Pala's Big Gamble: A SoCal Tribe's Casino Made Them Rich. But At What Cost? | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Pala's Big Gamble: A SoCal Tribe's Casino Made Them Rich. But At What Cost? 

Thursday, Jun 20 2013
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Born in a house less than 100 feet from his store, Freeman has lived almost all of his life on the reservation. A few decades back, he recalls, it contained fewer than 60 dwellings. He's seen, and in many cases overseen, its infrastructure buildup, including upgraded water and sewer systems.

But it was under the tenure of the current tribal chairman, Robert Smith, that the casino and its spoils came to Pala. And it is with Smith that Freeman maintains a caustic bloodline dispute, involving Freeman's great-grandmother Margarita Britten, a basket weaver so beloved that roads in the village are named for her.

At issue? Whether Britten's father was white rather than Indian. Under tribal rules, members must possess 1/16 "Pala blood," based on a "blood quantum" system of dubious scientific merit borrowed from the colonial-era U.S. government.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES - The Pala Casino and Hotel
  • PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES
  • The Pala Casino and Hotel
     
 

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It's a bizarre system, one that will inevitably whittle the tribe to nothing, and the opposite of the so-called "one-drop rule" of the segregation era, in which anyone with any African ancestry at all was considered Negro.

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.

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