SAN JACINTO, Calif. - John Gomez Sr. will never forget the battery-powered car he received from the Santa Claus who showed up at the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians' reservation one Christmas 40 years ago.
"I never saw it run," Gomez recalled. "My family couldn't afford batteries for that little car, so I pulled it around the house on a string."
That was back when the Pechanga reservation was a dusty patch of dirt roads, junked cars, stray dogs, mobile homes and destitute families.
The Pechanga Resort & Casino, which produces an estimated $184 million in revenue a year, changed all that.
As one of the tribe's 990 enrolled members who receive about $10,000 a month from casino profits, the 55-year-old Gomez now tools around in a new Jaguar, vacations in Spain, collects fine art and bids at silent auctions. While he enjoys smoking turkey in the traditional Indian manner with aromatic wood, he likes to polish it off with an excellent California merlot.
But Gomez has a problem. As tribal revenue has grown, so have old rivalries and suspicions on the reservation. Recently, the tribal enrollment committee decided to drop Gomez and about 130 people from the tribe, claiming they do not meet ancestral requirements to remain part of the Pechanga Band.
The people targeted for ejection have sued seven committee members in an attempt to stay in the tribe. On Tuesday, a Riverside County Superior Court judge will decide whether he has the authority to hear their lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that members of the tribe's enrollment committee are trying to increase their wealth by reducing the total number of tribal members eligible for shares of casino profits.
The Pechanga Band's defendants have generally declined to discuss the ejection of the members, or the lawsuit. Even in court arguing against the request for the restraining order, tribal attorneys wouldn't comment on the merits of the allegation. Rather they assert that the tribe's sovereignty makes it exempt from review by any state or federal court. And Pechanga Band Chairman Mark Macarro, while not responding directly to his members' claims, said in a statement that the dispute should be resolved internally.
The stakes are high. If the tribe is successful in dropping these members, families would be prevented from returning to their homes, tribal employees would lose their jobs, people of all ages would lose medical services, students could be forced to withdraw from college, and relationships and cultural identities will be severed irrevocably, according to the lawsuit. Then there is the loss of casino profit payments, which are expected to grow in the years ahead.
Tribal elder Michael Salinas, 83, is among those facing ejection.
His grandmother was Manuela Miranda, a feisty granddaughter of Pechanga Band Chief Pablo Apish. Enrollment committee members say although Salinas shares Pechanga blood, he and the other plaintiffs should be disenfranchised because Miranda allegedly cut her ties with the tribe by moving off the reservation 80 years ago.
Salinas said his grandmother moved to improve her living conditions, but had no intention of rejecting her tribal identity. As for the prospect of losing his income from the casino, he said, "Those payments didn't change my life much, but they sure helped my two grandkids. For Christmas, we gave each of them $5,000."
Seated at the kitchen table of his San Jacinto home, Salinas stared at a 59-year-old black-and-white snapshot taken when he returned to the reservation after serving as a combat medic during World War II. "That's me and my grandmother," he said, holding up the photo of a trim young man in uniform with his arm around the diminutive, dark-skinned woman whose descendants comprise 10 percent of the Pechanga Band's population.
"Grandmother was quite a lady; smart and lovely, with a great sense of humor," he recalled. "She was also a proud Pechanga Indian. She wouldn't be happy about what's going on right now."
The tensions among tribal factions are thick at reservation meetings and social gatherings. In their lawsuit, plaintiffs referred to the defendants as "a rogue element" within the band, out to enrich themselves by erasing the Miranda family from tribal records. Now, plaintiffs say they have been called "trouble makers" and "Pechanga wannabe's" by defendants and their friends on the reservation.
Gomez's son, John Gomez Jr., 36, was fired from his position as a tribal legal analyst shortly after the lawsuit was filed in Riverside County Superior Court on Jan. 15. Three others, all of them casino employees, have been placed on administrative leave.
"The hard part, the thing that really tears me up, is that people I regarded as respected friends, even some former clients, have stopped talking to me," said Salinas' nephew, Gabriel Salinas, a financial consultant who was able to retire at 32 with the help of profitable business transactions, and his casino profit payments. "Yet, this whole issue is being driven by a group that wants to strengthen its control over the tribal government, and where the money goes."
Gomez Sr. said, "It all boils down to a family feud."
With more than 500 pages of legal documents to review, Superior Court Judge Charles D. Field temporarily barred the Pechanga Band from ousting the Miranda family members while he researched the legal arguments.
"I'm risking everything on the outcome; my family and their children and grandchildren could end up being Indians without a tribe," Gomez Sr. said.