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2 Tribes at Odds Over Measure to Allow Off-Reservation Casino

Congress: Bill would permit Torres-Martinez band to buy land for the business. Neighboring tribe voices concerns.


THERMAL, Calif. — At first blush, it seems a rather innocuous attempt to right a century-old wrong. A bill before Congress would expand the reservation of the impoverished Torres-Martinez band of Indians by more than 11,000 desert acres as reparation for flooding that left half their current land under water.

But the bill's subplot--gambling--has made it a roll of the dice at best: It also would allow the Torres-Martinez band to build California's first Indian casino off a reservation.

That is raising eyebrows, not only in the halls of Congress, but on a neighboring Native American reservation. There, tribal leaders fear the off-reservation casino would lead the public to believe that Indian gambling has run amok.

"It's going to create some apprehension," said Marc Benitez, second vice chairman of the neighboring Cabazon tribe. "It's telling people that they are having a new neighbor without having input as to whether it was a good fit for the local community. That's a concern."

But Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), the bill's sponsor in the House, said the plan is "a matter of simple fairness."

"There was a bad precedent when the Salton Sea was allowed to flood the reservation of the Torres-Martinez [band] and they were not compensated for it," she said. Regarding fears over gambling, she said, "I am not concerned."

The debate has given awkward rise to tribal conflict in the Riverside County desert, pitting one Cahuilla band, the Torres-Martinezes, against another, the Cabazons.

Mary Belardo, the 51-year-old chairwoman of the Torres-Martinez band, said the opposition shows that the Cabazons have lost touch with an unspoken pact among Native American tribes that are only now--largely by building casinos--overcoming years of persecution and subjugation.

"You just don't question what another tribe is trying to do," Belardo said. "You just hope that the tribe is doing the best for its people that it can do. You hope that the tribe is not back-stabbing or doing anything that would be to the detriment of another tribe."

Belardo believes the true root of the Cabazons' opposition to the proposal is competition.

Benitez denies it, but other members of the tribe have said in the past that they are trying to protect their desert jewel: the Fantasy Springs Casino east of Palm Springs.

Benitez says the casino takes in about $50 million each year from about a million visitors. The 95,000-square-foot gambling and entertainment complex, near Indio off Interstate 10, is just a few miles from the spot where the Torres-Martinez band hopes to open its casino if Bono's bill passes.

The federal government created the Torres-Martinez reservation--a 24,840-acre checkerboard scattered across hot, scrubby desert land in a desolate corner of the Coachella Valley--in 1876.

Thirty years later the bloated Colorado River overwhelmed poorly constructed dikes near Yuma, Ariz. For more than a year, the river flowed into the Salton Basin, flooding a number of communities. The flooding was finally brought under control a year later, but not before California had a new lake--the Salton Sea.

The lake covered almost exactly half of the Torres-Martinez reservation. With a second and more chronic flood, this one in the form of runoff from nearby farms, the Salton Sea became a permanent and environmentally troubled fixture, replete with regular fish die-offs.

Bono's bill would allow the Torres-Martinez band to buy more than 11,000 acres--a hodgepodge of private and public lands, much of it filling in gaps between tracts the tribe already owns--near its existing reservation.

The bill also says the band can buy 640 acres straddling Interstate 10, just east of the Fantasy Springs Casino. The property would be used for "economic development"--allowing for the casino. The band would also receive $14 million, some of which would be used for the land purchase, Belardo said.

In the early 1980s, the federal government sued local water districts on behalf of the Torres-Martinez band, charging that the water districts were responsible for the agricultural runoff. Eventually, the tribe also sued the federal government. Bono's bill would be, effectively, a settlement of those lawsuits.

In the meantime, Native Americans across the country have declared their sovereign rights, allowing them to open businesses few others in America could: casinos. Earlier this year, California voters expanded those rights by approving Proposition 1A, a ballot initiative that enacted casino operating guidelines and allowed Las Vegas-style slot machines and blackjack on reservations.

Native American gambling houses have exploded, and have revolutionized reservation life, turning Indian gambling into an $8-billion industry and making many young Native Americans more comfortable in a boardroom than on a farm.

The Torres-Martinez band, however, because its reservation is so remote from potential customers, has not been able to open a casino. The band's 630 members, for the most part, remain poor.

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