Driving down a Jamul backroad, I spot a personal aircraft haphazardly parked in a field of tall grass, a man in chaps riding a horse down the road, and a makeshift target-practice range. The lack of a homeowners’ association is evident in many sections of town. It’s a hodge-podge of manufactured homes, palatial mansions, and do-it-yourself home-improvement projects and add-ons. It’s a town made up, mostly, of the solidly middle class with a handful of eccentrically wealthy. It’s the kind of town you move to when you want to escape the hustle and bustle. Perhaps that’s why when members of the Jamul Indian Village, in the 1990s, announced their plans to build a casino in town, locals lost their minds.
Even now, with the casino reaching its one-year anniversary, anti-casino signs are prominently displayed in Jamul. One reads, in blood-red letters, “97.5% say no casino!” Another quixotically demands, “No casino in Jamul! Save our community!”
Tribal members of the Jamul Indian Village are one of 13 local bands belonging to the Kumeyaay nation. Ancestors of the now–61-person Jamul Indian band settled on a parcel of land adjacent to a graveyard maintained by a Roman Catholic church early last century.
In 1978 the Daly family, who owned 4.5 acres of land the Jamul Village Indians settled on, entrusted it — along with 1.8 acres donated by the Catholic Church — to the United States government to be used as the Jamul Indian Village reservation. Because of the transfer of ownership of this land, the Indians were able to apply for federal recognition to become a designated tribe.
With that recognition they were entitled to federal funding. The funding brought electricity and running water to the homes on the reservation. Prior to 1981, the Jamul band’s housing, most of which was dirt-floored and made with scrap plywood and metal, had neither electricity nor running water. With this federal recognition, to the dismay of many Jamul residents, came the prospect of future gaming and an eventual casino for the Jamul Indian Village.
“There is the casino”
...Marcia Spurgeon says in disgust while peering up at the massive building from out the window of her SUV. “This is not like anything they told us they were going to build when we went to their meetings. This building is bigger than any Walmart in the United States.”
It’s early Friday afternoon and Spurgeon has offered to take me on a tour of Jamul. She is a real estate agent in town and an active member of the Jamul Action Committee, a group of locals that advocates for the community, all of whom are vehemently against the casino. This group is responsible for the anti-casino signs hung around Jamul.
After driving past some of the nicer homes in Jamul and down backroads, Spurgeon has saved the casino for last. She wants it to sink in how out of place the glitzy casino looks among Jamul’s dusty hiking trails, grassy fields, and mountainous backdrops. The large red lettering on the face of the casino stands out boldly against the rugged and serene open space that surrounds the casino. Its six-level parking garage and two-story gaming complex next to Highway 94 look oversized and out of place from all angles.
Spurgeon and other members of the Jamul Action Committee, along with the Jamul Planning committee, are the Hollywood Casino’s most vocal dissenters. The groups have filed over 40 lawsuits in protest of the casino. Even with the structure already built and up and running, they are still heavily protesting its existence.
“Have you been inside the casino?” I ask Spurgeon who is still grimacing at the structure.
She shakes her head, adding firmly, “I have never been in the casino. I have no desire to put my foot in it. I am not a gambler, and they use facial recognition.” Spurgeon lets out a gleeful chuckle before adding, “You should read their Yelp reviews. Overall they are pretty negative.”
Over on Yelp, the Hollywood Casino has garnered 2.5 stars out of 5. Some are from disgruntled visitors while many others are from annoyed community members who, like Spurgeon, view the casino as a threat to keeping Jamul rural.
Spurgeon outlines three solid reasons she is against the casino: road safety, its environmental impact, and the need to keep Jamul rural.
“When I am showing houses, people will say, ‘I am tired of having close neighbors. I just want a little space.’ That seems to be the theme. People enjoy the quiet and peacefulness Jamul offers.”
On our drive around town I am taken aback by the beauty of Jamul. It’s a hazy day, but from the a viewpoint along Lyons Valley Road, San Diego sprawls out before me. The Otay River sparkles, and parts of Coronado are visible. For Spurgeon, the casino is an assault on the beauty of the community she has called home for over 40 years.
“You know,” she says as we look out over Jamul Valley, “half of [the Jamul Village Indians] have never even set foot out here. They don’t even live in Jamul.”
