Second Pechanga family faces ouster
FINANCIAL BLOW: Critics say casino profits are the issue; tribal leaders reject accusations of greed.
02:11 AM PST on Tuesday, March 21, 2006
By TIM O'LEARY and MICHELLE DeARMOND / The Press-Enterprise
TEMECULA - Marking the second such action in two years, a Temecula-area Indian gaming tribe has kicked out another large family, current and former tribal members said Monday.
The Pechanga tribe's ejection of the descendents of Paulina Hunter, whose family numbers more than 90 adults, surfaced days after the first disenrolled family asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider landmark litigation filed more than two years ago. The move brings the total number of people kicked out to more than 220.
News of a disenrollment letter sent by the tribe's enrollment committee began circulating verbally Friday. On Monday, a leader of the first family ejected from the tribe, descendants of Manuela Miranda, issued a news release detailing the expulsion.
The disenrollments can be appealed to the Tribal Council within 60 days.
Stakes are high, with disenrolled members losing their vote on tribal matters and their share of casino profits, which can total thousands of dollars per month. Health and life insurance benefits are gone, and if the disenrollees have reservation property that, too, may be in question.
The prominent, wealthy tribe, which runs the Pechanga Resort & Casino, is one of many tribes embroiled in highly publicized disenrollment disputes in recent years. Critics deride the moves as the products of greed and have called on courts and lawmakers to intervene, while tribal leaders take issue with outsiders critiquing their internal affairs.
John Gomez Jr., a well-known ex-tribal member and part of the Miranda family, said the latest ejection, like the one affecting his family, comes just months before key Pechanga government elections and that the action financially benefits those who ejected the family.
Pechanga tribal members receive monthly gaming profit checks, and disenrolled families say tribal leaders are trying to whittle the rolls so there are larger checks left for the remaining members.
In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Gomez said Paulina Hunter and her family were one of the original families to be granted reservation land in the "allotment" process in the 1800s.
"It's a slap in the face for generations of the (Hunter) family," said Gomez, who has launched an Internet site on disenrollments and emerged as a statewide leader on the subject. Gomez worked on legal and cultural affairs for the tribe before getting kicked out and fired.
Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro issued a three-paragraph statement Monday, rejecting accusations of greed and defending the tribe's decision.
"Tribal nations have sole jurisdiction and authority to establish and enforce procedures to determine their own tribal citizenship. The courts have consistently upheld this tribal right because of more than 200 years of legal precedent," he said.
"Disenrollment actions occurred at Pechanga before we ever had a casino as well as after, quite independent of our gaming activities," he said. "Contrary to the allegations of a few, this matter has nothing to do with politics or profits."
A member of the Hunter family spoke by telephone Monday morning under the condition of anonymity. The family member declined to answer questions, provide a copy of the disenrollment letter or be identified by name because the process is still unfolding.
"This is a very sad time for our family," the member said. "We're trying to find out what is going on and it's unfortunate that people are speaking for the Hunter family and not allowing them to handle their own tribal business."
The member said Gomez's news release was premature because it's possible the Tribal Council might not enforce the enrollment committee's decision.
Another tribal member who spoke on condition of anonymity defended his tribal government's decision. He said Hunter never was a Pechanga Indian and simply was allotted land because she was living on the reservation and may have had family ties to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"The disenrollment of the Hunter family has resolved lingering questions about this family's membership credentials," said the tribal member, who is not on the enrollment committee or council. "We should have done it a long time ago. It's dirty work."
A Murrieta woman who has done extensive research on the tribe and its descendants, said she has come across Hunter on American Indian census rolls from the 1800s and has seen references to some of her children.
"I have no reason to believe that she was not a native Indian woman from this area," Anne J. Miller said. "It certainly fits together."
A vocal critic of disenrollments across the country also spoke out Monday, saying the only reason tribes take this step is to increase the monthly gaming-profit checks they disburse to members.
Laura Wass, executive director of the American Indian Legacy Center, criticized the disenrollments as destructive and contrary to the "Indian way."
"This goes way beyond anything that's human and way beyond anything that's truly traditionally Indian," said Wass, whose Fresno-based organization works with American Indians affected by disenrollment and other problems. "They better learn their history."
Casino-profit checks averaged about $120,000 per year per adult when the Miranda family was disenrolled, according to the Miranda family's lawsuit, initially filed in Riverside County Superior Court.
Gomez and some other ejected members also lost casino or tribal government jobs.
Following their March 2004 disenrollment, members of the Gomez family and other Miranda descendants have held a garage sale, sold homes, moved and taken other steps aimed at helping them make financial ends meet