Chukchansi tribe kicking out dozens of new members it enrolled just two years ago

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians owns and operates Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold.
The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians owns and operates Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold. Fresno Bee file

After about two years of relative stability, the tribal council of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians in Coarsegold voted this week to suspend the memberships of 60 people who were granted tribal status during an enrollment less than two years ago.

“It was determined that these individuals do not meet the requirements for Tribal enrollment and it was necessary to suspend their memberships as part of a formal review and disenrollment hearing,” tribal council chairwoman Jennifer Ruiz said in a written statement provided to The Bee.

Neither Ruiz nor tribal administrator Sharol McDade returned phone calls from The Bee for this story; Ruiz instead responded through the tribe’s Fresno advertising/public relations firm.

The vote represents the latest turmoil for a tribe that has endured repeated rounds of disenrollments as different factions have jockeyed for control of the tribe and its lucrative gaming operation, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

Critics, however, described the vote as a blow by the tribe against its own people, fueled by greed for lucrative American Indian casino gaming revenue.

The suspensions were approved by the tribal council at a meeting that members said took place this week. Seven members comprise the tribal council: Ruiz, vice chairman Eugene Lewis, treasurer David Works IV, secretary Laurie Lawhon, and at-large members Claudia Gonzales, Steve McDonald and Joshua Herr.

The tribe did not disclose who voted for or against the suspensions, but indicated that four votes were needed to approve the suspensions. Ruiz, as the chairwoman, only votes to break ties on the board.

Past issues at Chukchansi

At least one of the past disenrollments, in 2016, targeted people whose families were among the founding members of the tribe. Prior to that, feuding between two rival factions erupted in an armed confrontation at the casino in October 2014, prompted the closure of the casino – the tribe’s primary source of income – for 14 months.

Disenrollment removes a person from the tribe’s official roll of recognized members, and effectively disqualifies them from receiving any benefits from the tribe, including housing, health care or financial distributions from casino gaming revenues. The move also affects the children and future descendants of disenrolled members. Access to resources from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs can be jeopardized, as well.

“It’s generational trauma for the Indian people of California,” said Cathy Cory, a Chukchansi descendant whose family was disenrolled in 2006 during another squabble between dueling leadership factions. “To have your birthright stolen by your own tribe is hurtful, ridiculous and unnecessary.”

It’s unclear how many members have been disenrolled by the Chukchansi tribe over the past couple of decades. But Gabriel Galanda, a Seattle attorney who has dealt with tribal sovereignty and disenrollment issues, said he believes that as many as 1,000 people have been expelled from the tribe.

Cory said current tribal members said this week’s suspension affects 125 or more people, more than double the 60 acknowledged by the tribe’s statement. “It’s all about the money and the power, nothing about the people and the fact that each one of us is a gift even to be here existing,” she added.

Million-dollar issue?

Exactly how much money that is, remains shielded from public disclosure. Fred Castano, a spokesman for the California Gambling Control Commission, said that tribes operating gaming casinos are required to send audited financial statements to the state Department of Justice’s Bureau of Gambling Control and to the National Indian Gaming Commission, but those documents are confidential.

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians is one of 62 California tribes that operate casinos; the Coarsegold tribe has had a gaming compact with the state since 1999, and opened the Chukchansi Gold Casino in 2003. While its annual revenue from gaming is confidential, the tribe’s compact requires it to make quarterly license payments to a tribal revenue sharing trust fund based on the number of licensed slot machines and other gaming devices.

Since the casino opened, the tribe has paid more than $41.6 million into the trust fund, according to an April report by the state Gambling Control Commission – the sixth largest total contribution to date among the 62 compact tribes, and second in the Valley behind only the Santa Rosa Indian Community of the Santa Rosa Rancheria, operators of the Tachi Palace Casino near Lemoore.

In her statement, however, Ruiz characterized the vote as an issue of eligibility rules – rules that seem to fluctuate depending on tribal council leadership. The result: a situation in which nothing has changed for an individual’s ancestry or bloodline except for which tribal faction is interpreting the rules.

“These individuals were enrolled in 2017 under the Tribe’s previous council leadership,” said Ruiz’s written statement. “Since then, the Tribe has formed an enrollment committee to review all membership eligibility based on its long-established legal constitution.” The tribe said the vote only affects people who were enrolled in 2017, shortly before a tribal council election.

While the constitution includes language indicating who shall be enrolled as members of the tribe, including whether the person is “of Chukchansi Indian blood” and approving or denying petitions for membership, it does not specifically provide a mechanism for removing someone from membership.

“The disputes regarding enrollment over the years have stemmed from ambiguous language in the Tribal constitution that has been interpreted by leadership in different ways,” Ruiz said. “The Tribe’s current leadership has created a committee of Tribal members to explore constitutional amendments in a way to clarify the language and create stability.”

In the meantime, however, “the tribe has an enrollment ordinance that describes the process for enrollment as well as the process for disenrollment,” she said. “The ordinance established an enrollment committee that has the authority to enroll and disenroll based on a thorough assessment of eligibility.”

No support from U.S. law

Because tribes are considered sovereign to govern themselves, a tribal member who has been disenrolled generally has little recourse under U.S. law, said Galanda, who said he is familiar with some of the history of the Picayne / Chukchansi tribe but has not been personally involved in any of the legal goings-on.

“The U.S. government’s refusal to get involved in places like Picayune under the guise of tribal self-determination is a cop-out,” Galanda told The Bee this week. “The U.S. was involved in disenrollment cases for more than a century until 2010. … That was a dramatic overcorrection” that he said contributed to an epidemic of disenrollments, predominantly among tribes with Indian gaming revenues at stake.

Galanda said tribal disenrollment is even more troubling given the history of persecution and genocide against American Indian tribes in California at the hands of European explorers and westward migration from the East Coast over the past several centuries. “Now at the Picayune Rancheria, it’s the Chukchansi Indians who are wielding the knife against their own people,” he said. “At least figuratively, it’s a genocide.”

Galanda, a member of the Round Valley tribes of California, added that there is a distinct “correlation between casino profit and greed and disenrollment” of tribal members. And, he said, disenrollment represents a traumatic situation for a member whose family has long identified with a particular tribe.

“A disenrollment amounts to a loss of everything for that individual – you lose your cultural identity, your place of belonging, basically exiled from your community or homeland,” he said. “You may possibly lose your employment or healthcare or your house, or all of the above.. Whether it’s cultural, spiritual, financial or legal, you lose everything.”

He likened it to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its provisions for U.S. citizenship. “Everyone who was born in the U.S., under the 14th Amendment, belongs here as a matter of birthright,” Galanda said. “Imagine if suddenly the U.S. government told you that you don’t belong here and you have to leave.”

“Any American, or any citizen of any nation, would feel the same deep and profound sense of displacement if they were told to get out,” he added. Under U.S. law, “there’s no such thing as ‘de-citizenship,’ but that’s what’s comparable to disenrollment. That’s what’s so preposterous about disenrollment – it’s a matter of birthright.”

“And under a tribal program or regime … that birthright can be stripped without any redress or justice.”

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.