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.