About 150 people packed a small auditorium at Fresno State Feb. 28 for a public discussion panel titled "The Chukchansi Legitimacy Crisis: One Year Later," held on the one-year anniversary of an occupation of the tribal government offices of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.
"Part of the reason we're having this event is I feel like there are a lot of people who don't have a voice," said Fresno State Political Science professor Dr. Ken Hansen to last week's audience, made up of many Chukchansi Indian people.
Last year, the Chukchansi tribal offices were occupied by tribal members to protest that tribal council election results were not upheld, and that new elected leaders against recent tribal disenrollments were not allowed to be seated by those who remained in power. During the occupation of the office, another group surrounded the building, and one person was stabbed in a melee that erupted.
That occupation was different than one currently underway by another group of Chukchansi people from the Wyatt and Ramirez families, who have stated they believe the tribe only has 46 voting members.
Last week's panel at Fresno State was an attempt to discuss Chukchansi's larger story -- a mixing together of history, analysis, and personal narratives to paint a fuller story of where the tribe is today ... and where it may be going.
Professor Hansen, author of "The New Politics of Indian Gaming" and former co-coordinator of Africana and American Indian Studies at Fresno State, started off last week's panel discussion.
He said there are three things he hopes people took away from the panel:
1. That "tribal governments are set up to fail by the federal government." 2. There are many civil rights violations happening to American Indian people today. 3. The Chukchansi tribe is experiencing a major "identity crisis," one that can only be solved by bringing everyone "back to the circle."
He also defined four Chukchansi factions: the Wyatt and Ramirez families, who have a "narrower view of who is a citizen -- only those with ties to the rancheria property;" the Reggie Lewis group, whose idea of membership extends throughout some of the foothill community; the Morris Reid group, who are upset about disrespect to the Chukchansi people and other issues; and a "larger group" of Chukchansi people.
"This is more than an identity crisis, this is a legitimacy crisis," Hansen said.
He said 20,000 American Indian people have been disenrolled -- "terminated" -- from their tribes, and "to my knowledge, all of those people are from gaming tribes."
However, only one-third of California gaming tribes are kicking out their members, he said.
Since Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino opened in 2003, close to 1,000 Chukchansi people are estimated to have been disenrolled.
Hansen said since tax payers fund the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help Indian people, "then why are the American people supporting an agency that hasn't done anything to help out in Indian country?"
During last year's leadership dispute at Chukchansi, the BIA maintained the issues had to be solved internally by tribal members.
Dr. Charles Etner, an American Indian Studies lecturer with Fresno State's Department of Anthropology and Linguistics, discussed much of the history and background that's brought the tribe to the place it is today.
"I think Indians get a bad rap a lot of the time for the wrong reasons," he said. "Not that we don't do anything wrong, but sometimes we've set them up to fail."
Etner's wife is also the sister of formerly elected tribal council chairman Morris Reid, although Etner said his wife is one of the few members of her family that is not an enrolled member of the tribe, and that he didn't have a bias towards either Chukchansi political group.
Etner began a short history lesson in 1851, when Indian people in California started to be pushed together in reservations - locally, on the Fresno River reservation - and for 110 years, these former neighboring groups intermarried and learned to live together as a tribe, he said.
Then in 1953, the U.S government -- without consulting tribes -- began terminating tribes, picking off the smaller ones first on the West and East coasts, including Chukchansi. By 1964, more people had heard of what was going on, the larger tribes began fighting it, and the U.S. government "terminated its termination" policy.
A lawsuit in 1983 by 17 California rancherias allowed the tribes to get their federal status back, but it was an "opportunistic" award, he said. Those in power at the time, or those involved in the lawsuit -- such as the Ramirez family at Chukchansi -- were given the power to recreate the tribe, he said, instead of giving the power to more Chukchansi people.
"The U.S. government set up the tribes to fail by destroying their cultural system," Etner said. "People are people, families fight, but when the government sets us up to fight, we are in a bad situation. The only way to solve it is to get real functioning judicial systems. BIA is supposed to do this, but they pick and choose when they get involved and the federal government picks and chooses -- it's wrong."
