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2 Tiny Tribes Lost Their Bet

A casino deal that that could have ended their poverty was sidelined, in part by Native Americans who already operate gambling resorts.

October 15, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

MORONGO INDIAN RESERVATION — She arrived here 66 years ago as a bride, a white scarf over her head, her prim dress buttoned high under her chin. Today, her smile is still easy, her mind still sharp, her tongue as quick as those that flicker from the mouths of rattlesnakes that burrow into the desert outside her home.

But Catherine Siva Saubel is 86 now, a widow with white, wispy hair and deep furrows in her cheeks. And she fears that she may die a relic. Not just a relic of a vanishing Native American culture, a fate that she has long accepted. But a relic of a time when Native Americans had not yet found their path out of poverty: the casino.

In recent weeks, the Legislature abruptly turned its back on a series of projects that would have significantly expanded gambling in California. For Native American bands accustomed to getting their way in the Capitol, it was a flurry of inactivity; six tribes' proposals failed amid infighting and partisan rancor.

Saubel's small and scattered tribe -- she is chairwoman of the Los Coyotes band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians -- was lost in the dust cloud.

With the backing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Los Coyotes band had hoped to team up with another small tribe, the Big Lagoon Rancheria band of Humboldt County, to build a $160-million casino-resort complex not on reservation land but in Barstow. But those plans are on hold at least until the Legislature's 2007 session and are not a sure bet.

For that, Saubel blames not the usual anti-gambling interests but her fellow Native Americans. The Los Coyotes-Big Lagoon proposal failed after avid and costly lobbying by larger Indian bands, all of whom already operate casinos.

Saubel readily acknowledges that she is trapped by contradiction. She believes the wealth generated by casinos, which benefits about 9% of California's Native Americans, has contributed to the demise of Indian culture. Yet she is fighting to build a casino of her own because she sees it as her tribe's only hope for economic salvation.

"These people call themselves Indians. They don't know anything about the Indian culture," she said on a recent morning in her home on the Morongo Indian Reservation. "What we have, we have always shared. We respected one another. But not anymore. Money has corrupted them all."

'I Just Knew'

Saubel was born in 1920, one of 11 siblings, on the 29,000-acre Los Coyotes reservation in a rugged patch of San Diego County. Her family moved to Palm Springs when she was 4 because of her father's respiratory condition; it was the first time she had seen a white person.

When she was 18, she met Mariano Saubel at a ceremony honoring the dead. She can still picture him as he looked that night, standing stoutly on top of a log next to a fire, his arms folded across his chest.

"I was standing with my friend," she recalled. "I said: 'That man is going to be my husband.' She said: 'Do you know him?' I said: 'No. I've never seen him before.' I just knew."

He took her to live on his family land on the Morongo reservation, between Banning and Cabazon. They had one son, Allen, and Mariano Saubel became a prominent voice in the community, serving on the Morongo council. But theirs was not a life of luxury; two homes burned to the ground over the years, and they were living in a trailer when Mariano Saubel died in 1985.

Catherine Saubel became a pioneer and a fixture in the Native American community. She is an expert on the history and culture of Cahuilla Indians and has collaborated with scholars on books and articles. (Cahuillas are a broad Native American group that includes a number of bands, including the Morongo and Los Coyotes.)

Saubel has lectured around the world about their history, customs and language, testified before Congress and served on historic preservation commissions. In 1964, she helped found the Morongo reservation's Malki Museum, whose collection includes pottery, hunting materials and basketry. A linguist still visits with her every two weeks in an effort to record and preserve the Cahuilla language.

All along, she has shouldered a quiet sense of outrage, dating to the days when she was prohibited from speaking her native language at grammar school. But she has never felt so cynical -- or so alone -- as she does today, she said.

Among those opposing the casino proposal was the Morongo band of Mission Indians, who have been her hosts for more than six decades and who once asked her to preside over the formal blessing of their first bingo hall. That humble facility has since been supplanted by the 27-story, $250-million Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, one of the largest tribal casinos in the nation.

"They had some nerve," Saubel said. "They were poor too, not that long ago."

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