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Betting on Their Heritage

The casino-rich Pechanga Indians seek a partnership with the struggling Southwest Museum that isn't just about money.

April 07, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

TEMECULA — When last seen in the pages of Helen Hunt Jackson's celebrated historical romance "Ramona," the Indians of this valley were a desperate lot: poor, illiterate, first subjugated by the Spanish, then the Mexicans, then evicted and dumped in a dry canyon by the U.S. government.

But one glance at that dry canyon these days tells you that world has been upended. The Pechanga tribe of Temecula Valley is among the valley's leading employers, netting millions of gambling dollars every month, lobbying in Washington, steadily adding acreage. When Gary DuBois, cultural resources director for the Pechangas, stands beside a particularly handsome stretch of open land near the tribe's new casino-hotel project, a certain twinkle creeps into his eyes.

"You could put a museum there," DuBois says half-casually, as if the idea has just occurred to him.

In fact, DuBois and other leaders of the 1,468-member tribe have been talking about that prospect for a year now. If the tribal membership approves and the plans pan out, the tribe will build a museum here, roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and borrow thousands of artifacts from the Southwest Museum, an underfunded but widely respected institution founded by Los Angeles collectors in the early days of the 20th century.

Not everybody is ready to embrace the idea. But together, the Pechangas' money and the Southwest's collection could yield one of the foremost Native American museums in the country--a historical postscript that Jackson could never have imagined during her days here in 1883.

"We don't want the casino to define who we are," says DuBois, who began the talks with a cold call to the Southwest Museum's executive director, Duane King, a year ago.

"They have a very clear vision of what they're doing," King says. "They want to tell their story."

By the time the first Spanish missionaries appeared in the Temecula Valley at the end of the 18th century, Indians had lived here for an estimated 10,000 years. In the decades following the Spaniards' arrival, missionaries pressed Indians into labor and newcomers grabbed up more and more land, imposing and adjusting laws as Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, and as the U.S. wrested control of California from Mexico in the 1840s.

As the U.S. expanded westward, the pressure on Indian lands intensified. In the 1870s and 1880s, U.S. lawmen seized most of the land held by the Temecula Indians.

In her novel, Jackson describes the eviction, although she spelled the tribe's name slightly differently.

"Where is Pachanga?" asks the heroine, Ramona, hearing of the tribe's dispersal.

"About three miles from Temecula, a little sort of canyon," answers her lover, Alessandro.

"I told the people they'd better move over there; the land did not belong to anybody, and perhaps they could make a living there," he continues. "There isn't any water; that's the worst of it."

Jackson's novel, published in 1884, was intended to provoke national shame and reform--a sort of western counterpart to Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 antislavery novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Instead, the love story in the foreground of "Ramona" largely outshone the cultural politics in the background, and the book wound up fueling westward tourism.

Its romanticized legacy is revived every spring, when hundreds of actors and thousands of Jackson enthusiasts gather in an open-air amphitheater near Hemet for weekend stagings of the annual "Ramona Pageant." The pageant--billed as "America's oldest and longest-running outdoor drama!"--has endured since the 1920s. This year's production premieres April 20.

The Pechangas don't participate. But some of the pageant's fans, if they have a weakness for slot machines or card games, may nevertheless be playing a role in modern Pechanga history. The tribe's reservation and casino lie about 20 miles southwest of the outdoor stage.

The reservation covers 4,500 acres of dusty foothills. The first glimpse most outsiders get of the reservation is the parking lot and the jumble of low-slung buildings that make up the current casino area. Day after day, cars and buses roll up, discharging gamblers, many of them retirement age.

Beyond the parking lot rises an economic engine that's likely to propel the Pechanga economy well into the future: a 522-room hotel and casino, being built at a cost of roughly $270 million. It will replace the existing facilities upon its opening this summer. Sand-colored and designed in a restrained Southwestern style, it already looms as one of the tallest buildings in the valley.

The reservation's first casino, which opened in 1995, consisted of three trailers featuring card games and five filled with slot machines. Now 2,000 slots sound round the clock, and the tribe has more employees than members, about 1,700 total, 115 of them Pechangas.

How much difference has the casino made?

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