The Pala Indian reservation sits 40 miles northeast of San Diego, on 12,333 acres in the middle of the San Luis Rey River Valley. If you approach from along Highway 76, a winding, two-lane road that takes you through Palomar Mountain’s foothills, the first landmark you see is the Pala Casino. It’s a Las Vegas–style casino and hotel, and it looks garish among the modest tribal-member-owned ranch-style homes and rundown businesses. The casino boasts over 2000 slot and video machines, 87 table games, a 9-table poker room, and a 507-room hotel. It opened its doors on April 13, 2001.
If, instead of entering the casino’s parking garage, you make a left onto Pala Mission Road, you wind up in the heart of the reservation. Remnants of the tribe’s past are evident along this main drag. A scruffy mutt with matted white fur roams the graveled lot in front of a run-down fruit-and-vegetable stand. Next door is a small, paint-chipped Mexican restaurant and hamburger joint. Double-wide trailers house a beauty salon and a tattoo parlor. A few blocks farther and you come to the Mission San Antonio de Pala. A white picket fence surrounds a cemetery overrun with wildflowers. Wooden headstones tilt over the graves, etched with old tribal family names. The mission opened June 13, 1816, and it is the last California mission still in operation. Across the street sits the Pala General Store, established in 1867. Tribal elders sit on a weathered bench out in front and watch the comings and goings.
Another half-mile down Mission Road, the gaming wealth becomes evident. A sports complex and the tribe’s brand-new administration building, professionally landscaped, sit side by side.
The casino opened after California voters passed Proposition 1A, in March 2000, approving Indian gaming on reservation lands. Since Indian tribes are sovereign, the Pala Band of Mission Indians does not publicly disclose their profits, but the Pala Casino is clearly profitable. Each of its 800 or so members over the age of 18 receives an estimated $13,000 (before taxes, insurance, utilities, and other benefits) in casino earnings per month.
In the late ’90s, when the idea of a casino was first considered, members viewed it as a source of security for their financially struggling tribe. Back then, the reservation had few opportunities for employment, and many members moved off the reservation to make better lives for themselves. But a small minority wanted nothing to do with the casino, viewing it as an invitation to trouble. They wanted to keep things as they were and not let outsiders in.
“The casino was supposed to be a good thing for our people,” Paul Johnson, a former member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, explains. “Unfortunately, a small group of people have turned it from something that was supposed to uplift our tribe and used it for their own personal gain.”
On June 1, 2011, eight tribal members were disenrolled by the band’s executive committee, a six-person elected governing body that rules the tribe. A year later, 154 more members were taken off the roll, losing their per capita, health benefits, and housing. In early 2013, two more were cut; these last members are children.
The cited cause of tribal disenrollment is a blood-purity dispute. All 164 disenrolled members are relatives of the late Margarita Brittain, a woman whose lineage has long been questioned by tribal members. The Pala Band of Mission Indians’ tribal constitution states that in order to be a member, 1/16 Pala blood is necessary.
The disenrolled give various reasons for their removal; none have anything to do with blood quantum. Among the alleged motivations are greed, power struggles, and old family feuds. But there is one notion all 164 agree on: if the casino had never opened, they would still belong to their tribe.
At the center of the scandal are two men: Robert Smith, current tribal chairman; and King Freeman, the previous chairman.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon when I pull my truck into the parking lot of the Pala store. The structure has a Wild West feel. A rusted vintage sign features a Coca-Cola label and advertises “Levi’s, Genuine Indian Jewelry, and Curios.” A larger sign reads “Pala Store established in 1897.”
The shop is bustling. Outside, two old men — one with long white hair, the other wearing clunky prescription glasses — sit on a bench. Inside, women chit-chat in the aisles. A group of elders shares a table near the store’s café.
King Freeman stands behind the counter. He greets me with a nod. The Pala store has been in Freeman’s family for three generations — his grandfather was the original owner. Freeman leads me through the store and toward the back room, stopping to scold two young women who stand in front of the coolers. “Stop your gossiping,” he says with a wink, and the women smile.
Freeman carries himself with importance. When he speaks, his voice is so soft I am forced to lean in to hear him. This soft tone gives his words additional weight.
