The Fresno Bee

Beneath the Glitter

As the $150 million Chukchansi resort readies for its casino opening June 25, 200 tribe members kicked out four years ago fight to become members again.

By Lisa Aleman-Padilla and George Hostetter
The Fresno Bee

(Updated Monday, June 16, 2003, 4:23 AM)

The biggest, most expensive and most controversial American Indian casino/entertainment complex in central San Joaquin Valley history is expected to make its debut in eastern Madera County in 10 days.

With it comes a long-simmering and increasingly bitter tribal civil war over who will pocket the profits of a business that eventually could rake in $200 million or more a year.

Carved out of a once-forlorn swath of rocks and brush in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Coarsegold, the gamblers' half of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino is all but finished.

That's the casino, home to 1,800 slot machines and more than 40 card tables. June 25 is the planned opening date, according to the owners, the Chukchansi Indians of Picayune Rancheria.

The 192-room hotel is expected to open next door in August. The total project's estimated cost: $150 million.

Indian gaming has been a fixture in the six-county central San Joaquin Valley for two decades. Gamblers, though, have seen nothing locally like the Chukchansi digs -- nearly 300,000 square feet of casino, hotel and entertainment venues.

Nor has there been anything here quite like the Chukchansi membership fight that has brewed for four years.

Its roots go back even further. Twenty years ago, the tribe had only 30 members, the result of federal policy dating back to the Eisenhower administration designed to terminate Indian lands such as rancherias. The thinking, at least among non-Indians, was that Indians should be assimilated into mainstream America.

It took several decades of court battles, but many tribes finally regained their legal recognition and the right to renew their lives on rancherias. In a word, they were "reconstituted."

By the late 1990s, with the Chukchansi tribe legally reborn, a liberal enrollment policy raised the membership total to more than 1,000.

Then, in 1999, as negotiations with a casino management company neared a critical juncture, nearly 200 people were suddenly kicked out of the tribe.

Membership fights are nothing new among casino-owning tribes. For example, Table Mountain Rancheria in Fresno County has been the center of a long struggle among four extended families of Mono-Chukchansi Indians who own Table Mountain Casino and several hundred Indians who say they have been illegally excluded since the tribe was reborn in the early 1980s.

The Chukchansi battle, though, is different. This doesn't involve people on the outside who want in. These are Indians who were full-fledged tribal members one day and the next day found themselves out in the cold for what they say is no good reason.

Simply by passing a motion, says the disenrolled Sharon Walter, the tribal council removed from the tribe nearly 200 people who view themselves emotionally and legally as Chukchansi Indians of Picayune Rancheria.

Says Walter: "In a stroke, the tribal council did what the Spanish Crown, Mexican 'federales,' the 49ers, treaty negotiators, the United States Calvary, Congress and the Eisenhower administration could not in centuries do: make Indians disappear."

Tribal conflicts such as these raise two key issues in the still-infant California Indian-gaming industry that, by some estimates, grosses $6 billion annually: minority rights vs. majority rule, Indian sovereignty vs. federal authority.

At the heart of the Chukchansi's strife is an 84-year-old grandmother who, as elected chairwoman, guided the tribe through years of often-frustrating efforts to build a casino in a region their tribe has called home since before Columbus set sail.

Then, just as it appeared that the tribe might sign a deal with Cascade Entertainment Group, Chairwoman Daisy Liedkie was ousted in something akin to a coup d'etat.

That was June 2, 1999, when, according to Liedkie, 19 fellow tribal members went to the tribal headquarters and terrorized her and her staff to such an extent that they fled for their safety. One person spit on her, Liedkie says.

Two months later, Liedkie says, every person related to her plus some nonrelatives, including Walter, were told they'd been kicked out of the tribe.

The tribe has never explained its reasons to the disenrolled Indians.

Liedkie thinks it's because she pushed Cascade too hard for contractual concessions that would benefit the tribe at the expense of the management company. She and her supporters then lost a power struggle to tribal members in Cascade's camp.

"When I was overthrown, I just envisioned everything good that was going to happen with the tribe being thrown away," she says.

There was no due process to their ouster, says Chuck Schillings, Liedkie's grandson and a spokesman for the disenrolled. They never faced their accusers, and they never had a chance to present their side in person to the tribal council, he says.

Tribe officials, including Chairwoman Dixie Jackson, and Cascade executives did not return repeated Bee phone calls seeking comment.

A tour of the casino scheduled for last week for The Bee was canceled by the tribe after tribal officials said they were too busy.

A worker in the tribal office said last week the tribe would issue a statement. On Friday, tribal Council Member Belinda Jones said there would be no statement.

