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
The tribe's executive committee not long ago decided that Britten's father was, in fact, white — meaning that more than 160 of Britten's descendants were expelled, and no longer eligible for per capita payments or other benefits. (One of the committee members, Annalee Trujillo, was excluded from the decision-making process because she is a Britten descendent; the committee's decision removed her from the tribe as well.)
The bulk of those people received a letter on Feb. 3, 2012, signed by Robert Smith, announcing they'd been disenrolled. Health benefits would be terminated less than one month later.
These types of removals have occurred routinely in California during the casino era. Pala's neighbor, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which also has a successful casino, has shed even more people than Pala in recent years. Meanwhile, the Chukchansi tribe of Central California disenrolled about half of its 1,800 or so members. When tribal council members defeated in 2012 elections refused to recognize the winners, the newly elected officials proceeded to break in and occupy their equivalent of City Hall — a trailer — followed by the opposition attempting to smoke them out with tear gas and a burning log. A brawl broke out before police intervened and removed both sides.
Pala's decision was widely decried — with greed, not genetics, suspected as the motive. Casino revenue, after all, was believed to be dropping: The monthly per capita payments were cut by $500 in January 2012, just one month before many disenrollment letters were issued. What better way to keep payments high than to reduce the number of people receiving them?
Following the removal, a group of more than two dozen tribe members sued Smith and the other executive committee members in federal court, demanding to be reinstated. They're claiming $80 million in damages. Pala's leadership, they say, engaged in a conspiracy against them, deprived them of their civil rights and sought to enrich themselves. "Defendants' actions arose from their desire to eliminate political and personal enemies and for personal gain," the lawsuit says.
But state and federal courts have declined to intervene in such matters, citing tribes' sovereign immunity. The judge dismissed the suit in March; his decision is now under appeal.
Smith, the tribal chairman, insists that money was not the reason for the disenrollments. "Probably since 1989 there was a question" of the Britten descendants' bloodline, he says. "It was just a question that needed to be taken care of. It went too long." (A former committee member, Kilma Lattin, seconds this notion.)
While Freeman himself was not disenrolled, his three children and their families fell below the bloodline threshold and were removed from the tribe.
Freeman believes it was personal.
"He and I don't get along," Freeman says of Smith. "There's other families that should be looked into, too. But this was just a sign of a personal problem."
Neither Freeman nor Smith would discuss the details of their spat. But Freeman and his allies had long been vocal in their criticisms of Smith's chairmanship.
Tensions flared publicly in May 2011, when Freeman drafted a petition to remove executive committee vice president Leroy Miranda from his position. Freeman himself had run against him for the job, and lost, and now sought to disqualify the winner on the grounds that he'd been convicted of soliciting a male prostitute two years earlier. This dispute, insiders believe, set off a chain of events leading directly to the disenrollments. Soon after, the lawsuit contends, Smith announced to Freeman at a council meeting, "Your kids are off the rolls."
Days later, the Pala executive committee announced its first wave of disenrollments: Eight Britten descendants were removed from the tribe, including Freeman's three children. The following year, 154 others got the ax.
Normally, disenrolled tribe members can appeal to the intertribal court of Southern California. But just before removing the members, the executive committee had pulled out of that regulatory body.
That left the tribe's executive committee answering to no one but the remaining voting members. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs suggested Britten's descendants be reinstated, the committee had the right to ignore the bureau — and did.
Hit by financial catastrophe, many of the removed still live on the reservation, side by side with tribal members in good standing. Many of them feel anger not just toward the executive committee but also toward the members who stood by and let it all happen. The suit claims they've been "shunned and harassed by members of the Pala community."
One disenrollee, Paul Johnson, has seen his life upended. The per capita money had helped the 56-year-old Vancouver, Wash., resident build a recording studio and work with bands — his dream job. But since his removal he's been forced into bankruptcy. His "big, beautiful" home — which he bought near the height of the real estate bubble — is facing imminent foreclosure. He and his wife have moved in with her parents, and he's closed the studio and taken a job as a retail manager.
His brother Kenneth, meanwhile, was living in a house on the reservation he'd received from his uncle; upon Kenneth's disenrollment, he was forced to leave because the land it sat on was owned by the tribe. Before long the house was demolished. "There's nothing there now," Paul Johnson says.
Look, this same scenario plays out across tribal lands where gaming is present... Huge, tax free dividends and corporate lear jets for the council members to enjoy/ Seminole, Miccasoukee...and then the abject poor...The Crow and Shoshone...
It's time for the BIA to take over all indian gaming revenue and to disperse it evenly to all native Americans across the Nation and Alaska. Fair share for each....
But then that is where the Native brotherhood stops...isn't it?
If it's sovereign land and the the government won't intervene the disenrolled are expelled they should fight it by any means necessary and go for a coup d'état.