Margarita Brittain was King Freeman’s great-grandmother and a respected tribal elder. Brittain arrived on the Pala reservation in 1903 when she was six or seven years old; her people, the Cupeños, had been forced from their village at Warner Springs and were relocated to the Pala reservation to live with the Luiseño tribe. In 1913, the two tribes merged to make the Pala Band of Mission Indians. In order for individual Cupeños to become members and receive parcels of land, 1/8 Cupeño Indian blood was required. In the 1960s, that was changed to a requirement of 1/16 Luiseño or Cupeño blood.
On the official 1913 Pala enrollment documents, Margarita Brittain is listed as a full-blood Cupeño Indian. In the 1970s, however, it was discovered that someone had gone into the document, circled Brittain’s blood degree, and in ink changed her blood quantum to ½ and her children’s to 1/4. Her descendants speculate that the change was made out of spite, because Margarita Brittain had married a white man and taken his name.
In 1984, the Palas voted to correct the mistake, and the decision was appealed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The bureau investigated Margarita Brittain’s blood degree for more than six years. Eventually they found that Margarita Brittain had appeared as 4/4 on the original 1913 roll in Washington, DC. In 1989, the bureau issued their final determination that Margarita Brittain was 4/4. Now, 22 years later, Brittain’s blood is again being called into question.
King Freeman’s childhood home sits on family land located on the corner of Old Mission Boulevard and Brittain Lane, a street named for his ancestors. The house is a run-down one-story home located a half block from the Pala store. The front door boasts a mausoleum-style entrance, carved with the name “Freeman” in bold capital letters visible from the road.
“My sister and I were born in that house,” Freeman says. “I don’t have a birth certificate. I was born at home, and no one recorded it. The only thing recorded is my baptism.”
King says the reservation was very different during his childhood. “I was born in 1935. We didn’t have much here, growing up. I guess there was a lot of poverty, but we didn’t realize. We had food and clothes. We weren’t street people. Everyone had money. Not a lot, just enough to live on.”
Freeman’s children were among the first eight tribal members disenrolled. “It was kind of a shock. There were rumors it was coming. Chairman Smith threatened me at a general council meeting. He said to me, ‘Your kids are coming off the roll.’ I didn’t think he would really do it. I said, ‘Well, go ahead and do it,’ because there would be a lot of other people that would have to come off the roll, too. I wasn’t talking about my family; I was talking about other people whose blood degree is less.”
Smith’s alleged threat occurred after Freeman had circulated a petition questioning the fitness of Leroy Miranda to serve as vice chairman of the executive committee. King Freeman had been elected to fill that role, but Chairman Smith allegedly threw out many of Freeman’s votes, claiming that they didn’t count, and Leroy Miranda was put in as vice chairman.
The Pala tribal constitution states that no one with a felony record may serve on the executive committee. Miranda has a felony stemming from an arrest in 2009 for soliciting a male prostitute at Happy Time Adult Book Store in Moreno Valley.
Freeman says that his blood degree wasn’t questioned “until three or four of us brought up the issue of getting Leroy removed. I was chairman for 19 years. I don’t like the way meetings are conducted anymore, and I am very verbal about that.”
A few months after Freeman’s petition circulated, the executive committee sent letters to Freeman’s children and his nieces and nephews. The letter stated that the eight did not have the sufficient blood degree and were no longer members of the tribe. Cited was the long-questioned blood quantum of Margarita Brittain. The disenrolled members were given 30 days to file an appeal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the end, the bureau recommended that the Pala Executive Committee reenroll the eight, stating that they did in fact possess the necessary blood degree. The executive committee refused.
Although many of the disenrolled point to Freeman’s petition aimed at removing Miranda from the executive committee as the final straw that led to the disenrollments, none seem to hold a grudge against Freeman. When they speak of him, their fondness is evident. Meanwhile, Freeman stands firm on his actions. “I don’t regret doing it. I’m not going to bow down to anyone. Would you want a man that went to jail for [soliciting] male prostitution representing you?”
