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California: To be Indian, or not to be

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FRESNO, Calif. - California Indians have always viewed themselves as unique. It should then come as no surprise that their problems are unique as well.

While American Indians in other parts of the country switch tribal allegiance to gain from gaming, many California Indian tribes are embroiled in deep divisions over the basic question of who is and who is not a tribal member.

While enrollment problems may not be unique to California Indians, the circumstances are. When numbers of California tribes were terminated by Congress in the 1950s, many tribal members left ancestral homelands. Without federal dollars many could not survive. When tribes were reinstated members who had stuck it out through lean, hard years resented those who came back to seek tribal membership.

This is a two-fold problem. Disenfranchised tribal members say they are being unfairly, excluded from what is legitimately theirs. They see the tribal councils as greedy, fat cats trying to hoard all of the gaming revenues for themselves and their families. The tribal councils see the latecomers as people who left during hard times and thus without the same rights as those who endured the years of hardship on the ancestral homelands.

Since the lucrative gaming industry has taken root on many California reservations and rancherias, tribal officials have been flooded with requests from folks seeking to gain membership. Adding to the complication is that many of those seeking membership are relatives of council members, some are descendants of tribal leaders.

Gaming may not be the only problem. Though California may have the largest American Indian population, many tribes are small bands comprised of only a few families. Internal and often petty family squabbles can contribute to an atmosphere of divisiveness.

"There's more here than meets the eye," says Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento-based attorney for several tribes. "It's not a matter of right or wrong. Tribes have constitutions that determine qualifications for membership that take into account more than bloodlines. These are their rules, which are possibly less than ideal, but they have the right to make them."

Lost in all the hoopla about American Indian gaming in California are some hard statistics.

The San Francisco Chronicle cited California Research Bureau statistics reporting that only 13 percent or 40,000 of California's 300,000 American Indians will see any direct benefit of gaming. There are 41 tribes which operate casinos and their total membership numbers some 18,000. There are 66 non-gaming tribes that will receive $1.1 million annually to benefit an additional 22,000 people.

The article goes on to state that the California Indian gaming industry now generates about $1.4 billion a year and is expected to grow to $4.4 billion in the next four years.

What that survey does not consider is the fact a majority of the 300,000 American Indians in California come from out-of-state tribes with no land holdings in California and who are thus ineligible for gaming establishments.

The situation at the Table Mountain Rancheria in Fresno County is desperate with120 people who claimed they were disenrolled, if not in actual fact by rumor and innuendo.

Laura Wass, director of the American Indian Movement in Fresno, says she became involved in the Table Mountain situation about two years ago at the request of tribal members who feared their own ouster. She has led a movement of 125 tribal members to recall five council members and claims the Table Mountain council has broken their constitution. She also says all her group wanted was proof from the Table Mountain tribal government that these were not members.

Wass points out that the League of Women Voters is supervising the recall election.

"We want to make sure that this election is legitimate in every way," Wass says.

"Everyone is always screaming about sovereignty. Well this is a group that is exercising that sovereignty."

Wass also says that all disenfranchised members of the Table Mountain Rancheria have to prove is that they are descended from a 1933 tribal roll. She says her group has turned away many who could not provide proof or whose claims were tenuous.

Table Mountain Rancheria tribal administrator Bob Pinel says he does not have much information on the matter at this time. Calls to Al Alarcon, a tribal consultant, were not returned. He has said in an article in the Fresno Bee that the recall movement has as much validity as a group of citizens in Fresno gathering in that city and voting themselves mayor and city council.

What Alarcon does not mention is that proportionately this would be akin to three-fourths or more than 250,000 Fresno citizens gathering and calling for a recall, since Wass says there are only 60 voting members at Table Mountain.

Lost in political posturing are some of the disenfranchised members themselves.

Larry Lewis, 57, whose father was a 20-year tribal chairman in the 1950s, says he cannot even return to Table Mountain to visit. He lives with his sister and is on disability.

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Lewis says he was disenrolled in the 1960s though he is not quite sure why. He says that every time he tried to go home he was denied. He said he had to leave Table Mountain originally to find work.

"I think that there's always something to fight about," Lewis says. "It used to be fights over land, now it's casino money. Always something."

Joe Casillas lost his tribal status when he and his siblings were taken out of Table Mountain as children and declared wards of the state. His wife, Pauline, has cancer and only receives basic chemotherapy from public health insurance.

"Things would be very different for us if we had access to the tribal resources. Maybe I could get better care," Pauline says.

There is a similar situation at the Berry Creek Rancheria near Oroville. Emetta Bowmer claims she and 30 relatives are going to be disenrolled in the next month or so. Bowmer has been a member of the Berry Creek Tyme Maidu since 1987, a year before gaming was allowed in California. She said she feels she and her family were used as a head count for federal dollars.

After Berry Creek opened a casino Bowmer said she feels she and her family were no longer needed and are being squeezed out so remaining members will get a larger share of gaming revenue.

Bowmer says she fears for her 88-year old mother, Maime Lucado, who would stand to lose her house if they are disenrolled. Only tribal members are allowed to live on the Rancheria. Lucado says that she was born on Berry Creek tribal lands near the old tribal roundhouse.

"They can't find my mother's name in some old papers because she was away at mission school," Lucado says. "But there is a census from 1928 that they'd done up here (Berry Creek) that had both my mother and me on the rolls."

Bowmer says she and her family were given 30 days to provide the proper documentation for membership and were told they had to prove relation to Dick Harry, a tribal member from the 1850s. She also says the enrollment clerk had told her that two or three other families are in danger of losing tribal status.

In a conference call to Berry Creek tribal leaders, Debbie Armos, vice chairwoman, Eleanor Bolton, enrollment committee chairwoman, and Stephanie Allen of the tribal council say no one has been disenrolled. They say that in 1992 the tribe had decided to get genealogical information on all tribal members so they could issue blood quantum cards and keep their records straight.

They say the enrollment clerk at that time found a discrepancy and that is what has called these memberships into question. Armos says members in question will have the right to vote on their membership along with all 278 voting members of the tribe. That vote would likely take place at an Aug. 6 meeting, she said.

Bowmer says the tribal council had never requested the documentation in 1992 and the whole development is very recent. "They never asked us for nothing."

Jane Wyatt, a disenrolled member of the Picayune Rancheria in Madera County, says she was disenrolled when a rival tribal faction came in and disenrolled 10 tribal members. She says they were accused of a number of things, including embezzlement, a charge Wyatt flatly denies.

Wyatt says Picayune dropped an additional 500 people from the tribal rolls and names gaming and larger per capita checks for those who remain as the impetus for the action.

Wyatt said she feels vindicated because, she claims, Picayune is trying to make a deal with disenfranchised members over trust land, a move Wyatt said will force them to be re-recognized.

Calls to the Picayune Rancheria - facing environmental problems in the construction of the casino- were not returned.

The individual stories go on and on.

The tribal government officer at the BIA office in Albuquerque, N.M., who wants to remain anonymous, says the enrollment question is widespread. She cannot speak for all tribes but says there is legitimacy to concerns of tribal leaders when it comes to people who smell casino money rushing to join tribal ranks.

She added there is recourse for tribal members who feel they have been unfairly treated, pointing to the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. Because of tribal sovereignty, many of the cases are referred to tribal courts. If this does not work, the official says the individuals can go to the FBI's civil rights division.

"There are literally hundreds of different reasons that a tribe will do what it does. There is no set, single problem. Each tribe's problems are unique," the BIA officer says.

This is not much solace for the disenfranchised. For now Larry Lewis says there is not much that he can do. "There's always hope. I pray about it every day."