The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians is seeking to drop 10% of its members, making them ineligible to receive casino profits -- amounting to more than $120,000 a year each.
The 130 people affected are fighting to retain their tribal membership, seeking a federal court ruling to prevent individual members of the tribe’s enrollment committee from dumping them. The tribal leaders argue that the key ancestor of the group at issue cut her ties with the reservation 80 years ago. They also maintain that neither state nor federal courts have the right to intervene.
Court documents filed in the dispute have shed light on benefits of casino gambling that have not previously been disclosed: Each adult member of the Pechanga Band receives up to $10,000 a month in casino profit-sharing checks and other perks from the Temecula tribe.
Individual tribes are not compelled to disclose how much money their casinos produce. But the total revenue generated by the 53 tribes in California with casinos is estimated to be about $5 billion.
The Pechanga Band is not the only tribe embroiled in disputes over who qualifies to reap the benefits of casino revenues. Before the advent of casinos on reservations, tribal membership was not much of an issue because there were few benefits worth arguing over.
But today, five years after voters approved the law giving tribes exclusive rights to operate Nevada-style slot machines on their reservations, bloodline issues have become increasingly divisive.
In Northern California on Wednesday, the Redding Rancheria cut nearly one-fourth of its membership after a vote of seven tribal council members. The council rejected arguments from the ousted members that DNA tests showed a 99.89% probability that they were descended from Virginia Timmons, one of the rancheria’s 16 original members.
With the Pechanga tribe, the people whose membership is in dispute claim descent from Manuela Miranda, granddaughter of Pablo Apish, the Pechanga Band headman who received a 2,223-acre land grant from California Gov. Pio Pico in 1845.
“But now, with all the money coming in -- and tribal family feuds raging on the reservation -- the enrollment committee is claiming my clients have insufficient documentation and that their applications should never have been approved,” said Jon Velie, an Oklahoma attorney representing the group.
“Having Manuela for an ancestor was just fine with the committee when these people originally enrolled with the tribe,” Velie said.
The seven-member enrollment committee, he said, maintains that Manuela Miranda, who was half Pechanga, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, moved off the reservation and cut her ties to the tribe.
Being held to a stricter membership standard than called for under the Pechanga Constitution, he said, means his clients “stand to lose in excess of $10,000 a month after taxes, as well their homes on the reservation, healthcare benefits, elderly care benefits, educational funds, tribal jobs and their very identities.”
Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro and tribal attorneys declined to comment.
Generally, casino gambling profits are intended for tribal government operations and various health, social, education and housing programs. But at the tribal council’s discretion, some of the money can also be paid to individual tribal members as profit-sharing income.
With a lavishly enlarged and refurbished casino, the Pechanga Band has expanded to the limit allowed under its compact with the state -- 2,000 slot machines. The tribe nets an estimated $184 million annually, plus profits from its card games, according to various analyses.
No sooner had the Pechangas opened their first casino in 1995 than the tribe was inundated with applications for membership.
So many came in that the tribe temporarily suspended accepting new members. Even Chairman Macarro’s first cousin had to wait a year to seek renewed membership in the tribe.
Before it had a casino, the Pechanga tribe received about 15 to 30 applications a year from people seeking enrollment, tribal leaders said.
After 1995, 60 people applied for membership. The following year there were 160 applicants. In 1997, the tribe was overwhelmed with 430 applications for membership.
Among those now fighting to regain membership is John Gomez, who was fired Thursday from his position as an analyst in the tribe’s legal offices.
“We are under a tremendous amount of pressure, all because of someone else’s greed and hunger for power,” he said in an interview. “To have someone suddenly tell you, ‘You are not Pechanga and you never were,’ is very hard to deal with.”
Facing a Jan. 15 deadline for submitting additional documentation of proof of membership to the enrollment committee, Velie originally sought a temporary restraining order in Riverside County Superior Court.
But the defendants’ attorneys argued that the Superior Court had no jurisdiction in the matter, so it was moved to federal court, Velie said. “Now, they are claiming that federal court does not have jurisdiction in this matter.”
In legal responses filed with the court, tribal attorneys argued that no state or federal court had jurisdiction, because tribal membership was an internal dispute whose remedy lay within established “sovereign tribal forums.”
“The Pechanga Band has fought long and hard to preserve its sovereign rights and rights to self-determination,” tribal attorney Alex R. Baghdassarian said. “The right to determine its membership is the most basic of those rights.”
“Plaintiffs’ attempts to get this court to strike at the heart of what it means to be a sovereign tribe -- to determine one’s own members -- must be rejected,” he said.
“The Pechanga Band’s interest and that of the public in upholding and respecting tribal sovereignty -- a key part of the entire heritage of this country and a core component of federal Indian policy -- more than counterbalances any speculative potential harm to plaintiffs.”
That argument is backed by some independent legal experts. Carole Goldberg, director of UCLA’s joint degree program in law and American Indian studies, said a court determining who is a proper member of the tribe would be “the most profound interference with tribal authority one can imagine.”
“This is a matter for a Pechanga court to decide,” she said.
“The tribe’s committee members are acting outside the law,” he said. “The stakes are high.”