John Gomez Jr. parks his silver family van in the back row of one more anonymous strip mall off California’s Highway 79, an hour and a half southeast of Los Angeles, on a windswept ridge overlooking the Temecula Valley. Gomez, his dark hair barely betraying a sprinkling of gray at his temples, steps out of the van and walks away from the mall, to a barren dirt lot marked off with adobe walls.
“This is where Pablo is buried,” he says as we peer over the locked iron gate.
Pablo is Pablo Apis, the celebrated 19th-century “headman,” or chief, of the Temecula/Pechanga Indians, who was given more than 2,000 acres of land in exchange for his work at the Mission San Luis Rey. Gomez, who is a direct descendant of Chief Apis, jiggles the lock on the gate. He has no key.
“This is where a lot of our people were buried,” Gomez continues, “including those killed in the famous Temecula Massacre.” He’s referring to the killing of several dozen Indians by Californio militias in the closing days of 1846. Apis survived and, indeed, the 1875 treaty between the Temecula tribe and the U.S. government, though never ratified, was signed at the chief’s village adobe home.
Today, on a corner of Apis’ original land grant, a few minutes down the road from the desolate burial ground, towers the $350 million Pechanga Resort & Casino, the glittering 14-story pleasure dome so familiar to Southern Californians from the promotional and political-advocacy commercials in near-constant rotation on local television stations. With 522 rooms, 185,000 square feet of casino floor, 2,000 slot machines, more than 150 table games and seven restaurants, along with Vegas-class showrooms, nightclubs and comedy lounges, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, as the tribe is now known, runs the largest and perhaps most profitable of California’s nearly 60 Indian casinos. And now, under terms of a deal negotiated by Governor Schwarzenegger, ratified earlier this year by the Democratic-led state legislature and set to go before voters in the February 5 primary election, the Pechanga and three other Southern California tribes may soon triple their battery of slot machines, allowing each of the four Indian groups to operate twice as many slots as any Vegas casino. If the referendums go through, the four tribes — Morongo, Agua Caliente, Sycuan and Pechanga — will be responsible for the largest expansion of gambling in recent U.S. history.
Gomez, a 40-year-old paralegal, helped birth the Pechanga mega-resort, which opened in 2002 and today grosses as much as $1 billion a year. He worked as a legal and cultural adviser to his tribe, a representative and lobbyist, and, along with several of his family members, served on key tribal committees as the Pechanga moved, almost overnight, from obscure poverty to a position of awesome political and economic power.
But it’s Gomez’s tribe no more. At least as far as the tribal leadership is concerned. Gomez and 135 adult members of his extended family (and 75 or more children) have been purged from formal Pechanga membership; they have been “disenrolled.” They were accused of no crime, no misbehavior, no wrongdoing, no disloyalty. But a series of tribal kangaroo-court hearings, bereft of even the pretense of due process, ruled that one of the family’s deceased elders was not an authentic tribe member and, therefore, not withstanding their years of service to the tribe, they were all to be banned.
And so today John Gomez can only stand outside the cemetery where Chief Apis and his other forebears are buried. “My family’s history is the history of Temecula and the Pechanga,” says Gomez. “But now, somehow, we have become traitors.”
As we drive from the cemetery and cruise by the city park named for Chief Apis, Gomez says, “I loved my job. I loved my tribe. But growing up .?.?. growing up, man .?.?. I would never, ever have thought our tribe would come to this.”
What it’s come to goes beyond tribal pride. As a result of the disenrollment, many in the Gomez family, which accounts for some 10 percent of the total Pechanga tribe’s membership, have lost their federal standing and benefits as American Indians. Some have lost their jobs at the resort. All of the adults, including Gomez, lost the generous per capita monthly payout, derived from casino profits, that was given to each adult of the tribe. When the Gomez family’s expulsion was finalized in 2004, that was about $15,000 per month. Currently, for those who remain members of the tribe, the figure has risen to about $40,000 per month.
The sharp increase is due in part to a second wave of purges, finalized last year, which disenrolled another extended family, this one descended from Paulina Hunter and representing yet another 10 percent of the tribe. That second purge went ahead despite a tribe-commissioned expert probe that concluded that Hunter was, in fact, a Pechanga. Simply put: The fewer the tribal members, the bigger the payout.