Liedkie, now living in Arkansas, says that for nearly four years, she and the other disenrolled members have quietly but persistently tried to persuade the tribe to reconsider.

Nothing has worked. Now, with the casino on the verge of opening, Schillings says the disenrolled members may file a lawsuit in federal court asking that the tribe be compelled to give them the fair hearing they say they were denied in the summer of 1999.

Let us present our case that we're still tribal members, Schillings says. Let the tribe present its case. May the best argument win.

The stakes are high, and each side has its share of cards to play.

Ray Fry, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in Sacramento, says the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act guarantees legal due process for tribal members. Tribal courts, in other words, have to give tribal members a fair shake. And, as a federal statute, the act supersedes the authority of tribal sovereignty.

Ultimately, if the disenrolled Indians prevailed in court and the tribe still balked, the federal government could close the casino, the spokesman says.

But the tribe also has considerable legal clout. The Bureau of Indian Affairs emphasizes that membership rules are largely a tribal affair, and it tries to stay out of such disputes. And, although Indian power does not trump federal authority, judges generally have shown considerable restraint in limiting the sovereignty of what are, after all, America's aboriginal nations.

The pivotal day in the membership fight was June 2, 1999. Liedkie describes the scene like this:

The day had just begun. Liedkie, elected chairwoman two years earlier, and her staff were working in the tribal headquarters at Picayune Rancheria, a short detour east of Highway 41.

She looked up to see tribal secretary Roger Davis entering the office. Other tribal members were with him, nearly 20 in all. They raised a ruckus, banging on doors and yelling at Liedkie and the staff to leave. One person spit on her, Liedkie says.

Frightened by the commotion, Liedkie and her staff left the office. The Madera County Sheriff's Office was called, and, according to an incident report, deputies responded at 8:34 a.m. The report describes the scene as "some sort of insurrection by Indian subjects."

The Bee was unable to contact Davis. Schillings and Liedkie said they know nothing of his whereabouts or whether he is still a tribe member. He resigned as tribal chairman in 2000. A landlord in Coarsegold says Davis moved off her property in September 2000.

George Forman, an attorney representing the tribe at the time, was at the office on June 2. It was, he says, "a very scary meeting."

The deputies told the staff they were powerless -- it was all happening on tribal land outside their jurisdiction. Since that day, Liedkie and her supporters have been powerless as well.

It wasn't always that way.

The tribe, hoping to cash in on court decisions allowing federally recognized tribes to conduct certain gaming activities, had been considering the gambling business since the mid-1980s. There were plenty of false starts. In 1994, for example, it almost struck a deal with a Minnesota company to build a 60,000-square-foot casino near Oak-hurst.

Liedkie isn't sure when Cascade entered the picture, only that it had been a suitor for years before the June 2 incident. Sacramento-based Cascade builds and manages Indian gaming casinos across California.

Like other companies in its niche, Cascade brought management experience and fiscal expertise to the negotiating table. The tribe brought the most important piece -- legal authority to operate a casino on Indian land in California.

The Indian gaming landscape was changing rapidly in the late 1990s. Proposition 5, the initiative to legalize "Las Vegas" style gambling (such as coin-operated slot machines), had passed in 1998 only to be declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court because it violated sections of the state constitution. Two years later, Proposition 1A passed easily, changing the constitution, and most forms of casino gambling on American Indian land became legal.

The hard part for both sides was cutting a deal, and it was this delay, Liedkie says, that led to her overthrow. She says she was taking her time because Cascade was stingy in giving specifics on its intentions.

"The [tribe's] attorney was also concerned about what was going on, making me even more suspicious," she says.

Cascade wanted too big a slice of the proposed casino's revenue stream, Liedkie says. Early in the talks, its goal was 37% of net revenues; over time, she adds, the figure rose.

Cascade wanted a seven-year deal while she favored a five-year contract, Liedkie says.

Forman, the tribe's former lawyer, says an influential group in the tribe learned of Cascade's displeasure with Liedkie. The June 2 incident was the result. "There is certainly no doubt in my mind that the council's efforts to obtain the best deal possible for the tribe played a role in that," he says.

Within the next few weeks, Liedkie became aware that the tribe was investigating her Chukchansi heritage.

By August 1999, Liedkie, her family and her supporters were gone. In an Aug. 16 letter addressed to Liedkie, a new tribal council led by Davis told her she had been disenrolled by a unanimous vote.

The tribe gave no official reason for the disenrollment.

Fry, the BIA spokesman in Sacramento, said the tribe gave the bureau a reason, but he declined to reveal it because the matter may end up in court.