Spurgeon is correct. Very few Jamul Village Indians live in Jamul. The reason for that is their entire reservation, all six acres, are used to house the Hollywood Casino, parking structure, community center, tribal meeting building, and the cemetery where their elders are buried. Other San Diego County bands with casinos boast far larger acreage. Viejas sits on 1572 acres, Pala has a whopping 12,333 acres, and Barona’s acreage is 5664. The Jamul Indian Village doesn’t have enough acreage to create their own community around their casino. The modest homes that once sat on their reservation were bulldozed in order to accommodate their supersized casino. The Hollywood Casino has been dropped in a sleepy community whose residents are not tribe members and therefore don’t see the benefit to its existence the way those surrounding other tribal casinos do. And that is where most of the drama stems from.
Drama levels drop
Erica Pinto is pint-sized, keeps her jet-black hair cropped short in a pixie cut. When she meets me at the Jamul Indian Village Tribal Office she is dressed in jeans and a red-and-black flannel shirt. She is warm and welcoming. The office is located behind the casino beyond a heavy metal gate. It is situated next to a church and graveyard where many of the Jamul Indian tribe’s elders are buried. Pinto is excessively polite with a humble demeanor. She immediately brews a fresh pot of coffee for the two of us as we sit at a table in the tribe’s boardroom. She wants to know if I take cream and sugar, if the coffee is hot enough, how my drive out was, and so on. Despite being my age, she dotes over me like a mother. I imagine that it is this overwhelming attention to the needs of others that allowed her, in 2015, to unseat her uncle, an elder, as tribal chair. She admits it’s caused some serious family drama but would rather not discuss that on record. Pinto, young (40ish) and a female, was an unconventional choice for the traditional tribe that had previously been led solely by men.
“We are a young tribe,” Pinto explains. “Our elders are 55 and above and we only have about seven or eight elders in the tribe. That is it. The tribal council right now, seven of us, we are all young. My dad is the only elder.”
Pinto and her family moved onto the Jamul Indian reservation when she was a child. She has fond memories of playing on the six-acre piece of land surrounded by mountains and the Otay River.
“Three of my brothers and I grew up here in Jamul,” Pinto says.
She points outside in the direction of where she and her family once lived, and says, “This building was not here. That community center down there, was not here. It was just one building and 17 trailers, luxurious trailers,” she says with a laugh, adding, “[and the] church. I remember my brother put me on a Big Wheel and pushed me down a hill up there. I ran into the back of an old truck. I have a scar to prove it. She lifts her hair to reveal a silvery scar.
Pinto and her brothers attended school in Jamul among non-Indians. “We went to Elk Grove and the middle school here. I was six at the time our tribe earned federal recognition, but our people have been here for thousands of years. When I take you to the casino later you can look out from Loft 94 [the casino bar] and look out over Rancho Jamul Estates. That was our original site, years ago — I don’t even know how many years, thousands. When they built the homes over there, they uncovered our village. I don’t think most people know that.”
The tribe wasn’t able to hold on to any of the artifacts uncovered when the Rancho Jamul Estates were built. Pinto explains, “When people do construction, there is a process where tribes can be part of the construction. Tribes get involved to see if there are any cultural items of significance, stones, or remains. Back at that time, when they built that, that wasn’t a thing.”
Pinto has fond and some not-so-fond memories growing of up on the small reservation.
“Growing up here in Jamul, kids could be cruel and bully a bit. Our homes weren’t the nicest. The [kids that lived in] Rancho Jamul Estates were picked up first by the bus and then we would be picked up. I didn’t even know we were poor until I heard those kids talking about our homes and trailers.”
She says that tension grew when the tribe announced their plan to open the casino. Pinto’s family members who reside in Jamul bore the brunt of that tension.
“I have nieces and nephews who grew up here. They did have to contend with comments [about the casino], even from teachers and bus drivers. Now I would have to say, that it’s not like it was prior to opening. We have a small vocal group of people in the community against the casino, not very many. My brother who lives here sees it on a daily basis, but the drama isn’t like what it was prior to opening.”
When I press Pinto as to whether or not community members make her feel unwelcome, she pauses long before asking, “Did you see the signs when you drove in?”
The signs she is mentioning are the two Jamul Action Committee anti-casino messages placed on Highway 94 when you near the casino. Pinto goes on to explain that in the planning phase of the casino, tribe members and community members butt heads at town meetings. There have been a couple of occasions where Pinto has felt unwelcome.
“One time we had an environmental hearing [for the casino] at the El Cajon Library. It was like when you see things about Trump on TV. It was just like that. They were banging on the [library] doors, yelling and screaming and they held signs up. That was intimidating. Another time at one of their [Jamul Action Committee] functions...my uncle who was the former chair was giving an interview with one of the TV stations and a lady walks by and she goes, ‘Oh, God! Another sob story.’ It’s just little comments like that where you think, Why even say anything at all?”
