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Bloodlines Issue Divides Tribe

The San Pasqual Indians' definition of membership excludes many on reservation from its benefits, such as disaster relief.

November 30, 2003|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

SAN PASQUAL INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. — When wildfires tore through here last month, 94-year-old Frances Jones escaped minutes before flames engulfed her home. Within days, San Pasqual's tribal council had cut her a check to help pay for food and clothing.

Jones' neighbors, Lorraine and Natalia Orosco, lost their childhood home and two trailer-houses. But when they asked tribal officials for help, they were told they didn't qualify for the aid Jones received. The reason: Even though their late father was a tribal member and the young women were reared on the reservation, they do not officially belong to the tribe.

The sisters are among the reservation's scores of "lineals" -- descendants of tribal members who do not qualify for membership because they do not have enough San Pasqual blood.

After blackening San Pasqual's land, the Paradise fire has deepened a cultural chasm that has run through the reservation for years. On one side stand lineals, clamoring for a voice in the tribe's future and demanding to be accepted as equals. On the other side are most of the tribe's members, who insist that the reservation's limited resources -- coming mostly from a new casino -- should be spent on those with the purest blood.

Of the roughly 70 homes burned on the reservation, about 20 belonged to lineals and 30 to tribe members. The remainder was rental housing.

All tribe members who were evacuated during the fires -- whether they lived on the reservation or not -- received at least $1,000 from the tribe to cover emergency expenses. Tribe members were also entitled to another $1,000 from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lineals were ineligible for either grant, though the tribe offered to cover temporary lodging for some.

Although all of those who lost homes are eligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the striking difference in how the tribe treated residents has left some bitter.

"We feel like second-class citizens," said Lorraine Orosco.

It was not always this way.

The tribe inhabited the mountain areas of northern San Diego County until the U.S.-Mexican War in the 1840s, when the members scattered and largely assimilated into nearby towns. In the 1960s a new generation attempted to resurrect the tribe. Jones and others gathered for meetings around a large oak tree on the inhospitable, 1,200-acre reservation designated by the federal government. The members formulated plans to move onto the land and accepted a constitution that, in part, defined a member as someone with at least an eighth of San Pasqual blood.

For decades, the distinction between lineal and member meant little. Faced with few resources and rampant unemployment, families were more concerned with hooking up water lines and paying electricity bills. Those on the reservation spent little time focused on the fact that, after years of marrying outside the tribe, few of their children or grandchildren were members.

"It was never that big an issue," Orosco recalled. "It was always a given that someday they would change the [membership rules]."

The first sign of division came in 1991 when more than 110 people qualified to become tribe members in order to receive $9,000 each from a settlement in a water-rights dispute.

Interest in membership grew stronger when the tribe opened a casino in 2001. Membership jumped to 363 people, and lineals said they noticed a change in the way they were treated.

"We were no longer welcome at tribal meetings," said Shonta Chaloux, a broad-chested lineal with a long ponytail. Chaloux, 29, recalls that last autumn, members threatened to have him arrested when he tried to address the tribe's members. At another meeting last year, a brawl broke out when a group of lineals tried to enter.

Chaloux said he and other lineals are resentful that people who never lived on the reservation -- but who could show the right bloodline -- earned membership while longtime residents were excluded.

Chaloux, who grew up in a house his father built on the reservation and works at its culture center, scoffs at "fake Indians" who arrived with the casino but without knowing the difference between an eagle feather -- believed by the tribe to hold protective powers -- and the turkey feathers they mistakenly carry around.

"It's about having a voice and leading my people in the right direction," said Chaloux.

James Thorpe, a tribal member and its housing director, sees it differently. While he sympathizes with the lineals, Thorpe believes that to absorb them as official members would overwhelm the struggling tribe just as it stands to gain a foothold with the casino. "If we had all the resources in the world, I would say, 'Sure,' " said Thorpe.

Thorpe does not live on the reservation but received both tribal and federal money after being evacuated during the fires. He used the money to pay for temporary lodging.

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