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Casino Nation

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.

The Gabrielino/Tongva Nation can be traced back several thousand years. The Page Museum holds the 7,000-year-old skeleton of a woman believed to be Tongva trapped in the La Brea Tar Pits. Today, its tribal history is well-documented through 2,800 archaeological sites, including villages at California State University at Long Beach, the Sheldon Reservoir in Pasadena and most recently the Playa Vista site near Loyola Marymount University. Federal recognition has eluded the tribe for decades.

In 1994, the Gabrielino/Tongva of San Gabriel filed for federal recognition. Other Gabrielino tribes have done the same. The Gabrielino/Tongva of California Tribal Council filed in 1997. So did the Coastal Gabrielino-Diegueno Band of Mission Indians. Alcala says he sent the letter of intent for the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Council in the late ’90s, although the Bureau of Indian Affairs says they received no filing.

The application process is lengthy and takes up to 20 years and is not a sure thing. Tribes often seek alternatives, including having a politician introduce legislation to bypass the certification process. When Solis jumped on board, the tribe hoped to become the first one in the L.A. basin to win federal recognition. “It got bad publicity because right away politicians were saying it was a gaming bill,” said Morales. “Plus the Santa Monica group was contacting agencies and were saying it was their bill and they wanted gaming.”

 

Westside trial attorney Jonathan Stein says he is only trying to help the Gabrielinos get beyond their history of abject poverty. That is why he says he has aligned himself with the pro-casino Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Council.

“No one was interested in helping these guys obtain economic self-sufficiency,” he said. “This tribe was going nowhere even though it was extremely well-documented.”

Stein’s company, St. Monica Development, is filling the role of tribal developer, and is leading the effort to open up a casino in Compton. “It was Stein who came to us with the casino idea,” said Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin. “We haven’t spoken to anyone from that tribe.”

Perrodin says Stein approached him last year with his plan to buy 40 acres of city-owned land that used to be the site of Compton’s auto mall. The proposal called for 4,000 slot machines, a promenade, supermarket and theaters as well as a cultural center dedicated to the Gabrielinos. The Tongva Entertainment Facility would generate $35 million in revenue for city and school agencies during the first year of operations. It would also create some 4,000 jobs.

It would also net the 400-member tribe upward of $12,500 per month each, according to the Santa Monica tribe’s earlier lawsuit.

But Perrodin had second thoughts about selling the land to Stein after he recently discovered that the Santa Monica tribe lacked federal recognition. Perrodin complained of what he called strong-arm tactics to get him to continue supporting the project. “Stein spoke to my brother. He said your brother better watch out in the next election,” he said. (When asked to comment, Stein said he never made such a statement.)

Perrodin says that Stein’s offer is still on the table, though he won’t tie up the land waiting for Dymally’s bill to be passed. “If there is a better offer, we will take it. The day that the city of Compton begs developers to come here is over.”

 

For his part, 56-year-old Anthony Morales says he got involved with tribal politics in the mid-’90s after his father, Fred “Sparky” Morales, the tribe’s leader for 40 years, had a stroke. The former fire-sprinkler installer said his goal has always been to fulfill his father’s dream of federal recognition.

In 1994, the San Gabriel tribe received nonprofit status with the state. It gets most of its funding through grants and donations. In 2001, the nonprofit received $149,838 in public donations and government grants, including $60,000 from the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Heritage Commission. Morales runs the operation at the back of a community center in San Gabriel with two other officers.

Morales is currently fighting against the Playa Vista Development, which has so far unearthed 200 partial and full bodies of Gabrielinos who once lived there in a village called Sa’angna. Morales wants his ancestors’ remains to be left alone, but an agreement signed by members of his council in 1991 paved the way for the future development of an elementary school, over 6,000 residential units and an interpretive center dedicated to the land and the Gabrielino culture. He believes the agreement was signed without the full tribal council’s consent. “This is a moral issue,” he says. “They are destroying a cemetery. They are desecrating Native Indian burial grounds. What is going on is an atrocity. It is all in the name of the almighty buck.”