Cathy Cory, tribal enrollment activist who was disenrolled from the Chukchansi tribe with more than 600 people in 2006, spoke about the need to "restore the circle."
"This disenrollment issue is tearing the heart from our Indian people and tribes," Cory said. "Our ancestors gave up so much for us to even be here. Ninety percent of us were destroyed through disease and murder. We are fortunate to even be here."
She said she remembers sitting in a meeting in Coarsegold more than a decade ago, when tribal members said the casino would help "over 1,800" Chukchansi people through things like elder and child care, education and insurance.
"Disenrollments did not start with the Wyatt/Ramirez, Reggie Lewis, or Morris Reid council," Cory said. "It started with every council since the start of the thought of Chukchansi Gold Casino. We've been reduced from 1,800 to 46 members (what Nancy Ayala's group is claiming constitutes the tribe today) -- you have 2% of the Chukchansi people now enrolled in the tribe. It has to stop. It has to stop now."
Cory said politicians are wary to get involved because of the political contributions they receive from gaming tribes.
"What is happening here is not acceptable," Cory said. "Tribes throughout California are dismembering their people and let there be no doubt -- this is done primarily because of the greed of the casino ... We need to take back over the tribe to support all the Chukchansi people. Not 200, not 600 -- all."
Dora Jones, who's served several terms on the Chukchansi tribal council since 2006 and was re-elected in 2011 with three other leaders who were not allowed to be seated by others who remained in power, also spoke during last week's panel.
Jones, who had been voting against recent tribal disenrollments, said wording about having a "special relationship" to tribe is being manipulated to disenroll people -- even though the special relationship clause is not listed in the membership section of the constitution, she said.
"Council has tried to define 'special relationship' and it changes the constitution," Jones said. "If it changes the constitution, then you have to have a special election to do so."
Jones also talked about occupying the tribal offices last year, after tribal members gained entry into the building in an attempt to seat Jones and three other elected leaders because attempts to get BIA involved seemed hopeless.
Jones recalled the horrors of being in the building when night fell, as tribal members surrounding the building outside cut the building's electricity and water, sprayed bear mace through windows, and threw in burning logs and bricks.
"We tried calling 911 and there was no response," Jones said. "They said, 'The sheriff is there.' I said, 'Yes, they are there, they are across the street watching.'"
Jones said police reports from that evening also document what was seen happening that night.
"At least one female was hit in the face with a brick," Jones said. "Coincidentally, that night was also the anniversary of Wounded Knee. When the burning logs were coming in the windows, I didn't know if we were going to get out alive."
Jones said she believes a "holocaust" of the Chukchansi tribal membership occurred Feb. 21 when Nancy Ayala's group took over the tribal offices, claiming the tribe only had 46 members.
Susan Holguin-Juarez, who served on the tribe's enrollment committee in the late 90s and as a secretary to tribal council, spoke on behalf of the Chukchansi elders.
The 65-year-old who called herself a "young elder" was the last of her family to be disenrolled in January of 2013.
She read from a letter to the editor that she wrote, published in the Sierra Star in February, 2012:
"Tribes' cry out for help falls on deaf ears," Holguin-Juarez said. "Tribal concerns fall to the wayside. Where is our due process, civil rights, freedom of speech, sovereign immunity? Our rights to policy, procedures and votes -- all phases ruling one-sided. Tribal people without an appeal process ...
"The cry of the people that have been enrolled and recognized through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, now banished and forgotten, have a right to be heard at a local level, for without the tribal people, there would be no grants, 638 contracts serving all tribal people, casino compacts, memorandum of understandings with county, state and federal levels, and tribal revenues that go out to all counties and communities -- the later phase discarded due to an audit for disenrollments.
"Where is the justice and honor? My Chukchansi people have been broken and divided by our own casino, revenues and serving tribal governing bodies. What's next? The cry of an elder."