How one of America’s smallest Indian tribes bounced back from the brink of dying out
Amanda Vance, the 32-year-old tribal chair of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians, on a recent weekday settled in for a long afternoon of meetings in the double-wide trailers that make up the tribe’s government buildings.
Flanked by photos of her ancestors, including her late mother, Mary Ann Martin, Vance listened carefully to a presentation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose representatives outlined options to the tribal council for the reservation's water-treatment system ahead of the planned start of construction on permanent government offices.
Vance leads a tribe of 12 — seven adults and five children — that, 30 years ago, was in danger of vanishing after its enrollment dwindled to just one person by the mid-1980s. Her mother almost single-handedly rebuilt the tribe, transforming its barren 500 acres of land on the edge of the eastern Coachella Valley from a popular site for illegal dumping to an expanding reservation that employs more than 400 people through its gaming commission, tribal government and the popular Augustine Casino, a no-frills neighborhood spot frequented by farmworkers and snowbirds.
In a move toward self-sufficiency, Martin also led the planning of a 3-megawatt solar farm that opened in 2008, the first solar project of its kind by a Southern California tribe approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The renewable energy project helps power the 30,000-square-foot casino, which features 800 slot machines and eight card tables and sits at Avenue 54 and Van Buren Street.
In the coming months, the tribe will open a 33-acre organic farm called Temalpakh, the Cahuilla word for "From the Earth." Through a dedicated farmer's market and education building, the farm will showcase sustainable, organic farming practices and will provide vegetables and other crops for the community to enjoy.
For decades, the story of the Augustine tribe had been shrouded in myth and lore, attracting national attention in the 1990s when Martin, who once constituted the only adult member of the tribe, moved ahead with plans to open the casino.
Martin and her brothers grew up in Monrovia and lived with the black side of their family and had only a vague awareness of their Native heritage. But after learning more from family on their mother's side, they discovered their lineal connection to Captain Vee-Vee Augustine, the namesake of the Augustine Band, and enrolled in the tribe in 1988.
Tragedy struck a few years later. In 1994, brothers Gregory and Herbert were killed in a gang shooting in Banning, leaving only Martin, who had been chosen to serve as tribal chair by her siblings, to forge ahead with plans to develop the reservation, while raising her young children.
"It wasn’t long ago that our tribe was struggling for its very existence," Vance said at a luncheon last fall when the Augustines released their first-ever community impact report. Many of those gathered included local elected leaders, heads of nonprofit organizations and other guests. "There was very little of our tribe, our land or our legacy."
The oldest of Martin's children, Vance became tribal chair in 2016, about a year before her mother succumbed to cancer in January 2017. In carrying on the work her mother started, Vance has adopted her mother's characteristic grit and drive, but she has stepped into her own leadership style, carving out a far more public role than her mother, who was notoriously shy about publicity.
“People are starting to notice our small tribe and our accomplishments, which are not so small," Vance said in November. "We believe it is time for the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians to step out of the shadows and to tell our story."
The Augustines' history
In the mid-1800s, federal records showed a Native population numbering in the thousands across 22 villages, including Cahuilla Village, which would later be recognized as the Augustine reservation by Congress in 1891. Disease brought by white settlers — smallpox, tuberculosis and pneumonia — would soon decimate the Native population. By 1951, there were only 11 remaining members of the Augustine tribe.
The tribe's dwindling population during the 1900s was typical for Southern California tribes, said history professor Clifford Trafzer, Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside.
During the 1900s, "a lot of people left reservations," Trafzer said. "There wasn’t a whole lot of work, so the family might have moved during World War II for defense work in the Los Angeles area."
Other members also likely left, later marrying and losing their connections to their tribal lands, he said. "People probably left Augustine to go work elsewhere," he said. "They worked agriculture throughout the Coachella Valley and all the way to San Manuel to work in the citrus."
Roberta Augustine, who was born in 1937, was the last enrolled member before she died in 1987. She had four children, including Martin and her brothers.
When Augustine was a young woman, she lived with relatives on the Morongo Indian Reservation before eventually leaving with a man, with whom she had a child that was put up for adoption, according to a 1998 Riverside Press-Enterprise article.
Augustine later met Martin's father, Herman Grady John Martin, an African American man with whom she had three children, including Gregory and Herbert. The family, including Augustine, lived in Monrovia.