Pinto also brings up issues they ran into during construction.
“During construction we had people — I don’t know if they were community members or where they came from, who knows, I don’t want to put the blame on these people around here, but during construction, people would throw stuff at our construction people, they would cuss, they would honk their horns, and flip them off. It was crazy. I’m laughing now, but at the time I was, like, what is going on? We have always taken the high road. We can’t really react to all of that, because it has gone on for so long and they continue to do it. It’s a small group of people, and it’s not like it was.”
After Marcia Spurgeon gives me the full tour of Jamul we head back to her real estate office on Lyons Valley Road, a mile and a half from the casino. It’s a small gray-blue trailer with white trim decorated with American-flag bunting. The office has a quaint country feel brimming with knick-knacks and decorated in soft pastels. There are two desks, one belonging to Marcia and the other for her business partner Vicki Beers. She has invited her friend Michael Casinelli to meet us. He is the chairman of the Jamul planning group and anxious to speak with me about his feelings on the Hollywood Casino. We chat a bit before his arrival.
I ask Spurgeon if her involvement protesting the casino has ever made her fear for her safety. She answers, “In the past, Vicki and I were both very concerned about our visibility. Someone egged our office doors and they threw eggs across the front of the building one time. There were concerns. [The Jamul Village Indians] are pretty volatile. They came to some of our meetings and were pretty nasty out in the back. But, as they have hired handlers that help them publicly, I am not as fearful. I think they would be foolish to do something at this time. Besides, in their mind they have won.”
Before she can elaborate more, Casinelli arrives. He’s in his late 50s or early 60s, trim and fit with tan skin. He was on his way to the YMCA in Rancho San Diego, as evidenced by his faded T-shirt with a large Superman emblem on the chest paired with 1980s sweatpants featuring elastic at the waist and ankles.
“I have lived in Jamul since 1999. The casino has been in the works since before I moved here. I didn’t really know about it at that time. I don’t remember, nor did the realtor tell me.” He grins at Spurgeon and the two chuckle before he continues, “My concerns with the casino, in no particular order, are: safety issues, the fact that they are not legally a recognized tribe so it is illegal for them to have a casino, and environmental concerns.”
For the next hour and a half, he will describe in great detail his reasoning for being adamantly against the casino, but before we dive into all of that I ask why the Jamul Planning Committee continues to push the subject when the casino is already built and up and running. I also ask if they are willing to accept that the casino is now part of their community. Spurgeon is quick to answer, “No. I won’t accept it, because we know the truth. I don’t believe they are legal under the arms of the United States. Under the National Indian gaming law, it is a requirement that you had to legally be a tribe in 1934 in order to operate a casino. They weren’t. That is the bottom line. Mainly they want money. It comes down to that, and it is at the risk of everyone else. I think that is what made everyone in Jamul so mad.”
Casinelli adds, “We have one way in and out of this community — the 94. There are a lot of T-bones right here on this road. This entire community was evacuated back in 2007 during the Harris Fire for seven days. The point I want to make is that we only have this one road. If for some reason it is blocked, even one lane, people would have no escape route and you want to add casino traffic on top of that? And this ten-mile stretch through here, the average fatality per mile is five-and-a-half times greater than any other county road.”
Adds Spurgeon,“There are bumper stickers that say, ‘Pray for me, I drive Highway 94.’ It’s a dangerous road. Unfortunately, with the increase of traffic, it has gotten worse. The original compact that [Jamul Band of Indians] did with [California governor] Gray Davis was that they would have the roads fixed prior to ever having a casino. Governor Brown has looked the other way. We had a Jamul 94 Safety Committee. We have documents where it is written that [Caltrans] would never allow them or give them an encroachment permit until they fixed the road. We fought this for years. It goes back to 1992. Basically, what united everybody [against the casino] was a concern for safety, and that is still there today. We still have a lawsuit in the state court with Caltrans over this issue.”
Yes, safety first. Agreed.
Erica Pinto is tired of hearing about the road issues and takes offense at the idea that the tribe is not following through on making road improvements.
“There are road improvements out in front [of the casino]. It’s wide. There is a stoplight. I can’t tell you how many accidents we have seen before there was anything out there. We saw a couple of fatalities. The benefit is far-reaching not just within our reservation. We are going to do more road improvements down the line. If you go to our website you can see the series of road improvements we are doing. Our improvements will go all the way down to TGIFriday’s [6.4 miles] in Rancho San Diego. We have to pay for over 20 million dollars in road improvements. All the improvements haven’t started. There are slivers of land along the 94 that the tribe needs to acquire. Some of these slivers of land, the owners are asking outrageous amounts of money for. Some of the other owners are going radio-silent and not talking to us. Without those, it’s hard to start the improvements. It would take the help of people like [District 2 county supervisor]Dianne Jacobs to step in. If we work together with Caltrans and the county we can all get it done.”