 

Allied with Morales is the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe of California Tribal Council, run by Robert Dorame, one of the most vocal opponents of the Playa Vista development. A member of his council recently filed the federal lawsuit in January alleging numerous violations of federal laws resulting from the destruction of the burial and sacred sites at Playa Vista.

But not everyone is against the development at the Playa Vista site. Morales’ cousin Martin Alcala, of the Santa Monica tribe, has worked for years as a paid Native American monitor and archaeological consultant. He says his ancestors are being taken care of with respect. “They [Playa] are treating my ancestors with the proper dignity that they deserve. They are not plowing through the ground with a bulldozer. They are delicately treating the bones.”

Alcala, who is currently a paid monitor on the Playa Vista site along with his son and fellow Councilman Dunlap, describes his time spent as a member of the San Gabriel tribe as frustrating. “Nothing was being done. They all wanted to argue. There are different views in the Native American community. There are Native Americans that want nothing to do with the white man, and we believe in compromise,” he said. “They say they are opposed to a casino. They are committing themselves to a lifetime of poverty.”

Muddying the relationship between the tribal factions are the paid monitor jobs at development sites that net a worker $300 a day.

“The Indian community is extremely upset that Playa is using Indians against Indians. The pay is a detriment to monitoring there,” said Dorame. “You have these individuals that will do the wrong thing. And history has not changed. See Custer with the Crow Indians ready to annihilate the Sioux Indians. A non-Indian using an Indian against an Indian to get what he wants.” Members of Dorame’s council are also paid monitors on the site, but he says they are not doing it for the money.

But Jim Velasquez, the chief of the Coastal Gabrielenos, who has worked as a paid monitor for 22 years, says it is all a matter of economics. “Where are they going to get a job to make that kind of money? You shut the project down and you put everyone out of work, including yourself,” he said. “It is a gold mine. They don’t lift a finger. They just look. That is good money. If the developer says everyone goes home, look at what they suddenly lose.” But the job can be cutthroat. Velasquez says he received a bullet in the mail in the ’90s when he worked as a full-time monitor for the Irvine Co. on its Newport construction project.

 

Last December, the city of Compton, with the backing of Mayor Perrodin, passed a resolution supporting the Santa Monica–based Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Council’s offer to purchase the former auto mall. The resolution paved the way for Dymally’s two bills, AB 2272 and 2273, which would allow for a state-sanctioned gaming compact between the tribe and the state and establish a state tribal reservation, according to Stein, on land 300 feet from what once was a Gabrielino seasonal village. The bills switch state recognition for the federal recognition necessary under the federal law that polices Indian gaming. Currently, five states recognize tribes. “We see this as a means of getting out of the grinding poverty that has existed in our tribe for 200 or 300 years,” said Alcala.

But foes say the legislation is unconstitutional and that states can only enter into gaming agreements with federally recognized tribes. Dorame says the Santa Monica tribe should be directing its focus on preserving its ancestors, not promoting a bill in Compton. “It is absolutely ludicrous,” he said. “We are taking care of our grandparents.”

Dymally’s office sees no connection. “One of these groups has had the foresight to get status,” said Bob Farrell, spokesperson for Dymally’s office. “If these guys can put this together, it would be a heck of a boost to the community.”

Dymally’s bill faces a long road. It must get by the Government Operations Committee next week, and, if passed by both houses of the state Legislature, must win approval of Governor Schwarzenegger, who is currently brokering a deal with other Indian gaming groups. Another bill has been put forward that would open up slot-machine gaming to all interested parties, including racetracks and card clubs.

 

While those battles are being waged, other Gabrielinos, not affiliated with the two rival factions, are working toward bringing them together for the greater good of the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Nation.

So far it hasn’t worked.

Linda Gonzales, a Gabrielino/Tongva-Yaqui, believes the rivalry has to stop. She says that those not aligned with a particular council are left out. “We are made to feel that we are less Tongva or less Gabrielino. It is not fair. They are making their own relatives feel worthless.”


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