Gaming Profits Stir Fights Over Tribal Membership
The massive profits generated by California’s Indian casinos are prompting bitter infighting among Native Americans over who qualifies to reap the riches.
With the expected passage next week of Proposition 1A--the ballot measure that would legalize Indian casinos and grant tribes the exclusive right to operate lucrative, Nevada-style slot machines--the stakes of membership in gaming tribes have never been greater.
In San Diego, a splinter group of Indians is arguing in court that it was wrongly disenfranchised from two related tribal bands that today are flush with casino revenue.
Near Fresno, some Indians--including the granddaughter of a former tribal chairman--say they were cut out of a now-wealthy gambling tribe with the stroke of a pen and can’t get back in.
And then there’s the squabble between Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro, the main television spokesman for the Yes on 1A campaign, and one of his first cousins, who says she was unfairly dropped as a tribal member and denied reinstatement.
The woman, Arlene D. Macarro, was removed from the Pechanga membership rolls in 1979 when members--including people who indisputably shared Pechanga blood--were told to formally reapply for membership.
The traditional system for gaining membership--in which tribal elders would interview Indians who claimed Pechanga ties--was changed in 1979 to a formalized process in which applicants had to prove blood ties--no matter how thin--to Pechanga ancestors identified either in the 1940 census or through earlier records.
Arlene Macarro, who is one-quarter Pechanga Indian, says she didn’t learn she had lost her tribal membership until she traveled two years ago to the Temecula reservation to visit her grandfather’s grave and was denied entry by security guards.
Since then, she said, she has been unsuccessful in reclaiming her tribal membership.
The reason, says Mark Macarro: After casino operations began, the tribe was so inundated with membership applications that it has suspended acceptance of additional members. His cousin, Macarro said, will have to wait at least another year, when the moratorium may be lifted, to rejoin the tribe.
Throughout California and the nation, formal tribal membership was not much of an issue before the advent of casinos, because, in times of poverty and struggle, there were few benefits. That has changed dramatically.
“There may have been two or three generations [of Indians] who didn’t care a whit about their relationship with the [tribal] community--until they read in the newspaper that there’s now money available,” said Howard Dickstein, an attorney who represents several tribes. “The tribes have little or no time for these wannabe members who weren’t there when the going was tough.”
About 250,000 people living in California claim Native American blood, according to the California Research Bureau, an arm of the State Library.
About 18,000 Indians belong to the 41 tribes that now operate or have recently run casinos, according to the state’s figures.
Most tribes determine membership by the applicant’s percentage of tribal blood: one-quarter, one-eighth or even less in some cases. But blood ties do not necessarily guarantee admission. Some tribes exclude certain blood relatives if they have not participated in tribal affairs, Dickstein said.
Multiple federal court decisions have affirmed that tribal membership criteria are “pretty much up to the discretion of the tribe,” said Dorson Zunie, a tribal operations officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Sacramento.
Money, Services Flow to Members
Tribal membership allows access to various social, health, housing and education programs funded by casino profits. Moreover, at the discretion of tribal councils, casino proceeds are disbursed to individual tribal members as profit-sharing income.
Most tribes do not disclose how much money is shared directly with members. Some--including Pechanga--say individual disbursements are minimal. However, some California Indians have become wealthy, and palatial homes now dot the landscapes of once barren reservations.
Individual tribes are not compelled to disclose how much money their casinos make. But in 1997 they collectively estimated their statewide gross revenue at about $1.4 billion--or about $77,800 per gambling tribal member. If Proposition 1A passes, the total revenue generated by 52 tribes that have casinos or are likely to open casinos is expected to grow to $4.7 billion, according to a recent analysis for the state.
Under the casino agreements that would take effect if Proposition 1A passes, each federally recognized tribe in California that does not offer reservation gambling will receive $1.1 million a year from a trust funded by the gaming tribes.
Before it had a casino, the Pechanga tribe received 15 to 30 applications a year from people seeking tribal enrollment, Mark Macarro said.
In 1995, after its casino opened, 60 people applied for membership. The following year 160 applied and, in 1997, the tribe was overwhelmed with 430 applications.
With about 800 members, the Pechangas declared a moratorium to figure out how to process all the applications, Macarro said.
“We didn’t have all these applications before, and one of the obvious changes was, now we had a casino in place,” Macarro said.
Under Proposition 1A, the Pechanga Indians would be allowed to replace their 1,333 existing video slot machines with 2,000 Las Vegas-style slots, which, according to a state analysis, would be expected to generate $184.3 million in annual net profits.
The constitutional measure is expected to pass easily. There is no organized opposition to it, and California tribes have spent more than $15 million campaigning for it. Tribes spent $63 million in 1998 for Proposition 5, a similar gaming proposal that won with 64% voter approval but was ruled by the state Supreme Court to violate the state’s constitutional ban on Nevada-style casinos. Proposition 1A was proposed by the Legislature as the remedy and, unlike Proposition 5, will allow Indian casinos to use the Nevada-style slot machines.