The disenrollments stripped the members of their heritage, of their pride of being Pala Indian. It was five people taking away everything that these members knew. It would be like the President telling you that you no longer are an American citizen and that you must move, and every eye staring and laughing as you pack your things, dying inside, with no where to go, and no heritage to be proud of. In a reply to an article in the San Diego Reader, Robert Smith just recently claimed that only persons of at least 1/2 Pala blood were allotted land in Pala, which the children of Margarita Brittain were all allotted land in Pala, which proves he lied about the reason for disenrollments. Her children must be at least 1/2, which makes her grandchildren 1/4 and her great-grandchildren 1/8, and her great-great-grandchildren 1/16 (providing their were no inter-marriages, or members who married or had children from other Pala members). 1/16 is the requirement for enrollment which is the blood the great-great-grandchildren possess, so this is proof that the disenrollments were not over blood. But the general council did not vote on the disenrollments, only the Executive Committee did, who are also the Enrollment Committee, and who control the Election Committee, in fact they control everything and allow no one to question their actions or they threaten disenrollment.They also threaten the idea of treason to any relatives still enrolled that try to help the disenrolled, which is ludicrous. Can you say Dictatorship? In America? Our government steps into other countries that have evil leaders who take advantage of their people, but they stand idly by when it happens in their own land. The BIA just lets this happen in Indian Country, what are they here for? Not the individual Indian that is for sure, they only support the tribal leaders who lie to keep their own lavish lifestyles. Ask Robert Smith how many homes he has? Ask him how many supposed bad investments he has made with the tribes money? Ask him who his partners are? Follow the money and the truth shall be revealed.
What a great article! Thank you LA Weekly for exposing the truth about tribal gaming and what is being done on reservations to Native peoples. It's particularly disturbing to hear how tribal members act. "Laughing at people who have lost their money". As if receiving money payouts for doing nothing, having no career makes one better, it's quite the contrary. It has bred a new race of casino Indians as they are called.
I love the Pala Casino, and routinely go out to enjoy eateries and music venues. The hotel is a world class establishment, the spa a European delight. We have raped, pillaged, and plundered the Indians for years, it is fantastic that they get a little piece of the American pie for themselves. More power to them.
What has happened at Pala is an injustice. Similar both Pechanga in Temecula and the most egregious example at Chukchansi. We bring the stories to light of what casino gaming has wrought at ORIGINAL PECHANGA's BLOG ( http://originalpechanga.com ).
Tribe's have sovereignty, but that doesn't make it right. South Africa was a sovereign nation too, yet we interfered with their apartheid system and divested ourselves in order to persuade them to do the right thing.
That is a simple thing to do. Simply call the casino and tell them you will NO LONGER come because of what you read here. You understand their sovereignty, but you can't support a business that would cheat their OWN people. If they cheat their own, won't they cheat YOU?
If you think Wal-Mart is bad because they only pay minimum wage...what about an enterprise that steal money, violates civil and human rights, cheats their people, and lies about it? Which is worse?
Please tell your friends to NOT patronize Pala Casino, Pechanga Resort & Casino and in Northern CA, the Win-River Casino and Chukchansi Gold. ( They are the worst, eliminating 75% of their tribe)
Is it about MONEY? YOU BETCHA. Pechanga has stolen over $400 MILLION from their disenrolled. Is that enough to cheat someone of their heritage? Believe it.
@sedonasherpa Yeah, because
A) Everything you read must be true
B) All tribes are the same
C) The Native Brotherhood What??
@captmrgnx I'm not sure if your attempting to be racist or ignorant but the phrase "Indian Givers" is actually derogatory towards WHITE people! NOT NATIVE AMERICANS! In any event, I applaud you in showing your truly moronic nature.
I have one comment, that TC can not strip you of your heritage! MONEY IS NOT HERITAGE!! You are Pala, you know exactly what blood flows through your veins and they can NEVER take that away from you!!!
@alaxwish your clearly not a native american nor know anyone who is
@alaxwish When one of our elders (80's) asked what would happen if the tribe disenrolled them, some of the yahoos in the corner yelled GET A JOB! Losing health coverage was also a big factor in a lot of lives. No worries though, right, the state of CA would pick up the slack.
@fredquarters And now, the Pala Council is doing the same to their OWN people. Few of the members of any tribe in CA were raped and pillaged by Europeans. Bill Cosby refused to play at Chukchansi because of what those leaders did to their people.
The cover of the book looks great, but what lies beneath is unsavory.
I grow up on Pala Rez and I remember as a child how fun it was to play around on the Rez, such as swimming in the river bottom with brothers and Cuz. Hiking in the mountains and hunting wild game animals. The adults would watch out for one other tribal members Children. We were taught by our parents to respect our elders and to respect our fellow tribal people too. But the children now days have no respect for Elders or our fellow tribal members. It starts with Executive Committee member who are charge of tribe. They are the leaders of the tribe and some have lead by good example and some have not. Those Executive Committee that have lead by bad example have hurt tribe and given our tribe a black EYE. How I miss the old days as child.