By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ted Soqui
Congresswoman Hilda Solis knew many people opposed her legislation to help a group of Indians in San Gabriel, but she certainly didn’t expect this package. Inside, she found a bullet, with a newspaper article and photo of a Gabrielino Indian named Anthony Morales, his wife and son, all dressed in full Indian regalia, at a powwow in Santa Fe Springs. A note threatened: “Give us federal recognition or else.” At the time, Solis was backing legislation that would have granted Morales’ tribe federal recognition, allowing its members the chance to qualify for federal health, education and other benefits. If it panned out, the tribe would become the first in the L.A. basin to get long-sought-after federal recognition.
“It was sent by someone who wanted to discredit me or my council,” said Morales, who is tribal chair of the 300-plus member Gabrielino/Tongva of San Gabriel. “It really threw me for a loop.” Opponents believed the legislation was an Indian gaming bill in disguise, and HR 2619 never made it to committee. The FBI never figured out who sent Solis the alarming package.
Acrimony has become a way of life for the Gabrielino/Tongvas, a tribe whose progress is hindered by one major obstacle: It has no land. Old squabbles over bloodlines led to the start-up of a splinter group in Santa Monica in 2001 and have spilled over into the courtroom. Last year, members of the Santa Monica–based Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Council accused Morales’ San Gabriel tribe of kicking them out to avoid sharing any money from a future casino. The San Gabriel tribe sees the lawsuit as a ploy to steal its identity and membership to open a casino run by the Santa Monica faction.
The casino debate now shifts to Sacramento, where the Santa Monica group is seeking state recognition to open a casino on 40 acres of city-owned land it intends to buy in Compton. The legislation, introduced in February by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), is scheduled to be heard in the Government Operations Committee on April 12.
This is only the latest controversy involving the tribe. Last October, a construction crew at Playa Vista found an Indian burial ground; so far, remains of 200 people have been uncovered. The discovery caused even more division between the two groups. Members of the Santa Monica tribe, some hired for $300 a day as monitors at the Playa site, said the find was not a big surprise and should not halt the project. San Gabriel tribe members thought otherwise, and allies of that group have filed a $525 million federal lawsuit seeking to halt the huge project.
The split between the two Indian groups can be traced to a meeting four years ago in the backroom of a Mexican restaurant in San Gabriel, said Ron Andrade, executive director of the L.A. City/County Native American Indian Heritage Commission. He partly blames the division on himself for introducing tribal members to Santa Monica attorney Jonathan Stein. A tribal member now affiliated with the Santa Monica group quickly set up a meeting with Stein to discuss their future.
But early on, the San Gabriel group considered hiring Stein. He prepared a 24-page development agreement that put him in charge of winning federal recognition for the San Gabriel council and helping line up entertainment-industry figures to promote the tribe. Andrade says that the meeting became heated when the subject turned to gaming. Some were for it and some were against it. “Anthony stormed out,” said Andrade. The battle began.
In November 2001, the Gabrielino/ Tongva of San Gabriel, in its first act of division, terminated the tribal membership of several Gabrielinos, including former tribal spokesman Sam Dunlap, who had attempted to broker the deal with Stein. Nine months later, the Santa Monica tribe, with the help of Stein, sued the San Gabrielino tribe, claiming Morales wanted to drive out members to get more of the pie for his family from “potentially lucrative gaming rights that may arise upon federal recognition.” The defendants included Dunlap, Martin Alcala and two other former members of the San Gabriel tribe. They also complained of lost job opportunities. Andrade was also named in the lawsuit for being a supporter of the San Gabriel group.
Morales, in legal papers, fired back accusing the Santa Monica tribe of attempting to steal the identity, research and files of his tribe. “Plaintiffs seek to substitute themselves for the tribe in order to attempt to gain federal recognition, a gambling casino . . . and untold millions of dollars for themselves and their attorneys.” The San Gabriel faction accused the Santa Monica tribe of setting up a Web site claiming itself to be the true voice of the Gabrielino Indians. It also alleged that the lawsuit resulted from the Gabrielino/Tongvas of San Gabriel refusing Stein’s offer to hire him to build a casino.
Last September, Superior Court Judge Soussan Bruguera determined that the government had no authority over the internal affairs of a sovereign Indian tribe. The Santa Monica tribe has appealed. In turn, the San Gabriel tribe’s attorney, Jack Schwartz, is asking that the Santa Monica tribe be ordered to pay his $60,000 in attorney fees.