In February 2007, the Barona Band of Mission Indians sponsored state legislation entitled Unlawful Entry: Tribal Land. San Diego County’s board of supervisors, as well as Sheriff Bill Kolender and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, signed on to the California State Senate bill as supporters. The bill would give tribal governments a new tool to control their lands by sending suspect persons letters warning them not to trespass. Violators could face a fine of $250 for a first offense and $500 for a second.
Thinking that troublesome gamblers might be at the bottom of the bill, I called the Barona casino. The “media department” did not call back. But a supervisor on the casino floor, who wished to remain anonymous and knew nothing of the proposed law, said bad actors are routinely thrown out. Tribal members, as well as non-Indians, receive the expulsions, which are often permanent. “I don’t mean it’s an everyday thing, but it’s happened thousands of times, though people can get reinstated by going before our gaming commission,” said the supervisor. “But we don’t keep track of them once they leave here.”
But Unlawful Entry’s appearance coincided with turmoil among California Indians over an increasing tendency of gaming tribes to disenroll members. Gloria Romero, the bill’s author, withdrew the measure in June 2007. Romero represents the 24th district of East Los Angeles. She is the senate’s majority leader and chair of its Public Safety Committee. The biography on her senate website states that, among other things, Romero is “a forceful advocate for California’s most disadvantaged citizens.”
The backpedaling could have been a response to an LA Weekly blast earlier in the month. Romero, claimed the paper, “is an eager recipient of campaign contributions from the Pechangas, the Agua Caliente, the Morongo and other powerful gambling tribes.… Her voting record shows that a reliable 75 percent of the time Romero votes for tribal gambling interests.” The article ends with this flourish: “Don’t think for a moment that our Democrats aren’t up in Sacramento tirelessly fighting for the little guys. Yeah, right.”
Not much has been heard about Unlawful Entry since last summer. But on March 11, according to legislative records, it successfully passed out of the assembly’s Public Safety Committee with five ayes and no nays.
The Barona Band argues that “trespass incidents are a critical community safety issue. At this time, there is no consequence when an individual is banned from the reservation and later returns. Existing law…requires lands to be cultivated or enclosed by a fence, while uncultivated or unenclosed lands must have signs posted no less than three to a mile on each road and trail to forbid trespassing. This would be impractical.… The exterior boundaries are fenced; however, it is impractical to fence each side of the county road [running eight miles through Barona tribal land].… Trespass signs throughout the reservation are either ignored or they are removed. [Thus], the district attorney has been unable to prosecute trespassers on Barona’s lands.”
The Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueño Indians and the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association agree. “Federally recognized tribal lands in California…would benefit tremendously from an Indian lands trespass law. This would ensure that all areas on a reservation including residential areas, are protected from repeat trespassers.”
San Diego is the only California county to have registered official support for Unlawful Entry: Tribal Land. Two others have registered their opposition. Madera County, in central California, says that existing state law adequately covers trespassing on Indian lands.
David Prentice, Madera’s county counsel, tells me by phone that he believes Unlawful Entry could also make it difficult for California law enforcement officers to enter tribal lands when investigating a potential crime. “I mean, they are sovereign lands,” says Prentice. “And law enforcement would have no way of knowing, especially with gaming tribes, what the tribal membership is and whether someone belongs on tribal land or not. So the law would be ineffective anyway. It would just be adding law on top of laws.”
Siskiyou County, on California’s northern border, opposes the legislation as well. A written analysis by senate staff registers the county’s argument as follows. The bill “would destroy vested private property rights of non-tribal member property owners located within [the] reservations.… ‘Non-members’ could be prevented from access, use and enjoyment of their or their family or friend’s privately owned property. It could also impair the general public’s ability to pass through the reservation.”
A harsher charge from Indians of Enterprise Number One in Paradise, near Chico, appears in the senate analysis of Unlawful Entry. According to Enterprise One, “California Indians who are the victims of disenrollment, banishment, or who have been denied membership through moratoriums could conceivably become homeless as they will [now] be considered as ‘trespassers’…while simply trying to return to their own homes.… Civil rights violations for Indian people are commonplace in these troubled times. Disenrollments flourish as the gaming dollars increase and the tribal memberships decline through acts of one Indian upon another. The desire among tribal governments is to split as much gaming money as possible among as few Indians as possible. Currently, only 9 percent of the Indians in California benefit from gaming revenues.
“This bill…adds but another layer of difficulty for those Indians diligently pursuing a solution for civil rights violations occurring in California’s Indian Country today.”
According to the state senate’s legislative analysis, federal law gives tribes “authority [to punish tribal offenders,] ‘to determine tribal membership, to regulate domestic relations among members, and to prescribe rules of inheritance for members.’ ”
The senate analysis reports on a November 26, 2006, story in USA Today. The story quotes Laura Wass, executive director of the Many Lightnings American Indian Legacy Center in Fresno. “In California, at least 2000 Native Americans have been taken off the rolls of their tribes since 1999,” said Wass. “Disenrollments have surged with the rise of Indian casinos.”
At the same time, Indians do not have rights under federal law to redress grievances by bringing suit against their tribes. In 2004, John Gomez and about 130 relatives were disenrolled by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians near Temecula. “The Pechanga Indians run a lucrative casino…and split the profits among tribe members,” according to USA Today. “Each member of Gomez’s family used to get about $15,000 a month, he says. Once they were disenrolled, the payments stopped and the money went to remaining tribe members.” Subsequently, Gomez and others started the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs does adjudicate disenrollments for some tribes, such as the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians in North County. Last Friday, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the San Pasqual Band “withheld casino profit checks from about 50 people,” arguing that they do not have the necessary one-eighth Indian blood to qualify for the payments. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs may stop the action.
Is there a danger, asks the legislative analyst, “that ‘gaming tribes’ [could] abuse [Unlawful Entry], if enacted, to banish disenrolled members? Could this bill create the potential that disenrolled members could be fined for necessary acts such as travelling to their homes, seeking medical services at Indian health facilities, and visiting tribal members?”
Stand Up for California is a citizen advocacy group out of Penryn, northeast of Sacramento. Cheryl Schmit, the organization’s director, faxed me a letter she sent to Unlawful Entry’s author, Gloria Romero, on May 29, 2007. Referring to the bill’s potential to control problem customers at Indian casinos, Schmit admitted that it could be “laudable and necessary in some instances.” Nevertheless, she noted, “California’s Mission Indian Reservations were created by ‘allotments,’ [which] are privately owned and can be passed on to their heirs. Some of these allotments have been transferred to fee-land and sold to non-Indians. [Both Indian and non-Indian] owners are sometimes being illegally prevented from traveling on Indian Reservation Roads [which are state roads] to reach their private properties.… By not resolving this problem, the bill would set the stage for extensive litigation.”
As Unlawful Entry makes its way toward possible passage, I wanted to find out what prompted San Diego County officials to support it. As of this writing, a request seeking the position of Bonnie Dumanis has not been answered. And a legislative assistant in Kolender’s office told me he had never heard of the measure.
Bill Kolender, however, was for many years a tribal relations representative for the California State Sheriffs’ Association. During the spring of 2006, the last time Kolender ran for sheriff of San Diego County, several officials of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation contributed to his campaign. Khanh Pham, compliance officer for the Sycuan Gaming Commission, contributed $250; tribal manager William Tucker, $750; and Nubia Ruiz, a member of the tribal council, $500; for a total of $1500.
Neither Sycuan nor the Barona Band of Mission Indians, which sponsored Unlawful Entry: Tribal Land, is currently known to be disenrolling members.