent from an original Pechanga member and a family line contained in the official enrollment book. Mr. Gomez and other plaintiffs trace their lineage to Manuela Miranda - granddaughter of undisputed Pechanga headman Pablo Apish. Most of the plaintiffs have enjoyed full membership rights and lived on or around the reservation - in Temecula, Calif. - for more than 25 years.

But now, committee members say they have found that Ms. Miranda, who was, to begin with, only half Pechanga (according to the US Bureau of Indian Affairs) - moved off the reservation and cut her ties to the tribe 80 years ago.

"Cut her ties? No. No and no," insists Gomez, a paralegal who was fired from his job as legal assistant for the tribe when the debate flared. "At show-and-tell at elementary school I would bring in pictures of my Pechanga ancestors," he says. Gomez grew up in northern California and moved to Temecula in 1997 with his wife, Jennifer. "I would tell stories of my dad and his cousins and their 'Indian tricks and games'.... To have someone suddenly tell you, 'You are not Pechanga and you never were,' is very hurtful."

The threat of disenrollment is a grave insult, contend the aggrieved: It's an insult to old family traditions, to ancient heritage, and to Pechanga pride. It's also a major hit to the pocketbook. The members in question stand to lose more than $120,000 each a year in casino profits and bonuses, as well as health insurance and other benefits.

There have been membership disputes for as long as there have been members of tribes, say experts, but in recent years, with more money to fight over, and more funds with which to finance legal suits, such disputes - which would have played out quietly 10 years ago - are increasing: in number, in acrimony, and in the attention they grab.

Five years after California approved the law giving tribes exclusive rights to operate lucrative casinos, the industry is bringing in some $4 billion a year, and more casinos are being planned all the time. The Pechanga tribe has a lavish resort and 2,000 slot-machine casino and nets an estimated $184 million annually. That money goes toward health, social, education, and housing programs, with a certain amount parceled out as individual stipends to every member.

Before the casino opened, the Pechanga tribe received about 15 to 30 applications a year from people seeking enrollment, according to tribal documents. These days, they are overwhelmed by more than 450 applications a year. The same story is repeated across the country. In response, many tribes are freezing their membership lists, or proceeding very carefully when it comes to those who seem to have suddenly "discovered" their heritage.

Facing disenrollment from the tribe

On the flip side of this story, hundreds of Indians - many of whom have for years considered themselves part of a tribe - have been ejected or are being disenrolled from their tribes since gambling began on reservations. Laura Wass, a spokeswoman for the American Indian Movement, says that, today, about 2,000 Indians in California alone face disenrollment action.

"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.

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."

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