A month before she died, a 1987 article in The Desert Sun reported on a dispute involving a Monrovia social worker named Josephine Anderson and a man named Howard McZeal. Both claimed to be Augustine's conservator and sought information about her from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the article said.
Anderson told the newspaper that for months, with the help of an attorney, she looked for Augustine, hoping she could be tracked down to be served with a court subpoena in Anderson's bid to be appointed conservator.
Anderson died in 2002 and McZeal in 2008, according to public records.
Arlene Lacy, 73, a former real estate specialist at the bureau, said in a phone interview that she remembered the dispute over conservatorship, but could not recall Anderson's or McZeal's names specifically.
According to the 1987 article, Lacy did not release any information about Augustine to McZeal because he could not produce any documentation for his claim.
At stake potentially was 350 acres in the tribe's name and 160 acres of Augustine's personal property, according to the report. A leasing arrangement for a commercial shopping center could have earned her as much as $3.5 million over 20 years, the article said. Other tribes were also interested in potentially acquiring the land, the report said.
Without any other enrolled tribal members, the land could have reverted back to the federal government and "would not go to her children (Martin and her siblings) because they are not registered members of the tribe and their whereabouts are not immediately known," an unnamed bureau spokeswoman in Riverside said at the time.
The names of Anderson and McZeal do not ring familiar to members of the tribe today. Vance said Augustine was with family up until the time of her death. Because much of the tribe was born after 1986, they have no direct knowledge of some aspects of Augustine's history, making it difficult to verify some of her biographical details.
But what is true is that in 1988, armed with knowledge of their genealogy, Martin and her brothers re-established the tribe, forming the tribal council and setting in motion economic-development plans.
In this 2002 photo, Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians chair Mary Ann Martin , left, smiles as she chats with Bruce Kupcha during a private party at the then-new Augustine Casino in Coachella prior to opening to the public.
(Photo: Desert Sun file photo)
Mary Ann Martin's drive
It's hard to overstate the learning curve and challenges Martin faced in the decade that preceded the opening of the Augustine Casino in 2002.
Not only did Martin raise her young children — Amanda, Ronnie and William — following the deaths of her brothers, but she had to quickly learn about how to create and administer a tribal government, set up an economic-development plan and eventually, negotiate a gaming compact with Gov. Gray Davis' administration — all while coming to terms with her Native identity.
Because the tribe is of mixed Native and black heritage, Vance said she often was met with perplexed looks by non-Native people. “We're usually criticized for what we look like,” Vance said. “We don't look Native."
With the guidance of relatives in other tribes, Martin and her children began reconnecting with the history of their tribe and its customs and traditions. "We learned from elders (in other tribes)," Vance said. "It wasn't straight from our elders because my grandmother had passed away, so we kind of used the different tribes around us to get that information, that history and that knowledge."
In the beginning, Martin's to-do list would appear endless, but the first task would prove to be the most consequential: find trustworthy, experienced advisers.
Martin's position reflected the realities for many Southern California tribal leaders, UC Riverside's Trafzer said. "A lot of people had not gotten much education, not much in high school, maybe a high school degree, but not many college grads," he said of tribal leaders who would need to rely on consultants to develop casinos and other businesses on their reservations. "They might not have a degree in business or marketing."
Karen Kupcha, 70, was the Augustine's first — and, so far, only — tribal administrator. Kupcha, who over the years became Martin's confidant and one of her closest friends, most recalls Martin's fierce dedication to her family — and how receptive she was to mastering the intricacies of tribal politics and government.
"What an incredible woman," Kupcha recalled. "Here she is with three small children and she was open to learning. She was high energy and always on the go."
In the early years, she attended meetings with other tribes, as well as training in all aspects of government administration. She established rules, regulations, policies and other procedures. She also developed plans for education, health care and housing, but those programs would cost money and the reservation would need to start generating revenue.
At Kupcha's recommendation, Martin in the late 1990s hired a former housing official who served during Gov. Jerry Brown's first administration, Paul Turner. Now 73, the Harvard graduate had had a storied career, once working as deputy director of California's housing and urban development agency in the 1970s before later working in China. He first met Kupcha while working on an economic-development project with a tribe in Washington state.
