Out in Jamul, about a mile past the Simpson's nursery complex, just past the fire station, and before the small town gives way to open grassland, a cluster of prefabricated and trailer homes crown a hillock to the southwest of the road. A quarter of the way up the hillside behind the village, a tiny white church stands in contrast to the gray-green chaparral behind it. A cluster of gravestones is just visible from the road. A sign along the road announces that this is the Jamul Indian Village. Since 1981, it has been recognized by the federal government as an Indian reservation, with 56 members to its tribe. And since the early '90s, it's been the center of a hot debate: Indian gaming.
Though the argument has raged for the better part of a decade, no casino has ever been built. Not that Jamul Indians couldn't have built a casino already, Bill Mesa, tribal councilmember, is quick to point out. "If we wanted to," the former El Cajon police officer says, "we could right now put up a building and, if we could get machine licenses, put machines and tables and everything else that we want, and open a casino."
What's stopping the Jamul Indians (who, like the bands on the Sycuan, Barona, and Viejas reservations, are Kumeyaay) is the size of their reservation. Where the big three in Indian gaming — Barona, Sycuan, and Viejas — have 6000, 640, and 1600 acres, respectively, the Jamul Indian Village sits on 6 acres. Four and a half were donated by the Daley Family, which owns much of the undeveloped ranch land around Jamul, and one and a half — including the church and graveyard — were given to the tribe by the Catholic Church.
Because most nongaming Indian tribes, including the Jamul band, lack the necessary resources, outside investors must fund the planning and building of reservation casinos. "And they want size," says Jamul resident and anti-casino activist Rick Hennen. "They need the size in order to make it economically feasible. But [on six acres] they are only going to be able to build something that is 16,000-20,000 square feet. That is all their land will support. Nobody is going to want to come in here and operate a casino that small. They want to be able to have 2000 slots, the maximum a tribe is allowed to have. In order to support 2000 slots, you have got to have 2000 parking spaces, the room to put the machines, etcetera."
But the Jamul Indians do have significant outside monetary investment, and they are planning a full-size casino. Though Mesa insists no plans have been finalized, he says the most current design proposal submitted by the architectural firm he has retained, Urban Design, out of Dallas, Texas, "was about 240,000 feet. That included parking — 95,000 square feet of gaming area."
Sitting at a heavy wooden conference table in the modular tribal office building, Mesa insists that his tribe and its investors, Lakes Gaming out of Minnesota and Keane-Argovitz Resorts out of Texas, aren't going to accomplish this feat by building skyward. "It is not going to be, regardless of what anybody will tell you, or what you see on anybody's website — Jamulians Against Casinos or Dianne Jacob's or anybody else's — we are not planning on building a 17-story Vegas-style casino. The tribe met with several architects before we found one that will build something that we thought was subdued, that will fit into the countryside, and that we could live with too. Because, frankly, the tribe did not want the Hard Rock Cafe. We did not want a monstrosity in here, we just wanted a casino." The key to the Indians' plan is to effectively expand the reservation. Mesa says, "Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the idea was that you could game on property. IGR said that if you had property in trust -- in other words, you are a recognized Indian reservation, before the time that this law was passed, 1988 — that it is okay to game on it. Well, for us, that is a 6-acre strip of land. So our priority at first was more land. And prior to even hooking up with Lakes, we had purchased the land where the fire station is. That property belongs to the tribe; it is a 4-acre plot that belongs to us. The fire department has been on a multiyear lease that they get for $1 a year. So when Lakes came in, they bought another 87-acre parcel to the west, and then just to the other side of Melody Lane, that little road that you pass when you drive in here, there is a 10-acre parcel that they purchased. What we are working on right now is getting that land put into trust. When I say put into trust: once it is in trust to the federal government for the Jamul Indian Village, it will become Indian reservation land. And then we can game on that land."
Patrick Webb, a Jamulian attorney who has waged a one-man legal war against the Jamul band's casino plans, disputes Mesa's claim that newly acquired land would make gaming legal. It's one of a few fronts on which he's fought the war against the casino. "[The Indians] believe," Webb says, "that if that land was in trust status, that it would qualify to allow Indian gaming to take place on it. [My clients] do not believe that is what the statute says. The National Indian Gaming Statute says that you have to have a reservation that is either declared as a reservation by the President, by Congress, or by a treaty ratified by the Senate."
Mesa says that's only half of the story. "The federal regulations on that issue say you can game on land contiguous [to a previously existing reservation]. And all the land we're buying is contiguous to the original land."
Webb is fighting the casino on another front: tribal membership. He represents Walter Rosales, a charter tribal member who disputes the legitimacy of the current tribal council president and members and claims to be the tribe's true president. He's supported in this claim by a second tribal member, Karen Toggery. Since 1995, Webb has filed seven lawsuits advocating Rosales's and Toggery's claims. Among those named as defendants have been elected tribal officials, the federal government, and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. All of Webb's suits have been dismissed and now are pending appeal.
