Eight-member Augustine tribe opens casino


COACHELLA, Calif. ? The Augustine Band of Mission Indians opened a tribal casino in this Southern California desert town on July 18. This might not have been particularly newsworthy, given the numerous tribal casino openings since passage of Proposition 1A; but what brought national attention to the Augustine casino is that the tribe can only claim a single adult member.

Though the casino opening has raised eyebrows among gaming critics, California tribes and Indian organizations presented a seemingly unanimous front in support of the Augustine tribe.

Representatives from several Southern California tribes attended the opening, which included speeches and a bird song from Tony Andreas, a traditional Cahuilla singer who was raised on the Augustine reservation in the 1930s and '40s.

Agua Caliente chairman Richard Milanovich told the assembled crowd, "we will not see another tribe disappear."

Like the history of many other California Indians this strange but true story has its origins in the smallpox epidemics and massacres that were all too common in the early years of the Golden State. These maladies had reduced the Augustine Band to only 11 members by 1951.

By 1986, the tribe lost its sole remaining member when Roberta Augustine passed away that year. A few years after Roberta Augustine's death, her granddaughter, Maryann Martin, who was raised by her African-American grandmother, found out about her Augustine heritage and decided to move back onto the reservation with her three children. After her two brothers were killed by gang gunfire in Los Angeles, Martin acquired custody of their four children as well. The extended family currently comprises the entire Augustine tribe.

Though Martin has been shielded from the press by the public relations organization she hired, it has been reported in several California newspapers that Martin was not aware of her Indian heritage while growing up. However, Martin seemed to learn tribal business very quickly.

Paragon Gaming quickly entered the picture, and Augustine was one of the original tribes to sign a compact with Governor Davis after the passage of Proposition 1A. With 349 slot machines and only 10 card tables the casino itself is a much smaller operation than one that had originally been submitted after the compact.

"Now this place really has an opportunity," said Diana Bennett, president of Paragon Gaming, the Las Vegas-based company that developed the casino and plans to manage it. The casino will "prolong the legacy of the Augustine band," she said.

The $16-million casino was financed entirely by loans through Centaur, an Indiana finance company, Bennett said. The casino, which is targeting mainly Coachella Valley residents, may add an additional 351 slot machines in November.

By comparison, the $262-million Pechanga Resort & Casino near Temecula opened its expanded casino with 2,000 slot machines.

Paragon Gaming is awaiting approval from the National Indian Gaming Commission to operate as the casino's management company for five years, the maximum time California law allows a tribal casino to employ an outside firm.

Well known California gaming opponent Cheryl Schmitt, director of Stand Up for California, questions the right of so small a tribe to open a casino. Though she concedes that Martin has a right to occupy the land, she is skeptical about the ability of a single person to constitute a tribe.

"My problem with this project (Augustine) is that more gaming developers and lawyers will profit than Indians themselves," says Schmitt.

Chairman Milonovich counters that the outside developers are necessary to provide the expertise, which Martin lacks, to preserve the legacy of the tribe.

"The Augustine casino will also provide a couple hundred of community jobs to people who can then go home and bring food and clothes to their families," said Milanovich. "This is a benefit to the entire community of Coachella."

California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), a tribal gaming lobbying group, also defends the Augustine Band. CNIGA director Jacob Coin vehemently expressed indignation that the microscopic membership is even an issue. He says the issue is about sovereignty, a principle he feels needs to be defended no matter how small the tribe.

"I think that the whole premise of how small the tribe is, is absurd," Coin said. "It is like saying that Rhode Island shouldn't be a state because it is so small."

Gaming consultant and current Augustine tribal employee Michael Lombardi conceded that, on the face of it, it may seem strange to non-Indians and large tribes in other states to have so small a tribe run a casino operation.

However, Lombardi argued that the situation for tribes in California is different. Except for the far northern part of the state, tribes have always been small. With the death and disease that was brought upon them it is nearly miraculous to even have a single survivor of a given tribe, he said. This situation should be celebrated and not derided, he said.

"No one questions the legitimacy of the 200 Jewish survivors left in Berlin after World War II and their microscopic community," Lombardi said. "Why then should we not be thankful for the survivors of the American holocaust."

One of the attendees of the Augustine opening was Mary Belardo, chairwoman of the 350-plus member Torres-Martinez tribe. The Torres-Martinez band has been seeking a gaming compact for the past two years but has been rebuffed by Governor Davis who has refused to negotiate any new compacts.

Belardo said she was very happy for the Augustine tribe and was glad to see it open the casino.

"Even a tribe of one person is good because it meant that they somehow survived," said Belardo. "Along the way that tribe has suffered and it seems only right to be able to even find a single survivor, and one with economic options, to make sure that the past is made up and the tribe survives into the future."