For thousands of years, Gabrielino Indians say, they have lived in the Los Angeles Basin. They survived the Spanish missions, Mexican settlers and white developers.
Now, a tribe that nearly disappeared is mired in a legal battle over who has the right to control its destiny -- and what role gambling might play in its future.
For six years, a recently organized group of Gabrielinos has worked with Santa Monica lawyer Jonathan Stein, who convinced them he could do what many said was impossible: win them the right to open a casino in the heart of the Los Angeles Basin. Such a casino, according to proponents, could generate more than $1 billion a year.
They made some progress, but the partnership has collapsed in acrimony and lawsuits.
The Gabrielinos say they have been taken advantage of. Stein contends it is he who has been victimized -- by tribal members who spurned him after he got investors to give them millions of dollars to pursue their long-shot quest for gaming rights.
Watching the spectacle from the sidelines, other Native Americans in Los Angeles say they are aghast.
The whole affair "is just giving legitimate tribes a bad name," said Ron Andrade, director of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission, who said he has tangled with Stein in the past. "It's just hurting all our image."
There are an estimated 2,000 Gabrielinos in Southern California. Their ancestors are buried at local missions, and the tribe is recognized by the state. The tribe in modern times has not had its own land, however. At the end of the 19th century, the Gabrielinos, through intermarriage, had melded into local Mexican barrios and were thought to be extinct.
In recent years, they have been trying to reconstruct their history, revive dances and folklore and win federal recognition. Complicating their efforts have been divisions among Gabrielino descendants and a lack of documentation on the tribe's culture.
The current legal saga began six years ago over dinner in Westwood.
Stein, a Harvard- and University of Pennsylvania-educated lawyer who had been active in the 1998 voter initiative that legalized Indian gaming in California, met with Sam Dunlap, a Gabrielino who said he wanted to see his tribe get a piece of the action.
Most people had told Dunlap to forget his slot machine fantasies. The dozens of Indian casinos that have sprouted in California are on federally recognized Indian land, something the Gabrielinos do not have.
But at that first dinner and at another in Manhattan Beach a short while later, Stein convinced Dunlap that it could be done, either by pursuing federal recognition for the Gabrielinos or by getting state lawmakers to give the go-ahead without it.
Stein pledged to work to make it happen for 10% of any future casino profits, according to court papers.
Dunlap said he enthusiastically agreed. In February 2001, according to court papers, they signed a development agreement.
Almost immediately, the two clashed with the Gabrielino organization in San Gabriel, which has spent decades researching tribal history.
"We are the legitimate tribe," said Anthony Morales, tribal chairman of the Gabrielino/Tongva Band of Mission Indians of San Gabriel. "They are the splinter group."
Dunlap said he initially approached Morales' group about working with Stein.
"It didn't go very well," Dunlap said. Less than 30 minutes into the meeting, several people became so offended they left.
But Dunlap, who complained that Morales' group showed preference to his own family, was unwilling to give up.
Instead, he and Stein essentially formed their own group, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council.
They started small but then began reaching out to hundreds of other Gabrielinos throughout Southern California.
Three years ago, the two men and several other members of the new tribal council sued Morales' band, seeking membership records and other historical and genealogical documents that tribal members had amassed, which they thought could be useful in making the case for federal recognition.
The lawsuit accused Morales of wrongly excluding Dunlap and others from a corporation the tribe had formed. It also accused Morales of trying to "preempt potentially lucrative gaming rights" for his own family.
Morales, who at the time said he had no interest in gaming, accused Stein of trying to "steal our identity."
The suit was tossed out of court in 2004.
After that, Stein began urging state lawmakers to allow the Gabrielinos to have a casino without federal recognition. The council hired former state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, now a lobbyist, to represent the tribe in Sacramento.
Stein wrote an article arguing that gaming should be allowed without federal recognition; it was published this year in the University of San Francisco Law Review.
And he paid two former California Supreme Court judges, Cruz Reynoso and Armand Arabian, to review some of the legal questions. Both agreed that there were possibilities.