Reporting from Pala, Calif. -- When Margarita Owlinguish Britten died in 1925, she was a revered elder of the Pala Indian tribe, a survivor of the forced relocation in 1903 of the Cupeño Indians to an area beside the San Luis Rey River in northern San Diego County.
But now, renewed doubts about Britten’s lineage are at the root of a divisive “blood quantum” dispute roiling the 1,000-member Pala Band of Mission Indians, formed by the fusion of the Cupeño and Luiseño bands.
At issue is whether Britten was a full-blooded Indian.
The governing board of the Pala Band in the last year has “disenrolled” some 162 descendants of Britten, cutting them off from their monthly share of the tribe’s profit from casino, hotel and other business ventures, about $7,500 a month, in addition to health insurance and other benefits.
The Pala dispute echoes those at other Indian tribes in California and elsewhere, where money has complicated disputes over identity, nationhood and personality conflicts, according to David Wilkins, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina.
“Somewhere, as tribes have tried to reconstruct their sense of nationhood, particularly in tribes with casino money, they hit upon disenrollment as a way to settle disputes over personality issues and money,” Wilkins said.
The American Indian Movement estimates that upward of 3,000 tribal members from two dozen tribes in California and other states have been “disenrolled” in the last 15 years. “Tribes are being destroyed by it,” Wilkins said.
Firms now offer DNA testing to prove Indian ancestry, while “disenrollment clubs” offer succor to those no longer welcome in their tribes. Angry websites collect accusations of betrayal.
Robert Smith, Pala’s strong-willed chairman, is not moved by the appeals of those who have been disenrolled, nor by the dire assertions of Wilkins, nor by recommendations from Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to reverse the disenrollment decisions.
Smith said evidence shows Britten’s father was a white man, not an Indian, and thus Britten and her progeny were not full-blooded Indian.
“This is not about money, this is about what’s right,” Smith said during an interview at the casino’s food court, to the plink-plink of nearby slot machines. “I’ve heard all the arguments about Margarita Britten. All the old people knew: She was only half-Indian.”
Britten, sometimes spelled Brittain or Britain, was among those Indian women who posed for the postcards sold to tourists. She was considered an artist in the complex skill of basket weaving. She and her husband raised seven children. Various documents say she was 65, 69 or 73 when she died.
Classifying her as half-Indian set off a recalculation of dozens of tribal members. Those found to have less than 1/16th Pala blood were removed from tribal membership.
Many of the disenrolled accuse Smith, 51, of a power grab to settle decades-old arguments with some of Britten’s descendants, particularly King Freeman, the 76-year-old owner of the Pala general store and a former chairman of the tribe. They also believe Smith is trying to prop up allocations amid a recession-related decline in gaming profits by decreasing the number of recipients. In January, the monthly payments to enrolled members of the tribe were cut by $500.
“This is all about greed,” said Freeman, who was tribal chairman for two decades “when we didn’t have money.”
After decades of a marginal existence, the Pala tribe in 2001 opened a casino and a 10-story, 507-room hotel on the tribe’s reservation, 52 miles north of San Diego, six miles east of Interstate 15. The casino has 2,600 slot machines and tables for roulette, poker, baccarat and other games.
Indian tribes do not publicly disclose their profits, but the Pala operation is clearly profitable, although not as profitable as casinos that are closer to San Diego, where lawsuits and other documents say it is not unusual for payments to be twice as high as those at Pala.
The tribe also owns a motocross raceway, a gasoline station, and a mini-mart that competes with Freeman’s store, established in 1897.
The issue of Britten’s father has long been controversial among the tribe for reasons largely lost in the mist of undocumented tribal history. One theory among some of her descendants is that she was considered “uppity” because she married a white man and took his family name, Britten.
Freeman’s daughter, Luann Freeman Moro, 56, is blunt in her anger. She was one of the first eight tribal members to be disenrolled; Smith, the current tribal chairman, is a cousin of her husband.
“It’s really scary that he believes his own lies,” she said of Smith. “He’s an evil dictator, and everyone is afraid that he’ll try to disenroll them if they talk up.”
A Bureau of Indian Affairs document from the years after the 1903 relocation does not list a name for Britten’s father and thus no designation of whether he was Indian or white. In the early 1950s, a document kept by the tribe was changed to show that Britten as only half-Indian; it remains unclear who made that change.
Using other documents, the bureau repeatedly ruled that Britten’s father was an Indian. In the 1980s, it ruled that “the issue of Margarita Brittain’s blood degree has been decided.” And in February, a regional acting director of the bureau reiterated that finding and recommended reinstating Luann Freeman Moro and others.
But the bureau now leaves disenrollment disputes to the tribes. Nonetheless, the regional director’s three-page letter has been a rallying point in King Freeman’s store, where a copy is on display. Freeman, whose Indian lineage the tribal leadership considers to be at least 1/16, was not disenrolled.
“This is nothing less than a vendetta by Smith against families that ask questions about how the tribe is governed,” said Vince Moro, 58, Luann Freeman Moro’s husband. “The U.S. goes all over the world to take down dictators like Saddam Hussein and Kadafi, but they won’t help us here on the reservation.”
Smith has further enraged some tribal members by suggesting that they are free to apply for welfare.
When the disenrollees talk about their loss of income, Smith responds that the Britten relatives received payments for years to which they were not entitled.
“They’ve always known that they had a grandfather that was not an Indian,” said Darlene Vega, 48, a Smith supporter.
Jason Miranda, 38, a tribal member and senior business analyst for casino operations, said that “we have empathy for them, but it’s time to correct an error from the past.”
Wilkins hopes Congress reasserts the federal government’s authority over Indian tribes and begins to mediate disenrollment disputes. “The courts are not much help,” he said. “It’s up to Congress.”
Margarita Britten is buried in a disheveled cemetery not far from the Mission San Antonio de Pala, built in 1816, and across the street from the baseball field and skateboard park provided by recent casino profits. Her name is among those etched on a monument at the cemetery beneath the inscription “Our Ancestors Gone But Not Forgotten.”
At the tribal museum there are no pictures of Britten, which her relatives say is the result of the museum being run by employees who owe their jobs to Smith.
Luann Freeman Moro has had T-shirts printed with Britten’s picture and the notation that she was a full-blooded Cupeño Indian.
Beneath Britten’s picture, two events are noted: her 1903 removal from what is now Warner Springs and, in 2011, “8 descendants wrongfully removed as tribal members by the Pala Executive Committee.”