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Clan says tribe dealt it a bad hand

A family finds itself cut off from the Pechanga group and its casino wealth despite long ties to the reservation.

September 09, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

TEMECULA, CALIF. — When Pechanga Indian leaders hired anthropologist John Johnson in 2004, they had one request: find out if the Madariaga clan were truly members of the tribe.

Generations of them had grown up on the reservation. Family patriarch Lawrence Madariaga, 90, had built his home there, erected the local clinic, served on tribal committees and lived on Hunter Lane, named after his great-grandmother, Paulina Hunter. He even received a lifetime achievement award from the tribe.

That didn't quiet suspicions among some who felt that family members were frauds unfairly pocketing $20,000 each in monthly checks from casino profits.

Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and an expert on Luiseño Indian genealogy, spent months poring over documents and concluded that the family was indeed descended from Hunter. And based on the evidence, he said he was 90% certain she was a Temecula Indian from the Pechanga reservation. Members must show proof of lineal descent from an original tribal ancestor.

Johnson presented his findings to the tribal enrollment committee, explained what it meant and then watched it all be ignored.

Last year the committee voted out the family -- a total of 90 adults and about 50 children.

The monthly checks stopped. The healthcare stopped. The children were forced from the tribal school. Family members were able to keep their homes on the land allotted to Paulina Hunter in 1897 but were restricted as to where they could go on the reservation.

Since their ouster, family members say, payments to remaining members are now about $30,000 a month.

Lawsuit filed

In May, they filed a lawsuit against tribal leaders, including Mark Macarro, the chairman, demanding to be reinstated. They said their lineage was better documented than most and that their ancestor was one of the original residents of the reservation.

The case is now pending in federal court in Los Angeles.

Macarro did not respond to interview requests, but in a statement on the tribe's website he denied that casino money played a part in the disenrollments. He said tribes need the ability to "correct past errors and protect the integrity of their citizenry."

"The responsibility of determining who is and is not a citizen of the tribe falls squarely on Indian tribes," he said.

The same argument has been used across the nation as tribes, nearly all with casinos, have expelled thousands of members.

Tribes in New York, Rhode Island and Nevada have kicked out members. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma voted this year to disenroll about 2,800 members known as "Freedmen," who were either black or racially mixed.

But the purging has been most intense among California gaming tribes, which have ejected nearly 3,000 from tribal rolls since 1999, according to activists and experts who track the issue.

Tribal leaders say they are redressing past mistakes or ridding themselves of opportunists looking to cash in on casino wealth. Those tossed out say petty internal politics fueled by greed are driving the expulsions -- the fewer members, the greater the cut of gaming profits for those remaining.

Before the Madariagas, Pechanga threw out some 200 members of the Miranda family, despite reams of documents they presented tracing their lineage to Pablo Apis, a Pechanga chief. The tribe is now estimated to have jettisoned nearly a fourth of its membership, leaving about 1,370.

John Gomez Jr., one of the Mirandas ejected in 2004, sued, but a federal court in Riverside ruled that membership was a tribal matter. The California and U.S. Supreme Courts declined to hear the case.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it can't intervene on membership issues unless a tribe has an agreement with it to play such a role.

In the end, tribal sovereignty trumps all.

"There is no oversight to the process; they can violate tribal law or federal law or the Indian Civil Rights Act and there is no recourse," Gomez said.

Among California tribes, none has kicked out more people than the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians near Fresno. Once 1,200 strong, the tribe has booted about 600 members and is looking at 200 or 300 more, according to Indian activists opposed to the practice.

Tribal sovereignty

"Anyone who says this is about money should take a close look at the tribe's constitution and eligibility requirements instead of making quick judgments based on media stories," said Mark Levitan, lawyer for the Chukchansi. "The fundamental aspect of respecting tribal sovereignty is respecting its decision as it pertains to enrollment."

Laura Wass, who heads the American Indian Movement's Fresno office, dismisses that defense.

"Sovereignty is nothing but a facade; otherwise, you wouldn't need approval for a casino or have your programs ratified by the federal government," she said. "The only thing they don't need approval for is membership."

Wass has sat in on enrollment hearings for Chukchansi members.

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