Pinto is frustrated over the idea that the Jamul Action Committee thinks they are ignoring their safety commitment.
“[Road improvements are] to the benefit of everyone. We want to do them because this is our project. We have customers coming out here. I drive out here every day. I want a safe route, too. We are going to start the ones that we can do that don’t need those right-of-way slivers, like a stoplight at Lyons Valley Road, and widenings in other areas and some restriping. Those aren’t very costly. They can be done because we don’t need to acquire those little slivers of land.”
And as for fire concerns, Pinto says the tribe tackled that.
“We bought and donated two fire trucks: a ladder truck, and a pumper truck. There is more staff, more fire personnel, and a paramedic on each truck.”
“They aren’t a real tribe”
... says Marcia Spurgeon, and she is adamant on this point. So is Michael Casinelli. They spend nearly an hour explaining why the Jamul Indian Village should not be a federally recognized tribe and therefore is illegally operating a casino in Jamul. The gist of their argument stems from the rules and regulations of the National Gaming Act.
Spurgeon explains, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs carries the registry of all villages and tribes in the country. A true tribe with a reservation has to be approved by Congress or a congressional act. The [bureau] can approve others for the registry but does not give them the same designation. The Jamul Indian Village was not approved through Congress,” she explains.
Spurgeon smiles over the excitement of it all. It is obvious that she revels in this battle. She admits that a large portion of her free time goes into fighting the casino. She continues on another lengthy explanation, during which she says, “There is a real shift going on in [the United States]. This isn’t about political parties. This is about the taking of land and taking of tax-rolled moneys and putting them in the hands of the tribes.... Take Santa Ysabel, for instance, whose casino bankrupted and they didn’t pay their fees and walked away from their debt to this county. [They] are now growing pot in their village. There are a lot of other things that are happening. The dynamics of sovereignty is raising a lot of issues. Tribes have a drawbridge. You can’t go on their reservations if they don’t want you to; even for law enforcement! They have a free zone, yet they are right in the middle of the rest of the country,” Spurgeon shakes her head in frustration.
Casinelli nods in agreement. “The issue for me, information that I have examined, proves that the [Jamul Village Indians] never should have been allowed to have a gambling facility on that particular piece of land. But because there are a lot of misconceptions and a lack of factual knowledge, people apply emotion: ‘Those poor native Americans. Look what our country did to them. Here they can have gambling and be self-sufficient’ and on and on. But see, that is not all entirely true. The federal government has an act that set the rules for Indian sovereignty. It set the rules on who is entitled to have a casino and not...”
Spurgeon interrupts to clarify, “That’s called the National Gaming Act.”
Casinelli nods and continues, “There is a tribe across the street from Viejas that aren’t allowed to have a casino. Just because you are an Indian does not mean you get to have a casino! And,” he says, raising his voice an octave, “they don’t need it. They have had all these years to prove that they are a legitimate tribe, but the information that we have received, including letters from the Department of the Interior, say they are not. I have read letters from the governor’s office, from the Department of Transportation, from the state, that no one wanted them to develop that land.... I have, probably, a dozen letters over an eight-year span that say, ‘You can’t do that, no, no, no. We will stop you. We will block it.’ There were three previous financial backers that spent tens of millions of dollars and then gave up, walked away. For a lot of reasons. One was that Caltrans was saying you cannot have direct access to the highway. The people across the street — a major housing development and a fire station couldn’t even have it. The stated reason — poor line of sight, dangerous; you can’t even use this entrance for construction — it’s too dangerous.”
“So, what changed?” I ask.
The two exchange knowing glances. A smug smile spreads across Casinelli’s lips.
“Penn National Gaming entered the scene!”
Spurgeon nods, clucking her tongue and adds, “The big change came when Penn came in from Pennsylvania, and Jerry Brown gave it its blessing. A sequence of events occurred to get the ball rolling. Penn National is one of the largest gaming organizations in the United States. This is their first run at an Indian casino. They have casinos back East and in the Midwest in combination with horse-racing and greyhounds.”
Casinelli continues, “All of a sudden Penn announces that they are building. We are all going, ‘Wait a minute. You don’t have an encroachment permit. You are going to gamble on building a $360 million casino without knowing if you can enter the highway?’ They were real arrogant. Sure enough, a year later they were getting permission. That was the first red flag that something wasn’t right.”