At the center of the lawsuits is the tribe's founding constitution, which dates to 1981, when the band of Indians living on the reservation were declared a tribe under the Indian Reorganization Act, a 1930s federal statute designed to provide groups of Native Americans, who could not prove their historical tribal existence, a way to gain recognition as a tribe. "Reorganized tribes," Webb explains, "since they are considered to have been tribeless at some point in time, are squeezed into this mold of what the Roosevelt administration decided was going to qualify to be a reorganized tribe. Each one adopted constitutions, just like the 50 states all have constitutions. Now, the one in Jamul specifically requires that to be a member, you had to have half-blood or more as far as the degree of Indian blood you maintain. Persons of half-degree or more California Indian blood who resided in the Jamul Indian Village at the time of the adoption of this constitution -- it was adopted in May of 1981 -- those are the members. And there are two other provisions that pick up all the heirs, all the people that come after them. The problem that my clients have faced is that [some new members] are not half-bloods or better, they are quarters, sixteenths, sixty-fourths."
Mesa counters, "When we did our first constitution, it was for half-bloods because that was the minimum under the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act]. That was the minimum blood quantity that you could have under an IRA tribe. So we started out with 23 people who were the tribe. Later on, the tribe had what they call a secretarial election -- and the secretary I am talking about is the secretary of the interior -- by which we amended our constitution to include quarter-bloods. There are tribes out their that are down to sixteenths and thirty-seconds blood. Besides, the Bureau of Indian Affairs says, 'Your enrollment is your business.' "
Webb also contends that the Jamul tribe has no right to game on their reservation because the gaming compact between the State of California and its 107 tribes requires the tribe to hold a federally issued "class-three gaming ordinance. And to date, despite them trying to do this for eight years, they never adopted a class-three gaming ordinance in Jamul, so the very ticket by which they would get to use their compact with Governor Davis to allow gaming doesn't exist, because they never passed such an ordinance."
Mesa responds, "We don't have a class-three gaming ordinance; we have a class two. But you have to have a class-three ordinance when you game. The head of the National Indian Gaming Commission sat right at this very table, and we asked him if it was a big deal that we didn't have the class-three gaming ordinance, and he said, 'No, that is not a big deal.' "
Mesa adds, "Class three would allow the slot machines. Bingo and things like that fall under class two. But the head of the National Indian Gaming Commission said that until we have the machines, we don't need to have the class three. And, as a matter of fact, he said if you have a class two, when the time comes, all you need to do is write an amendment to the class two and say. 'We now want to have a class three,' and that it's almost an immediate approval."
Hennen steers his royal blue, leather-upholstered Dodge Dakota along west on serpentine Highway 94, just east of town. It's 6:30 in the evening, and the Jamul sun bathes the car in golden light. Where the road bends sharply north, the little homes of the reservation come into view straight ahead. On the hillsides, the white walls of red-tiled villas shine in the low-angled sun. Past the fire station and a long-closed prime-rib restaurant, "downtown Jamul" comes into view. "The biggest problem about the casino plan," Hennen says, "is this road. This is why the town is up in arms. This is the only way in and out of town, the only major thoroughfare. It is two lanes, and there are many, many accidents. There were four teenagers that were killed on this road within the last nine to ten months in four different incidents. And now the Indians are talking about adding numbers as low as 10,000 cars a day and as high as 25,000 cars a day and possibly serving alcohol. It is a recipe for more disaster."
Through downtown and a quarter of the way down the Steele Canyon grade toward Rancho San Diego, a 7-Eleven store pops up on the right. "This is one of two intersections in Jamul," Hennen says, "that Caltrans grades at level F. The other one is a little further down."
Level F, Hennen explains, "means failure. It means the traffic gets deadlocked, and you are just stuck there. It's like that every morning and every afternoon here."
Marcia Spurgeon is a real estate agent who works primarily in Jamul. An outspoken critic of the casino, she brags about the foothill town's charms as she drives her Jeep Cherokee up and down the hilly roads. "One of the nice things about Jamul," she says as she cruises east on Lawson Valley Road, "is our starry sky at night. We have a dark-sky ordinance out here. Notice there are no streetlights. And homeowners can't have certain kinds of outdoor lighting. As a result we have wonderful stars at night. That's another thing that the casino might ruin."
The fact that the Indian village isn't subject to the zoning laws that would preclude any non-Indian group from building a similar-sized project in Jamul galls Spurgeon. "If you want to do something like that," she exclaims, "you should go by the rules!"
However, she visibly chafes at the idea of resigning herself to the idea of a Sycuan-sized casino in Jamul. "I'll stand in the middle of Highway 94 first. I feel that strongly about it."