Given the increasing revenues for the Pechanga Indians, Arlene Macarro says, tribal leaders are selfishly blocking her readmission.
“They employed the moratorium to keep people off the rolls, so only a handful of them get all the [casino] money,” said the woman, who has lived in Hawaii all her life and says she is impoverished. “Once greed and ambition take hold, it’s a bad cancer. They’re feeding at the trough like greedy pigs.”
Mark Macarro offers a different perspective: For years, he said, his cousin “didn’t want anything to do with this poor little tribe. I guess we had nothing to offer her. Arlene is indicative of a wider group of people who suddenly became interested in their tribal affiliation after a casino opens.”
Arlene Macarro’s complaints are echoed by Kathy Lewis, who has been denied membership in the Table Mountain tribe near Fresno, where her grandfather was once tribal chairman.
When that tribe--along with 36 others in California--was terminated by the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s in an effort to facilitate Indian assimilation into mainstream society, her grandfather moved to nearby Fresno. Other Indians remained at the historic site of the reservation.
Those terminations were largely reversed by the courts, and in 1983, Indians who had remained at the site reorganized as a tribe. They later established a constitution that specifically identified its founding members. Neither Lewis nor her father--direct descendants of the former tribal chairman--were included. More than 200 other Indians with ties to the tribe also were dropped from its reconstituted membership, she estimated.
They complained to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Lewis said, and were told “there was nothing we could do about it. They said that since the tribe is a sovereign nation, it can determine for itself who the members are, and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.”
The 61 adult members of the Table Mountain tribe receive more than $15,000 a month apiece in casino profit-sharing checks, as well as other lucrative perks.
Said Lewis: “What I’m really bitter about is not the [loss of] money, but the fact that Indian people are really connected to their homeland, and when they cut off your connection to it, it destroys you.”
Tribal Administrator Bruce Barnes is unapologetic about Lewis’ exclusion. “Each tribe has its own way of determining membership,” he said. “Just because some people perceive it as unfair doesn’t mean the tribe doesn’t have the right to do it. Tribes have that absolute right.”
Not only can tribes decide who to enroll--they also can eject members or limit their tribal benefits.
Such was the case in 1991 when the 44-member Cabazon Indian tribe, owners of Fantasy Springs Casino near Palm Springs, barred two members from voting in tribal elections or receiving any tribal financial benefits. The two, including a former chairman, had accused the tribe’s management of financial misconduct and were ordered before a tribal court, where they were stripped of their tribal rights.
The disputes over recognition of Indians extend to entire groups. About 75,000 Native Americans living in California claim lineage from about 80 tribes that are not formally recognized by the United States. Almost 50 of those tribes are seeking federal recognition, including about 20 that requested it after a 1988 federal law paved the way for reservation gaming, according to the state’s Research Bureau.
If such groups ultimately win federal recognition, they next would seek reservation land and, perhaps, casinos.
Tribes Splintered Many Years Ago
Among those that are unrecognized is a group of about two dozen Indians who claim ties to the Capitan Grande Indians, who once had a 15,000-acre reservation in San Diego County.
When the city of San Diego purchased the tribe’s reservation in 1932 to accommodate a dam and a reservoir, two bands of the tribe--the Barona and Viejas--used their proceeds--about $2,000 per member--to buy other land for use as separate reservations.
But a few bought scattered parcels in various parts of Southern California.
Led by Lewis Hein, 54, descendants of the splinter group are now seeking recognition to become their own tribe or to be recognized as part of the Barona or Viejas bands and share in casino profits.
Hein’s group has sued the bands and the federal government in federal court, but so far has been unsuccessful.
“There is only one tribe, and that is Capitan Grande,” said Hein, who is a cousin to many Viejas and Barona members. “We never really wanted money initially. We just wanted recognition.”
Hein said his grandfather left the reservation in 1932 so he could hold a job on a San Diego ferry. Still, he said, the family continued to identify itself as Native American.
As a child and young man, Hein said, he hunted on the reservation and attended tribal gatherings. Later, as a drywall contractor, he helped tribal members find employment.
“You hear how they want to help Indians around the state, yet they turn their back on their own relatives,” Hein said. “To them, we are nothing. My grandparents and mother are buried at Barona cemetery. . . . They recognize us as an Indian, but not their kind of Indian.”
The Baronas’ attorney, Art Bunce, counters that the splinter group has “had nothing to do with the Barona band for over 60 years and should not have anything to do with the Barona band now.”
They “turned themselves into non-Indians, abandoning tribal relations, which was their choice,” Bunce said. “The Baronas and Viejas retained their ways. The only thing that brings us together now is the desire to get on someone else’s payroll.”