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California and the West

Las Vegas Tribe Says It Gets Cold Shoulder, Disrespect From City

Indians: The Paiutes claim police have repeatedly entered their reservation without permission. Law enforcement officers say emergencies require them to cross jurisdictional boundaries.

May 17, 1999|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — As Ramona Salizar tells it, the police showed up just before dawn, their shotguns drawn as they pulled four young Indian men from a darkened home on reservation land just blocks from the glitzy downtown casinos.

The 40-year-old Salizar, a full-blooded Southern Paiute who serves as a tribal health care worker, saw the flashing lights and walked out to confront a dozen Las Vegas police officers who had responded to reports of gunshots.

"I asked them, 'What are you doing here? Get off our land! This is Indian land!' " Salizar recalled. She too was briefly handcuffed.

Within minutes, an officer from the reservation's 10-member police force arrived to ask the Las Vegas police to leave. They complied, but in the days after the May 3 incident several Paiutes were issued traffic tickets as they drove off the tiny reservation--a move the Indians say is retribution for the standoff.

Recently, the Paiutes say, Las Vegas police have repeatedly entered the reservation without permission and in violation of tribal sovereignty. Las Vegas police say they have only reacted to emergencies, such as the gunfire that morning, which require them to cross jurisdictional boundaries.

The incident is one of several that have escalated tensions between America's fastest-growing city and what the Bureau of Indian Affairs calls the nation's most urbanized Indian reservation--a collection of two dozen trailers known by its 60 residents as "The Colony."

While many of the nation's 320 other reservations are located close to cities or even within their limits--such as those in nearby Reno and Palm Springs--few occupy a setting as grim as the 18 acres the Southern Paiutes call home.

Nor are many urban reservations as ignored as The Colony, its residents say.

"We get frustrated," said tribal chairman Curtis Anderson, who also oversees a 3,800-acre reservation outside town on which the Paiutes operate two golf courses. "It's like we're a forgotten people. No city officials consult us on anything, even on issues important to the tribe. I don't think they respect us. They seem to forget that we were here first."

Since 1911, the Southern Paiutes have lived on downtown land willed to them by the wife of a wealthy rancher who was concerned that Indians employed by her family would have nowhere to go once the ranch was sold.

As the decades passed, Las Vegas grew up around them. Today the tribe is surrounded by what even civic leaders say is not the city's prettiest side, an area few visitors ever see: Within blocks of the reservation are several homeless shelters, vacant strips dominated by tumbleweed and a topless bar called the Satin Saddle.

The tribe worries that such blight is turning their home into a skid row reservation.

Until they built a fence recently, Colony residents often found homeless people defecating on what they consider a sacred tribal burial mound, which also became littered with condoms and liquor bottles. Several truck drivers have been arrested for romps with prostitutes in the cabs of their big rigs across the street from where tribal children wait for the school bus.

And tribal police officers often wait at the Colony's only entrance to stop carloads of suspected gang members they believe come to recruit Paiute teenagers.

In March, tribal officials were rebuffed by the Las Vegas City Council, which denied their request to sell beer and wine at the tribal smoke shop. The panel, which under a 1953 Supreme Court ruling must agree before alcohol can be sold on sovereign Indian land, said in an area dominated by the homeless, there already were too many stores selling alcohol.

But what most angers Paiute leaders is what they call the complete disregard for tribal sovereignty by Las Vegas police. Colony residents, who refer to any location off the reservation as "The Outside," see their tiny home as an island of safety in an otherwise declining neighborhood. Now, they say, they no longer feel as safe.

Said resident Marie Wilson, who claims her son was arrested by Las Vegas police without reason: "We have more security here than they do on the outside. We're safe from most everything--except the Las Vegas police."

Reservation Police Chief Tonia Means, 35, who grew up in the Colony, wrote a letter to Las Vegas Sheriff Jerry Keller--who heads the city's combined metropolitan police force--to complain about the situation.

"Not one police officer has ever called the tribal dispatcher to even alert us they're coming," said Means, one of only two female tribal police chiefs nationwide. "I don't care how crucial they think their business is. You don't call us first, you're not welcome here."

She called the recent traffic tickets issued to Colony residents "Mickey Mouse tactics."

Las Vegas police say the accusations simply aren't true. "I can assure you with the number of events we have on our plate every day, for us to sit outside their reservation and give bogus tickets simply isn't realistic," said Lt. Rick Alba, a police spokesman.

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