Sovereignty is at heart of dispute between Soboba tribe, deputies

After leading the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians for nearly three decades, Robert Salgado is facing one of his greatest challenges: to try to set aside years of suspicion and trust the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

It hasn't been easy for him.

For the last three weeks, the two sides have met behind closed doors to try to prevent the kind of violence that led to the deaths of three tribal members in wild shootouts with deputies last month.

Salgado says the path for the Sheriff's Department is clear.

"I'm not talking about them bending over backwards for us, but the Justice Department has told them in these meetings that, as chairman, I am like the president of the United States," Salgado said. "We are a sovereign nation."

An agreement is expected as early as Wednesday.

"We are dotting the I's and crossing the Ts now," Salgado said, sitting at his kitchen table. "It will be a memorandum of understanding about how we communicate in the future."

Salgado still bristles at how deputies responded to last month's shootings, how he's been treated and some of what's been said about the tribe.

He's also unhappy with Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, who urged the tribe last week to boot him out as chairman and bring in "new blood."

"I don't think we will see an end of this unsettling loss of life on the reservation until there is a change of leadership," Stone said in a recent interview. "I have met with Salgado over the years, and our encounters have been professional; but I witness him in public and he reverts to this whole cowboys-and-Indians thing. We all understand what happened in the past, and we can't change it. We need a new generation looking forward."

Stone recently visited residents of a mobile home park near the reservation who complained of gunfire and bullets falling onto their roofs.

San Jacinto Mayor Jim Ayres and the City Council asked the tribe to withdraw an application to annex more than 500 acres of land for a hotel and casino complex until the violence is quelled.

But Salgado, 65, is having none of it.

No one, he says, has the right to tell Indians how to run their sovereign nations.

"Why didn't Stone come to me man to man and say that? And who is the mayor of San Jacinto to tell us what to do?" he asked. "Where were these people when we had nothing? Now that we are self-sufficient, it makes them fearful."

If those in the trailer park aren't happy, he said, they should "get back on Plymouth Rock and sail back to Europe."

Blunt talk comes naturally to Salgado, a born fighter. Despite being diabetic and walking with a cane, he still has the hulking frame of an ex-football star.

He kicked 140 points at Mount San Jacinto College, leading to tryouts with the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams, but he never made it to the pro ranks. He studied police science for a while but didn't like guns. "These are my guns," he said, flashing his still impressive biceps.

Salgado went on to teach drivers education at the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside and immersed himself in tribal politics.

His belief in sovereignty is unwavering. "And now here we are in 2008 and nothing has changed, we are still treated the same -- no respect," he said. "I'm not really surprised, but I am disappointed."

Much of the tension between Indians and authorities in California stems from the federal Public Law 280, which gives police in the state the power to enforce criminal laws on reservations.

"Public Law 280 was passed in 1953 without the tribes' consent as a way of moving them toward assimilation into the non-Indian legal system," said Professor Carole Goldberg, an Indian law expert at UCLA. "But the understanding of how justice should be administered may be different within tribal communities than within a county or city jurisdiction. You may then have difficulties working with the tribe."

The Soboba tribe signed a five-year contract with the Sheriff's Department in 2005 to patrol the reservation but canceled it a year later. Salgado said he wasn't happy with the service.

Deputies said they seized assault weapons and recovered $500,000 in stolen vehicles. Stone said the contract was canceled because authorities were arresting family members of top tribal leaders.

"If tribal members get arrested, then tribal members get arrested," he said. "The tribe needs to decide if they want to live with laws being enforced or laws being ignored."

Rosemary Morillo, a former tribal chairwoman, lost her 26-year-old son Eli last month in a gun battle with deputies. Another son, Peter Morillo, 27, was fatally shot in a 2002 confrontation with officers. She declined to comment for this story.

The other two tribal members killed last month, Joseph Arres, 36, and Tamara Hurtado, 29, were cousins of Salgado.

The chairman said he never shielded tribal members from the law. "I tell my people, 'I don't care who you are, I'm not going to put up with any' " nonsense, he said. "I can't push things under the rug or I wouldn't be the leader."

His objection to the handling of the May 12 shootout, in which tribal members fired assault rifles at deputies responding to a 911 call, was about the officers' decision to close the primary road into the reservation. Some members were stranded outside the gates, and the entire 6,000-acre reservation was treated as a crime scene, he said.

"We all want to cooperate, but when we are treated like gangsters, it's difficult," he said.

Steven Thetford, chief deputy of operations for the Sheriff's Department, said deputies' willingness even to enter a place where officers and helicopters were being shot at shows a serious commitment to Soboba residents.

"Everything we did was tactically sound. We are fortunate we did not lose an officer that night," he said. "It would have been very nice if, when ordered to drop weapons and surrender, they did."

Even if the tribe and the department strike a deal, it won't be the end of the story. The tribe's lawyer, veteran Indian rights attorney Jack Schwartz, is investigating whether deputies violated the tribe's civil rights.

"The Creator knows what happened. He knows who shot who," Salgado said. "When the dust settles, we'll see if it was a lawful shooting or murder. My gut tells me it was murder."