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The Nation

Casino Revives Tribe's Old Rivalries

As gambling revenue increases, members of the Pechanga Band are taking sides on who can rightfully share in the profits.

February 16, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Gomez's son, John Gomez Jr., 36, was fired from his position as a tribal legal analyst shortly after the lawsuit was filed in Riverside County Superior Court on Jan. 15. Three others, all of them casino employees, have been placed on administrative leave.

"The hard part, the thing that really tears me up, is that people I regarded as respected friends, even some former clients, have stopped talking to me," said Salinas' nephew, Gabriel Salinas, a financial consultant who was able to retire at 32 with the help of profitable business transactions, and his casino profit payments. "Yet, this whole issue is being driven by a group that wants to strengthen its control over the tribal government, and where the money goes."

Gomez Sr. said, "It all boils down to a family feud."

"It's gotten so bad that the defendants have formed alliances with some of our relatives who went to their side," he said, shaking his head. "My mother's cousin is on the enrollment committee. My mother's great-grandmother, Manuela, was her great-grandmother also."

At the core of the dispute pitting cousin against uncle, grandfather against grandchild, is a cornerstone of reservation doctrine: not only can tribal administrators decide who to enroll as members but they can also eject them.

Tribal leaders and their attorneys contend the dispute is an internal matter shielded by sovereign immunity from legal challenges in state or federal court. To hear them tell it, all tribes will suffer if the case is allowed to proceed. As Macarro put it: "The United States would never let the United Nations determine who its citizens are."

Jon Velie, who is representing the members seeking to remain in the tribe, argues that California is one of six states granted jurisdiction under a 51-year-old law to hear disputes between Native Americans that arise on Indian lands.

"We're not saying the tribe can't determine its own membership," Velie said. "Instead, we are alleging that the defendants have violated established tribal laws -- and that Congress has granted individual Native Americans access to their day in court."

Laura Wass, spokeswoman for the American Indian Movement chapter in Fresno, said she believes the case could set a precedent by creating a legal forum for other Native Americans erased from tribal rosters.

"If that Superior Court judge in Riverside agrees to hear this case I'll kiss his feet," she said.

"It would mean opening a whole new venue for these disputes, which are occurring in California more and more," Wass said. "Most courts don't bother with them because they involve sovereignty, and politics."

As it stands, "When it comes to family-versus-family issues on a reservation," she added, "all it takes is the snap of the fingers and you're gone."

Raising Concerns

That worries Louis Herrera, 38, a bass player in the Los Angeles rock band the Exies who is one of those the tribe wasn't to drop.

Herrera was raised in a small trailer on the reservation, and still recalls rushing outside with his mother to greet the "commodities truck" that rumbled into the area each day.

"Every tribal member got a box that contained a big block of cheese, flour, canned fruits and a box of dried milk," he said. "It was better than nothing."

Now, cushioned by casino income, Herrera said he has been able to concentrate on his music, and his mother has moved into a two-bedroom home.

"I get choked up when I go to the reservation and see how far it has come -- the casino has been such a blessing," he said. "This much is certain: I'm a Pechanga Indian. Nobody can take that away," he said.

According to the Pechanga Band constitution, full membership requires proof of lineal descent from an original Pechanga member, and a family line contained in the "official enrollment book of 1979."

The family line in that book, from which Miranda's heirs trace their lineal descent, reads, from left to right: Miranda-Flores-Apish.

In late 2002, however, individuals on the enrollment committee demanded additional documentation of lineage from members of the Miranda family on grounds Miranda had allegedly cut her ties to the tribe by accepting a homestead off the reservation. In their lawsuit, Pechanga members accused enrollment committee members of violating tribal law by arbitrarily demanding that they meet stricter membership standards than required by the Pechanga's constitution. They also point out that Miranda's Pechanga Band heritage was certified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

With more than 500 pages of legal documents to review, Superior Court Judge Charles D. Field temporarily barred the Pechanga Band from ousting the Miranda family members while he researched the legal arguments.

"I'm risking everything on the outcome; my family and their children and grandchildren could end up being Indians without a tribe," Gomez Sr. said.

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