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Morongo Thanksgiving for fire victims

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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - Thanksgiving is traditionally held on the fourth Thursday in November, but the Morongo tribe has been marking the occasion all month.

Though the tribe traditionally donates turkeys and holds an annual Thanksgiving dinner for needy families, Morongo's charitable giving took an unexpected twist this year because of a natural disaster.

Since this year's Southern California wildfires forced so many to evacuate their homes, Morongo responded by sending a crew to the San Bernardino airplane hangar that served as a Red Cross evacuation center and served more than 12,000 meals to people who were forced to flee the conflagration.

"It was really emotional," says Morongo tribal council member Ann Sutton. "Many of these people didn't know if their homes were still standing or when they could go home; we saw several people being informed that they had lost everything."

Sutton, who heads the tribe's Charitable Outreach Committee, observed that many families who had lost their houses had all their belongings with them at

the hangar.

For the past decade and a half the tribe has made a yearly donation of turkeys to needy families, including 10,000 last year and the tribe thought it was a natural fit to step in after the wildfires.

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"Indian people know what it means to lose one's home. Sharing this gift of food, from our Indian family to yours, is part of our tradition, extending back to the first Thanksgiving," said Morongo Chairman Maurice Lyons in a press release.

The tribe is still making its annual turkey donations and will be giving away 3,000 of the big birds this year to 37 different charities including the American Cancer Society and several area schools. Sutton said her committee, which consists of what she described as 10 to 20 ladies who meet once a month and decide to which charities to give money.

The turkey donation is a three-day event requiring 50 tribal employees and volunteers. The crew packages the turkeys, weighing an average of 24 pounds for shipment. One of the volunteers, Elissa Gough, who works as an analyst for the tribal administration said the work is hard but rewarding.

"There's really a great sense of camaraderie," Gough said. "You work with people all the time, but you really see them in a different light when you work together for something like this."

Perhaps most significantly, the tribe held a special Thanksgiving dinner for members of the Torres-Martinez tribe on Nov. 20. A total of 85 complete meals will be doled out to Torres-Martinez tribal members.

Sutton says that the two tribes have a "close relationship." Torres-Martinez is one of the poorest tribes in the state and though they recently inked their own gaming deal with the state, it will still at least several months before the tribe sees any kind of significant revenue from the deal.

Morongo, on the other hand is one of the wealthiest of the gaming tribes and operates a spate of businesses along Interstate 10, the main road connecting Los Angeles to Palm Springs. This past year Sutton said they have donated more than $2 million to charity, including a $1 million payment to the Red Cross in wake of the wildfire disaster, in which Morongo was untouched.