Sunday, June 10, 2007

Artist Offers Sculpture to inspire Healing of Disenrolled Pechanga Members

Artist offers sculpture to inspire discussion, healing to disenrolled Pechanga members By: NICOLE SACK - Staff Writer

DE LUZ -- Call it a peace offering, a catalyst for discussion or simply art. Whatever is said of Austin Casson's latest sculpture, he hopes the piece will get people talking. Casson, a 60-year-old De Luz resident, has dedicated his work titled "The Healing" to the Pechanga people and the disenrollment that led to the ouster of 240 tribal members in less than two years, between 2004 and 2006.
Casson worked on the 24-inch-tall sculpture for 10 months and the piece will soon be sent to the foundry, where 35 copies will be cast in bronze. However, one of those sculptures has already been reserved for a specific purpose: "It will be a gift to the tribe for the first meeting of elders that includes both sides of the enrollment debate -- not for a meeting with lawyers or with politicians, but of tribal members," Casson said. "All I can offer is my art."
The sculpture depicts a Golden Eagle in a "manteling" position -- a posture birds of prey assume when they are protecting something important to them. The eagle encircles his wings around a ring of eight figures representing Pechanga tribal members. Casson said he chose the Golden Eagle because it is indigenous to the Temecula area, but more than that, the proud bird of prey also embodies qualities most people aspire to have. "They mate for life, they protect their young. They are true hunters and live long lives," he said of the bird with a typical wingspan of 6 feet and 6 inches.
Casson, who has been a sculptor for 20 years, said he began to consider the ramifications of the Pechanga disenrollment after he spoke with an ousted tribal elder. "He said to me, 'I was raised Pechanga. I was raised to believe I was a person of worth within the tribe. Now what?'" Casson said, recalling the conversation. "I began to think what would happen to his family, his children and his grandchildren. Are they no longer Indians?" The family most recently disenrolled from the tribe was the Hunter family, a group of nearly 100 adults that trace their lineage to Paulina Hunter, who was listed on tribal rolls in the late 19th century. That group lost an appeal to remain in the tribe in August. An additional 133 adult members formerly with the tribe, who can trace their lineage to Temecula pioneer and Luiseno Indian Pablo Apis, were released from the band in 2004.
The two disenrollments center around disputes over the legitimacy of the Hunter and Apis clans' heritage with the Pechanga band, according the Pechanga enrollment committee. However, John Gomez Jr., a spokesman for the disenrolled Apis family members, says greed and money were the reason to purge the rolls. The tribe and its 1,000 members own and operate the Pechanga Resort & Casino, which sits southeast of Temecula and is one of the most successful Indian gaming ventures in California. Members reportedly receive approximately $20,000 per month from casino revenue shares. Disenrollment not only strips the members of their membership in the tribe, but also takes away health insurance, college scholarships and other benefits. The Pechanga Tribal Council issued a statement via e-mail on the disenrollments Monday: "This disenrollment occurred more than three years ago," the statement read. "Understandably, some of them filed lawsuits challenging the disenrollment. But five state and federal courts -- including the California and U.S. Supreme Courts -- rejected the claims. Our people are moving forward and focusing on the future." Gomez said Casson's sculpture holds special meaning, but he isn't sure if anything will bring together the disputing sides of the disenrollment debate. "Could that happen? Could there be a meeting of the current tribal council and those who have had their human rights violated by their actions?" Gomez asked. "I think a meeting would be difficult, but not impossible." -- Contact staff writer Nicole Sack at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2616, or

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