BANNING, Calif. - With nearly as much glitz and fanfare as an academy award
show, the Morongo tribe held a "Celebration of Sovereignty" event on the
eve of the tribe's $250 million casino expansion.
The number of A-list celebrities and politicians that came to pay homage to
the tribe was staggering. A small backstage room before the main event was
crowded with such luminaries as, among others, former California Gov. Gray
Davis, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, and
Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City.
The one notable absence from the proceedings was Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, who was invited but did not come, though the audience was
treated to a comedy routine from Schwarzenegger friend and "Tonight Show"
host Jay Leno. Leno along with legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana gave
performances during the main ceremony while a separate event the following
night featured popular rhythm and blues band Destiny's Child.
The purpose of the event was to present Santana a resolution from the
California legislature for his charitable work as well as honor former Gov.
"I've always considered Gray Davis my friend," said Morongo Chairman
Maurice Lyons who went on to say that he could always call Davis directly
when the former governor was in office. Davis, for his part, nodded
In fact, during the festivities Lyons took the stage and was the master of
ceremonies, ably rubbing shoulders with the acts that he introduced.
The mix of Democrats, Republicans and rock and rollers in a single, small
room illustrated the meteoric rise of the 1,000-plus member Morongo tribe.
Not long ago the tribe that was destitute and powerless on the edge of the
Southern California desert is now one of the largest employers in Riverside
County and a player in state politics.
The tribe does not seem shy about its rising fortunes. Among the new perks
at Morongo are several N9NE Group restaurants and lounges which include a
steak house, a separate Mediterranean-style restaurant and a penthouse
The N9NE Group was co-founded by Michael Morton, whose father Arnie started
the high-end Morton's Steak House restaurants. The new restaurants are
higher end and contemporary in styling.
As a prelude to the evening's festivities, held on a stage with three
movable giant-screen televisions, there was a short, emotional documentary
on the history of the tribe complete with images of ramshackle structures
and tribal members of the early 20th century toiling in the fields.
A drive around the reservation shows that the tribe has come a long way
since those days of paucity. Morongo lies in a notch between two impressive
mountain ranges, the San Gabriels and the San Jacinctos whose snowcapped
coolness provides a stark contrast to the dry desert below.
In a similar study of contrasts, the Morongo reservation itself is in flux.
The 25-story casino/hotel now looms large over the notch known as El Cajon
Pass giving the area a distinctive signature building. Near the casino is a
gas station, a few chain restaurants and a large string of premium outlet
stores; all owned by the tribe.
Behind the casino is a large, environmentally-friendly power generation
facility that powers the facility.
Though there are still some forlorn residences on the reservation, the rate
of economic expansion is apparent here too as new homes are sprouting up
and shiny new tribal buildings stand out on the desert landscape.
Though new residences are also sprouting up occasionally there is still is
a reminder of the not-so-distant past when the tribe lived just to survive.
Mary Ann Andreas, former chairwoman of the tribe told a story a few years
ago at one of the tribe's now annual Thanksgiving charity events and spoke
of memories from her childhood when her family had received similar
Those days are fading fast at Morongo as the tribe plunges headlong into
state politics and power. The tribe also faces new challenges despite their
gains. Whereas subsistence and the challenges of getting food on the table
used to be their problems, now the tribe is fighting the state and Gov.
Schwarzenegger, for the right to operate video lottery terminals.
Earlier this year, the tribe gave $3.5 million dollars in support of
Proposition 70, which would have required tribes to pay the corporate rate
of 8.84 percent to the state in exchange for being allowed to expand as far
as the market would allow.
However, the tribe lost that gamble and is currently capped at 2,000 gaming
machines leading to the dispute with the state over the video lottery
terminals that the tribe is claiming are different than slot machines.
Andreas embodies the changes within her tribe. She ran this year for the
state legislature. Though her bid was unsuccessful, she was the first
American Indian woman to run for such a post. She has addressed the
Democratic National Convention and dined with former Pres. Bill Clinton.
It was largely during Andreas' tenure that the tribe saw its fortunate turn
and during the grand ceremony she was singled out for recognition.