Can you find the big secret in this casino?

Reservation’s reservations

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 164 disenrolled members 
of the Pala tribe are all descendants 
of the late Margarita Brittain, whose 
blood purity was called into question.

The 164 disenrolled members of the Pala tribe are all descendants of the late Margarita Brittain, whose blood purity was called into question.

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.

Comments

$40,000 a month? $40,000 a MONTH? That's $480,000 a year. That's almost a half a million dollars a year. Holy Moley, Kimosabe. Where do I get a blood transfusion so I can join the tribe???

sorry we do not make that much money a year or month i wish, we still have jobs!!!!get ur information right please.

Inter-tribal racism? Perhaps it's time to take away that exclusive deal to run casinos. Shut them down, or let everyone have th right to open one.

So much for the gambling money bringing Indians their dignity back. Disgraceful.

Following are some quotes from a story published in 2006 by David E. Wilkins, author and Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

" But the available evidence and the oral traditions of tribes suggests that given the kinship structure of most tribal nations that were always focused on mediation, restitution and compensation, permanent expulsion of tribal relatives was rarely practiced."

" Within the last 20 years, however, coinciding with both the emergence of high-stakes gaming operations and increased criminal activity, a number of tribal governments throughout North America have, in helter-skelter fashion and at unprecedented levels, been dramatically redefining the boundaries and meaning of what it means to be a Native citizen. Many have initiated formal banishment and legal disenrollment proceedings against ever-increasing numbers of their own relatives. In a majority of disenrollment cases, however, some tribal officials are, without any concern for human rights, tribal traditions or due process, arbitrarily and capriciously disenrolling tribal members as a means to solidify their own economic and political bases and to winnow out opposition families who disapprove of the direction the tribal leadership is headed."

"What was historically a rare event - the forced and permanent expulsion of a relative who had committed a terrible offense - has tragically become almost commonplace in Indian country, leaving thousands of bona fide Native individuals without the benefits and protections of the nations they are biologically, culturally, and spiritually related to."

"While I fully support the inherent right of tribal nations to decide their own citizenry, I do not support, nor does history or tribal tradition affirm, the oftentimes arbitrary power of some tribal institutions to categorically disenfranchise and disenroll tribal individuals, entire families and, in some case, large groupings of tribal members on specious and questionable grounds."

Robert Smith is incorrect. Congress does have the authority to make laws that apply to Indian Tribes. Federal crimes on Indian reservations are prosecuted and there is the Indian Civil Rights Act. Tribes have the right to determine the criteria for membership but nothing, except spineless politicians and irresponsible courts, allows them to apply that criteria in any way except equally, to all members or potential members.

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