Disenfranchised band of Indians plan tribal takeover

TABLE MOUNTAIN RANCHERIA, Calif. - Joe Casillas and his siblings want to go home to the Indian reservation they left 32 years ago. Home to their people - and the plot their family once owned.

Unfortunately, that home now sits under a cash-flush casino. And the tribal leaders of Table Mountain Rancheria want nothing to do with the Casillas family or the 115 other disenfranchised members seeking to recapture their heritage and share in the profits.

The feud, brewing quietly for years, could intensify Tuesday, when Casillas and his group plan a coup of sorts.

Armed with results of an election last month to oust the leadership, the estranged group - the Coalition of the Original Descendants of Table Mountain Rancheria - plans to take over the tribal headquarters.

''This is just a dream come true for us to be able to go back,'' Casillas said. ''It's gonna open up a lot of doors.''

The doors were shut in 1983, after a small band of Mono and Chukchansi Indians still living on the small reservation regained their federal recognition and set up a constitution recognizing those who had been living continuously on the rancheria.

The rancheria, nestled in the Sierra foothills about 20 miles northeast of Fresno, was one of many carved out in the early 1900s for homeless Indians. But after losing federal recognition in the 1950s, many members deserted their trailers and shacks on the parched land to find work in the area.

''We didn't move off to move off, we just moved off to work. We had to eat,'' said Larry Lewis, whose father was a tribal chairman before his family moved away to become loggers.

Lewis, 57, and living on disability pay in a dilapidated trailer without a phone or electricity, said he applied to rejoin, but his efforts have been met with silence.

Tribal lawyers have said none of the disenfranchised group took advantage of an open enrollment period in 1981. The Bureau of Indian Affairs rarely intervenes in these matters, and says tribal councils can decide who is a member.

Rancheria officials are not commenting and tribal leaders have refused numerous interview requests from The Associated Press.

Henryetta Belmontez, who grew up on the rancheria and tried to re-enroll in 1993, said she was told she was ineligible because she didn't own land.

''I've gone a couple of times up there and when I went to the door they said, 'What do you want?' I felt like an outsider,'' Belmontez said.

Three years ago, Belmontez met with six other estranged members and discussed strategy to get back in. They turned to Laura Wass, head of the Fresno chapter of the American Indian Movement, who helped organize the group and round up descendants or former rancheria residents.

Numbering about 120 - twice the size of the voting membership recognized on the rancheria - the coalition followed the tribal constitution and voted July 18 at the Clovis post office to oust all five tribal councilors, including Belmontez' uncle and her cousin. Belmontez was elected three days later as the acting tribal chair.

But the sitting council on Table Mountain is unlikely to honor the election, according to a recognized rancheria member who agreed to talk if her name wasn't used.

She charges the coalition with making a greedy dash for casino cash.

''Rather than being happy for the people who succeeded it's a jealousy thing,'' said the woman, who grew up in a one-room house with six siblings and now lives with her parents in a large modern home overlooking the casino.

It's unclear how much is at stake financially. Coalition members say voting members get $14,000 a month, not counting bonuses and housing allowances. Tribal finances are not publicly available, but nationally the Indian gaming industry earns $9.6 billion a year from 309 casinos in 28 states, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. Revenue is generally split among members.

Wass and members of the coalition say their movement is about more than money. They seek an identity linking them to a heritage, to a people and to a place.

Gerald Vizenor, a professor of Native American Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, said casinos have brought a new dynamic to tribal recognition.

''Money has of course changed it and brought into much closer focus who has legal rights to share in the benefits of a community,'' said Vizenor, who is Chippewa. ''Money makes the difference and it becomes stronger than blood.''

For Casillas, 39, and five of his siblings who were sent off to foster homes in 1968 after their alcoholic parents abandoned them, there are also financial concerns. And they say the tribe is rich enough to share the wealth.

Casillas, who sets up mobile offices for a living but also relies on some public assistance, wants better schooling for his kids and good medical care for his wife, who has colon cancer.

The night they voted to oust the current leadership, Casillas clenched a feather and a smoldering piece of sage as he and more than 80 Indians held hands and danced in a circle in the Clovis post office parking lot while a boom box played traditional Native American music.

When the election result was announced, a hushed ''We did it'' could be heard. There were tears and hugs.

They said they were going home.


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