Freeman is concerned about the changes he’s seen in his tribe. “People don’t understand how much power Robert Smith has. He is going to tear this tribe apart. But the young people don’t care. As long as they have money, they don’t care about the politics or nothing. It has changed. When I was growing up, you respected the old people. That has been lost, but that’s a fact of life. Money ruins a lot of people. Once you get money, all you think about is yourself. It’s kind of like a dictatorship. I never expected this to happen. Looking back, I can see the little changes that took place to get our tribe to where it is now.”
The changes Freeman alludes to involve the executive committee’s subtle revision to the tribe’s constitution prior to removing members. The committee created a new enrollment ordinance giving them sole power over tribal membership. Further approval by the Secretary of the Interior is no longer necessary to add or remove members. The general council (all tribal members over 18) was assured that this change in the constitution would make it easier for their children to become tribal members.
Along with the new enrollment ordinance, the executive committee withdrew its membership from the intertribal courts of Southern California. This action took place in March 2011, only three months prior to the first wave of disenrollments. The action gave disenrolled members no legal recourse — intertribal courts would have provided the parties with access to court hearings and appeals, and records would have been available to the public. Now, in order for the disenrolled to take legal action against the executive committee, they must appeal to U.S. courts, a difficult task, given that Indian nations are sovereign, and U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over them.
“It’s a sad little thing,” says Freeman. “[The casino] was a source of income. We had people coming back to the reservation. I was vice chairman when the casino was being built. I wasn’t expecting it to get so big. When I saw the blueprints for the casino, I thought, Who is going to come to the Pala reservation to go to a casino?”
When Freeman’s children were disenrolled he felt betrayed. His son and daughter were devastated. “Their health insurance and their money, that all went away. But that really isn’t the big issue. The big issue is that their rights were taken. My kids were born here on the reservation.”
On the reservation there is division between Brittain’s descendants and the executive committee and its supporters.
“Anger doesn’t solve anything,” Freeman says. “I forgive what [the executive committee] has done, but at the same time, I hope they are held accountable. I see these people and I say hello to them. Robert will walk by me and not say anything.”
When it comes to the disenrollments, Robert Smith says that everyone blames him.
“I’m used to it,” Smith tells me over the phone; he is too busy for a face-to-face meeting. “I’ve been in politics for a long time, but it can be disheartening. Some people see me and won’t say hi to me.”
Smith’s tone changes when asked about King Freeman. “There is no feud between King and me,” he bristles. “He’s an old guy. We don’t see eye to eye. You can’t please everyone all the time.”
When asked about the casino, however, his voice brightens. He rattles off the benefits it provides to the Pala Band of Mission Indians. “Because of the casino, we now have scholarship programs so our kids can go to trade schools. We have health insurance for our members. I’d rather have health insurance than nothing at all. We have social programs for kids and elders, a sports complex, and we are building homes. Some of these things were here already, but the casino enhances them.”
Smith says that the disenrollments were difficult but necessary. He dismisses the allegation that he threatened to remove Freeman’s children from the tribe. He says it was just something that had to be done. His wife is a cousin to the Brittain descendants, but her relationship with family members remains intact.
“My wife was fine with it,” Smith says. “She knows the truth. They were never supposed to be enrolled in our tribe to begin with. It was a difficult thing to do, but the council had to do what the council had to do. And now we need to move on in a positive way for the tribe. It’s what the tribe wanted. They don’t belong.”
“Robert Smith will tell you that the tribe wanted us gone,” Paul Johnson, former member of the Pala band, tells me over the phone.
“The truth is, our family is the most well-documented bloodline in the entire tribe. It’s a double standard. No other family has been required to document their bloodline like ours has. That’s because we are opponents of the Pala executive council. They’ve spent years consolidating their power. They’ve disenrolled their major opposition, which is my family.”
Johnson is heartbroken and angered to see his family in dire straits as a result of their disenrollment. He is angered over the reaction to their removal by current tribe members.
“I am dismayed by the kind of comments I hear — that we are lazy and only want the money — while they gloat over the increase they received when we were disenrolled. They say that we are mostly white, when of course all Indians are mixed blood. Chairman Robert Smith is 1/4 German. His great-grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters. These claims about not being tribal and Indian enough are really only a form of discrimination.”
Johnson lives in the state of Washington but has plans to return to the Temecula area to be closer to other disenrolled members of his family.
