Johnson says his family knew there were problems. They regularly challenged the executive committee about financial information during general council meetings.
“The executive committee always reports tribal investments as ‘lost.’ We said, ‘Wait a second. How can every single investment [the tribe] makes be a bad investment?’ We asked for full financial disclosure, and they said it was private information. We said, ‘How can it be more private than the tribe?’” Johnson claims that certain members receive extra benefits for their support of the executive committee.
Johnson is optimistic, however, that he will eventually be reinstated as a tribal member. He is among a large group of the disenrolled who have sought legal action to be reenrolled. But each time former Pala members have filed a complaint within the United States federal court system, the cases have been dismissed due to tribal sovereignty.
On March 1, Johnson and 27 former members of the Pala band appeared in Southern California District Federal Court over a filed complaint against the six members of the Pala Executive Committee. They sought monetary damages and declaratory and injunctive relief. Their claims included: conspiracy to interfere with civil rights; deprivation of equal rights under the law; conversion; tortious interference with prospective economic advantage; defamation; and civil conspiracy.
In court documents, the disenrolled’s accusations against executive committee members include alleged illegal activities concerning the propriety of tribal elections, the executive committee’s financial dealings, and their motives for entering into certain contracts on behalf of the tribe. They object to the defendants’ personal use of tribal assets and to the construction of a raceway on the reservation that was not approved by the general council.
The judge dismissed the case and it is now under appeal.
Johnson says,“[We were] very disappointed over the outcome. There was an opportunity for the judge to rule in our favor, and he chose to take the path of least resistance. We hope the [executive committee] get overconfident and do something stupid. We will be there to gather up evidence and use it wisely.”
In Robert Smith’s opinion, the disenrolled are wasting their money every time they take the executive committee to court.
“Congress has no jurisdiction over the tribe. This is a group of people that can’t get what they want, so they go through the courts. Most of these people have never worked a day in their lives. They should do what most Americans do and get a job.”
According to tribal member Mary Young (not her real name): “Fighting Robert is worth every penny I spend.” Young’s children were disenrolled February 1, 2011, but she remains a member of the tribe. When she speaks about her children’s removal, she gets wound up enough to weep. “What people don’t understand is that it would be like someone telling you that you are no longer American enough to be a United States citizen. People have a hard time feeling sorry for us because they say all we care about is the money. But our heritage is being ripped away.”
Mary says that when Robert Smith first became tribal chairman, she saw him as a good man who wanted the best for the tribe. She believed his intentions were pure. But somewhere along the line, she says, he became clouded by the money.
“In the beginning stages of the casino, Robert wanted to help the tribe. Then, slowly, he started to change. I thought the idea of the casino was great. We have insurance and an education fund, but unfortunately it brought corruption.”
Ken Jones (not his real name), another tribal member and a descendant of Margarita Brittain, says, “We have more right [to be members] than any of them. We are the Cupeño Indians. They are the Mexicans and the outsiders. The United States government has allowed a bunch of Yaqui Indians and a bunch of Cahuillas to come in and take over our tribe.”
According to Jones, in anticipation of disenrollments, the executive committee lowered per capita income to members by $500 per month. After the disenrollments, per capita income was bumped up by $1000 per month. It was later lowered by $500, bringing the total back to the original amount and leaving the illusion that a raise had been awarded. Jones wonders where all the money went. With 17 percent of his tribe gone, they certainly should see a spike in the per capita.
San Diego County has the largest concentration of Indian reservations in the nation; it is home to 18 federally recognized tribes. Ten of the tribes host Las Vegas–style casinos.
A report commissioned by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association estimates Indian gaming at a $7.5-billion source of annual economic activity in California.
In recent years the Pechanga tribe, Jamul Indian Village, and the San Pasqual band have all disenrolled members. All host or intend to host casinos. Beginning in 2004–2008, the Pechanga, who operate the most lucrative casino in Riverside County, eliminated 20 percent of their tribe. It is estimated that their monthly per capita subsequently jumped from $15,000 to $40,000.
In 2005, the Jamul Indian Village disenrolled a fifth of their members in anticipation of a yet-to-be-built three-story casino.
In 2011, the San Pasqual band — they run Valley View Casino — eliminated 60 members. Their disenrolled were descendants of Marcus Alto Senior, a man adopted by a tribal couple in 1907 when he was three days old.
“It was so sad when it happened to Pechanga,” says Mary Young. “I stopped going to their casino. But never in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen to us.”
Roger Adams (not his real name), another disenrolled Pala member, says, “It’s happening more and more to Indian tribes. The government isn’t going to be able to close their eyes to it. When you start seeing thousands of disenrollments, you have to stop it. Across the United States, so many of our tribes are doing this, and it’s mostly the ones with casinos. When money gets involved, disenrollments happen.”