At the tribe's behest, Turner conducted a market feasibility study, which ultimately recommended that a casino would be the most lucrative venture, even if it was an option Martin initially opposed because of concerns about how gambling can harm communities.
"Mary Ann and I were concerned about how it would affect the culture of the tribe," Turner recalled. "Some other tribes have had pretty rough histories with their casino-fueled cultures."
The political landscape was quickly shifting, too.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a flurry of activity as California tribes, among them the Agua Caliente, Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Pechanga tribe near Temecula, negotiated compacts with the state allowing Vegas-style casino games.
The compacts would require voter approval. The first attempt came in the form of Proposition 5, a 1998 initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters. But the victory was short-lived.
The California Supreme Court ruled the initiative unconstitutional, largely on technical terms because the ballot measure only changed state statute without repealing language from a 1984 constitutional amendment that banned "casinos of the type currently operating in Nevada and New Jersey."
Voters two years later approved Proposition 1A, a constitutional amendment that officially established the rights of tribes to operate slot machines and other forms of gaming. The Augustine compact with Davis' administration was signed in March 2000.
The early 2000s also brought a string of newspaper articles, and editorials — including one from The Desert Sun's Editorial Board — questioning whether a tribe with a single adult member should operate a casino.
In a 2002 series by Time magazine, authored by the award-winning investigative duo of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele about the spread of tribal gaming across the country, the opening anecdote centered on Martin.
"With 349 slot machines and 10 gaming tables, it's the fifth and by far the most modest casino in the Palm Springs area," the report said, adding almost ominously: "But it stands to make a lot of non-Indian investors — and one Indian adult — rich."
The Time series largely focused on problems plaguing tribal gambling, but critics said the piece reflected the anti-Native sentiment that underscored some of the opposition to tribes operating casinos.
"It was the most blatant kind of racism," Turner said.
(The Desert Sun, meanwhile, was more tempered and questioned the initial proposal by the tribe for a resort-style casino: "We believe Indian gaming and related tourism, hotel and entertainment ventures will be good for the vitality of the Coachella Valley tribes in particular and the valley economy in general. But this Augustine venture does have us scratching our heads.")
But the reality for the Augustines was much more modest, at least at first. They initially considered a resort-style casino, but chose to build a smaller casino with a $16 million loan. By comparison, the Morongo tribe's casino in Cabazon was a $250 million project that opened to great fanfare in 2004.
Kupcha and Turner said Martin wanted to be conservative about the size of the casino, leery of how it would perform financially. Because it had fewer than 350 slot machines, the tribe was eligible for a quarterly payment through the Indian Gaming Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, a pot of money paid into by tribal casinos that is distributed to tribes without casinos or those with fewer than 350 slot machines.
The scrutiny may have contributed to Martin's avoidance of the media. Aside from the 1998 Press-Enterprise profile of Martin, she did not often give comment, authorizing Kupcha to issue statements on behalf of the tribe.
Leanna Thomas, the assistant to the chair of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, recalled that Martin was "very, very private" and uncomfortable with the sudden pressures of becoming a tribal leader.
Thomas said Martin expressed relief at being able to feel at ease around her. “It’s like instant famehood,” Thomas said. “You go from being a regular person to now everyone wanting to shake your hand. You just want to be able to go to the movies or walk down the street. You just want to be yourself again — not in a negative way, she just missed being a normal person sometimes.”
Dean Mike, a former chair of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band, first met Martin at the opening of the Augustine Casino. Mike said he was impressed with Martin's judgment of character, which likely led to the successful launch of the tribe’s business venture.
"With gaming, you have to get the right people to advise you and get people who know what they’re doing," Mike said. "You have to have trusted people on your side to set all that up. To be a single person, with limited resources, she did quite well with the people she chose to help her get through that process."
He added: "It could have gone wrong."
The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians is preparing to open a 33-acre organic farm in the coming months. In this photo Francisco Vargas tend to date palms. The tribe's 3-megawatt solar farm is seen in the background.
(Photo: Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun)
The tribe’s future
In nearly 20 years, the Augustine Casino has become one of Coachella’s largest employers, leaving a significant economic footprint in the eastern Coachella Valley. Known for its inexpensive food — Sunday’s all-you-can-drink champagne brunch costs $15 — the casino’s parking lot is almost always full.
