A family expelled from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians in Valley Center earlier this year is suing the Bureau of Indian Affairs in federal court to have their status as tribal members restored.
Members of the Alto family say they are still part of the San Pasqual tribe, which owns the Valley View Casino, because they have not been officially removed from the tribe's rolls. However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Assistant Secretary, Larry Echo Hawk, decided in January that the family does not belong in the tribe based on information submitted under a 2007 complaint.
The lawsuit, which names Echo Hawk and other U.S. Department of Interior officials as defendants, was filed in September by attorneys for the Alto family, Thor and Tracy Emblem of Escondido.
In a court hearing held Tuesday in San Diego, lawyers for the Alto family asked Judge Irma Gonzalez to block their removal from the tribe, force the tribe to pay members of the family their share of casino revenues and restore their health care benefits.
A lawyer for the bureau, Tom Stahl, said the case is moot because the federal government considers the family's disenrollment case over. Stahl said the decision issued by Echo Hawk was final.
"According to the BIA, they are not tribal members," Stahl said in court.
Members of the Alto family are the descendants of Marcus Alto Sr., who died in 1988, and whose lineage was questioned in a challenge filed by another tribal member, Ron Mast, in August 2007. Mast argued in his challenge that Marcus Alto Sr. was adopted by a San Pasqual family, but was not their biological son.
Under the tribe's law, only those biologically related to tribal members can be enrolled in the tribe. The tribe's constitution allows the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make the final decision on enrollment disputes.
Most other tribes, such as Pala and Penchanga bands which have also been involved in recent enrollment disputes, keep the power to decide who belongs to themselves.
On Nov. 26, 2008, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Regional Director, Dale Morris, sided with the Alto family, saying the evidence did not warrant their ouster. But on January 28, 2011, Echo Hawk overturned the regional director's decision.
A "fair interpretation of the most probative, objective and competent evidence available amply supports the (San Pasqual) Enrollment Committee's recommendation to disenroll the Alto descendants," Echo Hawk wrote in his decision.
Family members said they wrote Echo Hawk asking him to reconsider, but he did not respond. Stahl said that whether Echo Hawk responded or not has no bearing on the case. He added that the family could have filed its lawsuit in February, immediately after the decision was issued.
To officially disenroll the family, the Altos say the tribe must approve a new tribal membership roll without their names and submit the list to the bureau for its approval. Such a list has not been approved or submitted to the bureau, the Altos say.
Instead, the tribe immediately banned the family from voting on tribal matters. Those who were employed in the casino lost their jobs. About a dozen family members were evicted from homes on the reservation. All Altos lost their health care benefits, including some older members who are sick with cancer and diabetes and in need of medicine.
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