“I decided eight months ago to move back down. I need to get more involved in tribal politics and support my family. We have the most horrible role models right now serving as our tribal officers. We need people that will lead our tribe into the future. I want to show the rest of the tribe that the descendants of Margarita Brittain are a vital part of the people, and that our ancestors would be dishonored should the antipathy continue.”
Johnson and his seven siblings were part of the second wave of disenrollments. Two of his brothers — and many cousins, aunts, and uncles — still live on the reservation. Family allotments are arranged side by side, so Johnson’s family members all live in the same general area.
“When you go outside that area and have to deal with other tribal members, there is discrimination. It is very uncomfortable. My cousin walks down the street with her children, and people snicker at her, saying, ‘You used to be in the tribe, but not anymore.’ We are all very upset that the other tribal members aren’t standing behind us.”
When asked whether he views the casino as a curse to his tribe, Johnson says he still wholeheartedly supports Indian gaming.
“Native Americans have endured a lot of discrimination. When it comes time to finding jobs, or getting medical care, or education, we’ve had second-rate all along the way. We need [Indian gaming]. A lot of people don’t understand that we have our own culture. We don’t feel comfortable in the white society. White people consistently undermine us. They enacted a policy of genocide. They suppressed our language and our culture. Historically, they have herded us onto areas of land they didn’t want or need, that they thought was useless. Now we have an opportunity to do something. [The executive committee] has turned it against us. The casino itself should be a boon. It should be something that could have made life good for all the Indians in our tribe. It still could be. So, no, I do not see the casino as a curse at all.”
According to Johnson, the corruption of the executive committee runs deep. He believes that Robert Smith and other members have been corrupted by lawyers.
“The Pala Executive Committee has been reaping huge amounts of wealth out of the casino. There is supposed to be 15 percent of casino revenue invested so that we don’t have to depend entirely on the casino for our income.”
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.”
Gina Howard, King Freeman’s niece and one of the first to be disenrolled, says, “I work at a local casino. I get these Indian gaming magazines sent to me all the time. They always talk about Indian issues, but I never see any articles about disenrollment. It’s the big ugly secret that Indian tribes are hiding. Indian gaming has empowered tribes, but it has also brought out the worst in people.”
There is a general feeling of hopelessness among many of Pala’s disenrolled. Some are optimistic that at some point they will be reenrolled; others have given up hope. Meanwhile, most feel at least some disassociation with their former tribe.
Ken Jones says, “If all powers remain, we won’t get our tribe back. The [people on the reservation] don’t know how to treat us. They really don’t. If they’re friends with us, then Robert is going to take action against them, too. They suffer from abused-child syndrome. Robert has been very cunning in the way he doles punishments out. Everyone is afraid of him, because he has the authority to punish and disenroll people at will.”
Chairman Robert Smith denies accusation of future disenrollments. “Despite what they say, we are not disenrolling any more members.” When asked about the two children removed in January, Smith chalks it up to a mathematical error in their original blood calculation.
Meanwhile, Roger Adams is anxious about an upcoming visit to the Pala reservation to visit his brother. “My own cousins are going to turn their backs on me. The people on that reservation are living in fear. What a sad way to live your life — even with the money. It’s a shame to see it happen right before my eyes, between people I have loved, laughed, drank and shared my life with.”
Mary Young doesn’t see things improving any time soon. She believes that the situation will change only when Smith dies and a new chairman takes his place.
Smith says his life has been threatened. “Not personally. No one has directly threatened me, but on their websites they make death threats.”
Two popular websites, Pala Watch and the Original Pechanga, are regularly read and commented on by former and current members. Heated arguments take place in the comment sections, often escalating into threats.
Gina Howard laughs at the notion that tribal meetings now have armed security guards. “Robert is paranoid,” she suggests. “He has hired people with guns. He has security follow him around. It’s ridiculous. If someone is threatening him, I don’t know who they are. It’s all in his head. The Indian grapevine spreads rumors. No one in my family has ever threatened him.”
Ken Jones says, “Violence has been in the works since day one. We’ve been good at stopping it from happening. These are people that have lost their homes and everything they have. People kill for less.”
159 total votes.