Tuesday, July 1, 2008

San Pasqual band says some lack Indian blood

A long-simmering dispute within a North County Indian band boiled over yesterday when the tribe withheld casino profit checks from about 50 people, claiming that one of their ancestors was adopted and that as a result, they're not really Indians.

The San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, which operates the recently expanded Valley View Casino, also fired several people from tribal jobs and leadership positions after questioning their membership and said it would evict them from homes on tribal land.

“Old issues that have been sleeping in the background for 15 years have resurfaced,” tribal Chairman Allen Lawson said earlier this week.

Some of those who face exclusion from the 300-member tribe say greed is the reason they were targeted. Each tribal member gets a monthly check of nearly $4,000 from casino profits.

“It's sad because it's all about the money,” said Angela Martinez-McNeal, the tribal secretary, whose background is now questioned. “We know who we are. We've been through this.”

To be part of the San Pasqual band, people have to be at least one-eighth “blood of the band.” That limits membership to people who have a great-grandparent who is or was a full-blooded San Pasqual Indian.

“There has to be a proven degree of blood,” Lawson said. He wouldn't talk about the dispute yesterday, calling it “an internal tribal issue.”

Outside the tribal offices, a security guard blocked the driveway while a tribal member checked identification. A couple of sheriff's deputies watched from their patrol car, parked under a tree half a block away.

“We're here to keep it peaceful,” Sgt. Bob Bishop said.

Membership has become a touchy issue for tribes across the nation, especially since the growth of Indian casinos.

But it goes beyond money and extends to how people think about themselves and their families, said Tom Gamboa, an American Indian studies professor at Grossmont College in El Cajon.

“You grow up with that identity and then all of a sudden, when they say, 'No, you're not a part of us,' boy, that's harsh,” Gamboa said.

In this case, the local head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the tribe's actions are wrong.

Although many tribes resolve membership disputes on their own, the BIA decides those issues for San Pasqual, said James Fletcher, Southern California superintendent for the bureau.

Because the bureau hasn't had a chance to rule on this latest move, the tribe can't cut off monthly checks, fire people or kick them out of their houses while asserting that they're not tribal members, Fletcher said.

“They're members until such time as the BIA changes its mind,” he said.

And that won't be easy, because the head of the agency ruled 13 years ago that the ancestor in question was a full-blooded Indian.

“It will take something substantial to change that,” Fletcher said.

He said he has reported a “potential violation” of revenue-sharing rules to the National Indian Gaming Commission.

If the gaming commission finds that the tribe hasn't followed its plan for distributing casino profits, it can issue fines or take harsher action, a spokesman said.

The core of the long dispute is whether Marcus Alto Sr., who died in 1988, was adopted.

Three members of the five-member tribal enrollment committee said in letters to Alto's more than 50 descendants that a recently completed anthropological report concluded he was, and that they aren't proper members of the tribe.

Yesterday's flare-up is the latest in a string of membership feuds between San Pasqual tribal factions. In 2005, the BIA rejected an effort to add 212 members. At that time, the enrollment committee said it had found the people proposed for membership had more Indian blood than earlier thought.

The dispute led to a 10-day protest vigil at the tribal headquarters and heated exchanges.

The San Pasqual band has a tragic history.

It's made up of descendants of a village of about 100 people evicted at gunpoint from the San Pasqual Valley by sheriff's deputies in the 1870s to make way for white settlers. Their homeland is now the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Over the ensuing decades, members of the tribe moved to cities and other reservations and married non-Indians. The federal government finally establishing a reservation on five parcels in Valley Center in 1910.

The San Pasqual Indians “got what pieces of land were left after the good farmland was taken,” anthropologist Florence Shipek said in a 1994 interview. “They got one of the rawest deals of anybody, because they've been separated for so long. They didn't even get a piece of their own land.”

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