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Dis-enrolled tribal members oppose Romero bill
Capitol Weekly By Malcolm Maclachlan Dis-enrolled tribal members are raising concerns that a bill from Senator Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, could result in them being kicked off of reservations. Tribes say the bill, SB 331, is needed to help them enforce their property rights and tribal sovereignty. Such protections are particularly needed in rural areas where non-tribal law-enforcement responses can be slow, supporters say. Titled "Unlawful entry: tribal land," the bill would create a new infraction against non tribal members entering "Indian lands" without permission from the tribe. Romero wrote the bill on behalf of the Barona Band of Mission Indians, which operates a casino and resort northeast of San Diego. Tribes could issue a fine of up to $250 for a first offense and $500 for a second offense. A representative from the Barona Tribe did not return calls seeking comment by press time. Romero's communications director, Russell Lopez, said that her office is in talks with several interested parties about the bill. He said this includes at least one utility that has concerns about their ability to perform maintenance on Indian lands. Romero is not ready to talk yet about any possible amendments, he added.
However, many of those on tribal lands are recently dis-enrolled tribal members, according to John Gomez Jr., a dis-enrolled member of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. He fears SB 331 will become just another tool for Indians to use against other Indians--and could result in hundreds of dis-enrolled members being evicted their own property if it lies on Indian lands. "It could be used to fine people if they visit their own homes or families," Gomez said. Gomez said he is one of about 400 people who have been dis-enrolled from the Pechanga Tribe since 2004. The dis-enrollments happened in two groups, just before tribal elections in 2004 and 2006. They reflect lingering animosities between families and individuals that have been exacerbated by the flood of gaming money, he claimed, raising the stakes in longstanding power struggles. The number of tribal dis-enrollments across the state has increased greatly since the advent of tribal casinos, he said. "Is it a coincidence?" Gomez said. "I don't think so." Representatives of the Pechanga tribe dismiss these claims, saying the members were only dis-enrolled after a years-long process that found they did not have legitimate tribal lineages. During the evaluation period, they said, these members received tribal benefits. In January, the Pechanga Tribal Council sent a letter to every member of the Legislature seeking to refute "sensationalist claims" made by dis-enrolled members. The letter claims that since the tribes financial fortunes started to rise in the mid-1990s, they were inundated by claims from thousands of people who were not legitimate tribal members. It also cited a 2005 California Appeals Court case in which the court declined to get involved in determinations over "Who is a Pechanga?" Gomez and other dis-enrolled Pechangas have sent letters to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Bureau of Indians Affairs and others asking them to look into the dis-enrollments. This includes a call for the BIA not to recognize the Pechanga tribal elections. They also conducted an unsuccessful letter-writing campaign aimed at sinking the amended Pechanga gaming compact. That compact--SB 903 by Senator Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles--passed out of the Senate on a 23-8 vote in April and now awaits a hearing in the Assembly.
Whether they have increased or not, tribal dis-enrollments have been in the news lately. In March, the Jamul Indian band bulldozed the homes of two non-tribal members that lay on tribal land--and sat in the way of a casino the tribe is building. The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians dis-enrolled an undisclosed number of members in November. In 2003, the Enterprise Rancheria kicked out 72 of its over 200 members after a dispute. One of these former members, Robert Edwards, wrote a letter to Romero this week opposing SB 331 because it "bestows authority to Indian Tribes to engage in the victimization of Indians." The letter warned that the bill could lead to some dis-enrolled members being made homeless. Edwards is now the chairman of an opposition group called Indians of Enterprise No. 1. Edwards said that over 3,000 tribal members around the state have been dis-enrolled since 1999. Meanwhile, tribes also have refused to let in many legitimate tribal descendants who tried to join tribes in order to keep them from sharing in gaming money. He has been calling for the Legislature to include references to the Indian Civil Rights Act into the amended gaming compacts, which he said would aid dis-enrolled Indians to suing in state and federal court. Meanwhile, gaming watchdog Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, sent a letter to Romero last week questioning the constitutionality of SB 331 as it currently is written. The bill lacks an adequate definition of "Indian lands," she argued, and conflicts with federal law on the matter. Unless the bill is amended to comply with federal standards, she said, any tickets given to trespassers under a resulting law could not be enforced. "If I got a citation on tribal lands, I could safely wad it up and throw it away," Schmit said. "Indian lands" now cover a patchwork of reservations, private property and new lands being purchased by tribes. For instance, she said, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians has purchased 1,100 acres in 11 different deals since 2000. Schmit said she has been seeking legal opinions on the bill. The California State Sheriffs' Association has taken a neutral position, she said, while the California District Attorneys Association will evaluate the bill at their mid-July meeting. The San Diego County district attorney and San Diego County Sheriffs Department support SB 331. Other states also are struggling with tribal-lands issues. Most notably is New York, where Governor Eliot Spitzer is trying to collect $200 million in cigarette and gasoline taxes he said are owed by tribes in the state. Some in the New York Legislature have estimated the state loses over $400 million in tobacco taxes not collected on reservations each year. In April, leaders of the Seneca Nation retaliated by beginning to count cars on the New York State Thruway that runs through the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation south of Buffalo. They have said they intend to charge the state government $1 per car for the use of their land. Malcolm Maclachlan is a Capitol Weekly staff reporter.