Since then, Liedkie and the others have sent numerous letters of appeal to the tribe. Each letter has gone unheeded, they say.

Liedkie was first recognized by the federal government as a Chukchansi Indian in 1928; the other disenrolled members have equally strong documentation proving their legal connection to the tribe, she says.

In a letter dated April 10, 2003, current tribal chairwoman Jackson told Schillings that his request for a meeting to discuss the disenrollment could not be granted. A moratorium on new enrollment had been enacted Nov. 20, 2000, and new applications would not be considered until the tribal council voted to reopen enrollment, the letter said.

But Schillings said he is not seeking an application for new enrollment: "I'm a member asking for a meeting in which to receive my due process."

Six weeks later, Schillings made another appeal.

Ten disenrolled members attended a tribal general meeting May 27, where Schillings asked the tribe to reinstate them and their colleagues. He says the council listened impassively, then told him to leave the rancheria.

"We asked to be put on equal footing with all tribal members," Schillings says.

The tragedy, says Laura Wass of Fresno, who represents the American Indian Movement, is that Liedkie was kicked out of the tribe because she embraced the spirit as well as the letter of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the supreme authority of tribal gambling. The act states that the primary purpose of Indian gaming is to improve tribal life.

The Chukchansi Indians of Picayune Rancheria certainly needed the help. A survey of 369 tribal households in 1996 found that nearly 73% of household incomes were below the poverty level and more than 20% of the families were homeless.

Wass, who sometimes advises Indians with tribal membership concerns, says she has reviewed documents outlining Liedkie's agenda for the tribe once it got into the gaming business. She says Liedkie's plan was to maximize gaming revenues so the tribe could focus on building health clinics, creating scholarships and improving the members' housing. Maximizing per capita payouts to tribal members, a policy in some casino tribes that attracts intense media and public attention, wasn't Liedkie's highest priority, Wass adds.

The opportunity among the Chukchansi Indians for big individual paydays is there. Take for example, Table Mountain Rancheria. In 1998, each of its estimated 55 to 70 adult members received $14,000 monthly payments.

Liedkie says she also wanted the casino built on trust land (property administered by the federal government for the tribe's benefit) so the tribe could avoid paying property taxes: "If it isn't on trust land, then you are a property owner and you must pay property taxes."

The casino and hotel occupy about 20 non-trust acres toward the rancheria's west end. Madera County, the tribe and Cascade are still at odds over whether taxes are owed.

The county has said it can legally seek as much as $1.5 million in annual property taxes at the casino/hotel site; the tribe and Cascade say sovereign governments cannot tax one another.

Because she put Chukchansi's tribal interests first, Wass says, Liedkie "met with a lot of flak."

One of the focal points of this tribal membership fight -- the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino -- is a whirlwind of activity. Teams of workers swarmed over the site Friday afternoon, scurrying along part of the hotel roof, testing the fountains in front of the hotel entrance, rushing in and out of a casino that was still missing some of its doors.

The architects clearly aimed for a rustic, natural look. Columns of stone rising high in the hotel's frame give it a rugged, mountain look. The two buildings dwarf any other man-made structure in the vicinity, but perhaps the project's most noticeable feature is the blacktop. The paved parking lots are immense, large enough to handle nearly 2,000 cars, recreational vehicles and tourist buses.

A year ago, the site was accessible mainly by county-owned Road 417. Gamblers, though, will approach the casino by a new road on tribal land called Lucky Lane. A traffic light at the intersection of Lucky Lane and Highway 41 has been installed at the tribe's expense.

The tribe and Cascade have unveiled an aggressive marketing campaign. Billboards along Valley highways and city streets tout the casino's charms; radio spots promise a good time.

The tribal offices, in portable buildings across Road 417 from the casino, were busy Friday. A receptionist said Chairwoman Jackson would be in meetings all day and unavailable to comment.

Less than a mile away, Cascade officials are housed in similar trailers. Cascade President Russell Pratt was at the site Friday, but a receptionist said he, too, would be in meetings all day and unavailable to comment.

Things are less hectic some 1,800 miles to the east, where Liedkie lives with her daughter in Walker Creek, Ark. She says she moved after her ouster because it was too painful to be near the rancheria.

Liedkie says she and some of her tribal colleagues used to spend their free time making baskets and giving them to the poor. Her dream, she says, was to be the casino's goodwill ambassador.

No more. Now, she simply wants a chance to present the disenrolled members' side to the tribal council.

Liedkie says the tribe remains a part of her. "It's what I live by daily," she says. "It is my family's future."

The reporters can be reached at lapadilla@fresnobee.com, ghostetter@ fresnobee.com or 441-6330.

 

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