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Quechan elders take fight against casino resort to Washington

WASHINGTON - In the teachings of their ancestors, the mountain named Avikwalal spoke to the Quechan people and warned them of dangers to come. Now, as construction continues on a $200 million casino resort that some in the Quechan nation hope will bring prosperity, others have taken their fight to save what they are convinced is sacred land to the halls of Congress.

;'We have always been told generation to generation to stay away from that area, to leave it alone. Part of my teachings is that it is a medicine mountain,'' said Priscilla Prettybird.

Prettybird flew from the Quechan reservation near Yuma, Ariz., in July to Washington, D.C., to include a demand for a halt to the resort on land now called Pilot Knob in the manifesto that was delivered to Rep. John Conyers by participants in the cross-country Longest Walk II.

''Building this resort is causing the destruction of our tribe,'' she said. ''In our teachings, it will harm us mentally and physically.''

A member of the group Pipa A'Kootz (''the elder ones''), Prettybird was arrested by Imperial County police for attempting to build a sweat lodge on the site when construction began two years ago.

Yolanda Escalanti and Elsie Rea, who drove their car as a support vehicle for the Longest Walk II from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., both supported the original Paradise Casino, built in 1996, which had provided jobs and new income for the tribe.

''When the new resort was proposed, the majority voted for it because our tribal president promised great sums of money: promises that were too big, impossible. And people thought the resort was going to be somewhere else,'' Escalanti said.

A referendum was held in which a majority of the tribe agreed to go forward with construction. But the Pipa A'Kootz have questioned the referendum procedure, saying it was presented as a ''done deal,'' and filed a complaint with the tribal council in which they allege a photograph was taken of bags that were left unsealed after the election, some voters were instructed to vote ''yes'' by election officials, and a group of elders was told they couldn't take a trip they'd been promised until they voted ''yes.''

The per capita that each person received from the original casino was recently cut, Rea said, as were medical and social service programs.

Though tribal President Michael Jackson has blamed the economy for the cuts, the Pipa A'Kootz and their supporters believe too much money has gone into constructing the new resort and have questioned the financial management and transparency of Jackson and

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his administration.

The casino management team, comprised of tribal and nontribal members, has had increasing influence on the tribe's affairs since the construction of the first casino, said tribal member Valerie O'Brian.

''Why are we building this casino with no money?'' she asked.

A petition of 150 signatures has been submitted to the tribal council to stop the construction.

About 1,000 of the 3,300 people in the Quechan tribe live on the reservation.

Rea, who works for the original Paradise Casino, said many are afraid to speak out against Jackson for fear of losing their jobs or not receiving money when they need it.

Bringing their complaint to Conyers was a ''last resort'' for opponents of the resort, said Escalanti.

''We went to the FBI, and they said, go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We went to the BIA, and they won't help us.''

Jackson said the controversy was a ''political issue'' brought about by a small group of people who had lost their election for tribal council, and that full financial reports had always been provided to the tribe.

In an e-mail, he wrote that ''extraordinary measures'' have been taken to ensure that no cultural sites, objects or artifacts were disturbed or affected as a result of the construction project, which was 50 percent completed.

''The Quechan Tribal Council would never build a building that will destroy our sacred sites and history that our ancestors left behind for future generations to learn by,'' he said. ''Our elders are excited about our new project and are in full support. The Quechan Nation is like any other tribe: building for the future to meet the unknown and prepare our next generation to have a better quality of life.''