Still, the casino and its workforce are dwarfed by the operations of larger tribes like the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, who employ more than 3,000 people across their various businesses, including the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa, Hadley Fruit Orchards and a 36-pump gas station. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has more than 2,200 employees and two casinos — the Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa in Rancho Mirage and the Agua Caliente Casino in Palm Springs.
Because of tribal sovereignty, tribal casinos are not obligated to disclose casino revenue, but figures from the National Indian Gaming Commission show that in fiscal 2017, gross gaming revenue from tribal casinos totaled $32.4 billion from 494 gaming operations owned by 242 federally recognized tribes across the country.
The majority of casinos — 57% — make less than $25 million in revenue annually, according to National Indian Gaming Commission data.
General Manager Jef Bauer, a media-savvy casino executive who has worked in Nevada and Colorado, said the Augustine Casino may be small and lacking in amenities like a hotel or a golf course, but it has become a popular spot for locals.
“No one knew how successful it would be,” he said. “The secret sauce is we offer a very good value to the people who live on this end of the valley.”
He credits the tribe’s generosity to its employees as one of the reasons for the casino’s success. The casino offers a company-matched 401(k) retirement plan, as well as up to six weeks of paid time off for employees who have been employed for at least six years.
The casino also raised the minimum wage for its non-tipped front-line employees to $13 per hour last year, two years ahead of California’s phased-in minimum-wage increases.
That translates to high employee retention; nearly a quarter of the workforce has been with the casino for at least 10 years. The average length of service is six years.
With casinos under pressure to attract younger patrons, the tribe has also recently expanded into skills-based games through its majority stake in Synergy Blue, a Palm Desert maker of arcade-style slot machines aimed at millennials. Some of those games are already featured at the Augustine Casino, but they hope to expand outside of California. The Nevada Gaming Commission in March approved Synergy Blue and the tribe for a manufacturing and distribution license.
With the casino thriving, Vance is now turning her attention to finishing the work her mother started — and expanding on it. Vance, who grew up on the reservation with her siblings living in a trailer, recalls how busy her mother was as she ran the tribal operations, negotiated the gaming compact with the state and launched the solar farm project.
The post of tribal chair was not a position she envisioned for herself a few years ago, when she was attending college and raising her two oldest children.
"I wanted to go into some type of psychology," she said. "Not that I didn't love where I came from, but I wanted to do my own thing and then bring it into the tribe."
Martin, who in 2015 appeared to be in remission from cancer, became sick again, forcing the tribe to figure out the succession plans to allow Martin to focus on her health. Vance first served as vice-chair before becoming tribal chair in 2016, when she was 29.
The final months were grueling. "I was not only running the government, and making sure my mom was going to her appointments — I was pregnant with my third child and still going to school."
Vance oversaw the 2016 renovation of the casino. Rather than subject patrons to months of construction, the casino closed for 25 days and reopened with a more contemporary design.
Planning for the next phase
Now, with the farm just months away from opening, Vance is planning construction on permanent office buildings for the casino’s operations and tribal government.
Eventually, plans include the construction of the reservation's own wastewater-treatment plant, which would make the tribe even more self-sufficient. The effort could potentially include help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which offered assistance to the tribe during a recent council meeting.
The tribe's seven adult members are young, ranging from 26 to 33. Vance's siblings Ronnie and William are 29 and 27, respectively. Her cousins — Tiquan, 33, Victoria, 33, and Geramy Martin, 26 — are her uncle Gregory's children; Ashley Manning, 30, is her uncle Herbert's only child.
William, who serves as tribal vice chair and treasurer, is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara, where he majored in sociology. He is studying for a second bachelor's degree in philosophy, with a focus in law, through an online program offered by Arizona State University. Victoria, who lives in Indio, is studying for a communications degree from the University of Phoenix.
Vance, whose term expires in 2022, said she hopes others would eventually take the helm. The growing tribe will hold its first-ever election to choose their next chair.
"My goal has always been when I started is educating all the members on what goes on here, so that no matter who is running it, we have the same agenda," she said.
Just as Martin was motivated to secure a better future for her young children, Vance, too, is driven by the desire to sow the seeds for a sustainable future for her family, which will soon grow by a third.
Vance is expecting triplets later this summer and her cousin will soon welcome a new baby, which would bring the tribe's total enrollment to 16.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Desert Sun. It was posted on May 2, 2019 by Ricardo Lopez.