Casinelli fumes, “After permission from Caltrans, they needed easements. They only had four acres and they had excavated all the way to the perimeter of the property — eight stories deep! Well when you have something that deep, you have to figure out a way to hold it up so it does not collapse or cave in. Well,” Casinelli purses his lips in disgust before continuing, “the walls are held up by running what they call ‘soil nails.’ They are maybe 30 feet long, thousands of them, into the reserve! They need an easement to do that but they built all the way out, so they had no choice, knowing they were going to get that permit. Sure enough, after all of that they get it. Fish and Wildlife were reluctant to give it to them. This reserve is their crown jewel. They wanted to see the environmental impact before deciding. They wanted to see what potential damage this could have on our property — which by the way they were supposed to have. That was waived. They got the encroachment permit, they didn’t have to do the environmental.
“Now, here comes the alcohol and beverage commission, another state agency. Do you know that the Hollywood Casino is the only casino in the state ever to get even a temporary license to serve alcohol prior to opening? It took Barona and Viejas about ten years. I mean, even when they did get their license there were restrictions, but here they gave the [Hollywood Casino] this before they opened with fewer restrictions not only than the other casinos but for your average [business] getting a liquor license.”
Casinelli lets his rant set in before continuing, “This has to come from the top, it just has to. Governor Brown was in office, this was two years into his first term when this happened, so he had two years in office when he didn’t have that stance. At that time, Lakes Gaming was invested, they had 60 million invested, and they couldn’t get this thing going. It changed when Penn National came in; like dominoes, all these obstacles that had been there for decades, one by one, went away.”
Spurgeon says, “It raises the question of why [Governor Brown] would be supporting this entity, especially with the public opposition. We have never had support through public agencies — they all agreed it was unsafe and ridiculous. It just doesn’t pass the test.”
Casinelli shakes his head in agreement before reiterating, “Meanwhile, they still aren’t proving that they are a recognized tribe entitled to have gaming!”
Why don’t you make baskets?
Erica Pinto shrugs off most of the criticism aimed at the casino and her tribe directed from the Jamul Action Committee, but she takes offense to the contention that the Jamul Indian Village is not a real tribe. She stresses time and again that they signed a tribal state compact with the California government in 1999. This compact allowed construction of the Hollywood Casino. However, committee members won’t budge on their beliefs.
“It is a bit offensive the things that they say, like challenging that we are not a reservation and saying, ‘You should not be legally recognized. You’re not a tribe. How can you do this?’ Well, we have a contract with the state. The state is not going to do a compact with anybody. You have to be a federally recognized tribe. So, all these lawsuits that were filed from the [Jamul Action Committee] have all been won. All the things they challenged us on, they have all been won, over 40 lawsuits. They still continue to come, there are a couple more pending from the [Jamul Action Committee].”
Pinto shrugs in an attempt to convey her lack of concern, but it is obvious that these lawsuits are a sore subject. “I am not worried, because all of those claims have been won. They all get filed and appealed. I am not concerned about it. It costs a lot of money, unfortunately. They have challenged our status and lost every time. We are a tribe! We have our status and we have a compact. And, I am going to be here for many terms, I hope. The lawsuits are not something that make me lose sleep at night. In the early days of planning, I attended one of the[Jamul Action Committee] meetings and a man there actually suggested, ‘Instead of doing a casino, why don’t you do something else for money? Why don’t you make baskets?’”
She shakes her head over the memory before continuing, “Some of the things they say sting a little bit.” However, the Jamul Indian Village’s website features a tab under the heading “Our Culture” bearing the photo of a basket and a description of traditional Kumeyaay basketry.
Pinto has just given me a tour of the casino. “We wanted it to be a representation of old-world Hollywood,” she says, pointing out the intricate details of cascading chandeliers overhead along with the red, black, and silver themes. Pinto ends our tour in Loft 94, the casino’s beer garden and cocktail lounge. Its open patio faces the oversized homes in Rancho Jamul Estates. From this vantage point, looking out over Jamul, one gets the feeling of floating among its peaks and planes. While taking in the view, Pinto turns to me and says, “There is so much more than this I want for my tribe!” There is a glint of optimism in her eyes. She has big plans for the Jamul Village Indian’s future. She does not want to discuss them on record. Instead she adds, “Our hope is that eventually the Jamul Action Committee will stop throwing their sticks and stones. They don’t have to accept the casino, but just stop with the lawsuits already. We have been here for 12,000 years. We will remain here. We are not going away.”