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
“Yes, we lost homes and cars. Some went into bankruptcy,” Gomez says. “But mostly I was saddened for my family and for Indian country in general. It’s not just your money they’re taking away but also your heritage and your future.”
With Indian gaming revenues now near the $30 billion mark nationally, disenrollment has rocked and divided Indian reservations from coast to coast.
In Oklahoma, just to cite one example, 2,800 descendants of “freedmen” — former African-American slaves who were “adopted” by the Cherokee — are now being expelled. But the epicenter of the disenrollment crisis is in California, where more than a dozen gaming tribes have already purged as many as 4,000 members. Little recourse is available to the disenrollees because state and federal courts have so far ruled that under the cloak of sovereign immunity, the tribes alone can serve as final arbiters of membership. Likewise, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has mostly defaulted to the tribes. And the media has been met with a virtual stonewall from the tribes, which claim they have no need to justify their internal affairs. As a result, stories about the disenrollments in local media stir little public outrage. One exception took place this past Labor Day weekend, when Bill Cosby canceled a scheduled performance at the Chukchansi tribe’s casino outside Fresno. Over the past year the tribe has purged a whopping half of its 1,200 members, and the Coz wanted no part of the increasingly ugly dispute.
But now, with four powerful Southern California tribes ready to make literally billions of dollars over the next two decades if the Schwarzenegger-negotiated gambling expansion is approved in the February 5 primary, the disenrollments have taken on a new timeliness. Gomez and his allies have emerged as leaders of a growing national movement to legally and politically challenge the tribal purges, which were first set in motion among the Pechanga in 2002, 127 years after the 1875 eviction of the tribe from its ancestral land by Temecula ranchers. Not coincidentally, the case of the disenrolled Pechanga could move to political center stage over the next few weeks.
“Don’t be surprised if you see Gomez or some of the other disenrollees show up soon in some TV spots,” says an activist supporting the ballot initiatives (Propositions 94 through 97, one proposition for each tribe) that would cancel the expansion deals. “They are the faces of everything wrong with the runaway power of the tribe.”
Gomez first got into trouble with his Pechanga tribe in 2002, when, as a trusted legal adviser, he was elected to the tribal-enrollment committee, along with a cousin and a member of the Paulina Hunter family. These were sensitive positions. After the tribe won its first minor gambling concession in 1996, and after California voters approved major Indian gaming rights four years later, it was only natural that there would be an increase in those suddenly claiming membership.
“As soon as we were elected, we found that the committee was doing all kinds of strange things,” Gomez says. “On the one hand they weren’t adhering to an enrollment moratorium and on the other they weren’t properly processing the minor children of those already enrolled.”
Gomez and his new allies began an investigation.
The boom quickly dropped on them. Within weeks a letter emerged from a group called Concerned Pechanga People, a small faction closely allied with the tribal leadership and its chair, Mark Macarro, which accused Gomez and his family of not being legitimate Pechanga. By the end of the year, Gomez’s extended family were notified of pending disenrollment. During an internal process that lasted more than a year and a half, Gomez put together binders of documentation proving — at least to virtually every outside observer who has reviewed them — his Pechanga ancestry.
But the tribal leadership, in closed-door sessions that adhered to no formal due process or rules of evidence, held to its position that one key elder in Gomez’s lineage — Manuela Miranda — had left the traditional village after her marriage and, therefore, her descendants weren’t really Pechanga. The claim, according to several experts, is prima facie absurd, as the history of American Indians is based on such dispersion and diaspora.
“No matter,” says Gomez. “Their minds were made up. The tribe could provide no solid evidence to back their claim against us. We were just out, period.” Among those disenrolled with Gomez were his brother Marc, the executive chef for the casino; his father, John Gomez Sr., a major figure in tribal outreach; a cousin who was a top financial adviser to the tribe; a cousin who headed the tribal fire department; a cousin who was chief of the casino’s human resources; and a cousin who was an assistant in the same department.
The final disenrollment of the Gomez clan in 2004 sent shock waves through the Pechanga community. After all, Gomez had been very tight with Chairman Macarro, known broadly to Californians as the public face of Indian gambling. With his leather vest, ponytail, youthful good looks and soft-spoken tone, Macarro has been the prominent figure in tens of millions of dollars’ worth of pro-Indian-gaming advertising.