“At certain revolutions all the damn’d are brought; and feel by turns the bitter change of fierce extremes.”
(John Milton, “Paradise Lost.”)
In the past week, the hills above the Central Valley in Madera County, California have become the scene of an unfolding drama, which is taking place within the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, just south of the town of Coarsegold. The tensions revolve around a long-standing debate over the matter of “disenrollment,” a recently held election and its results and implications. The Chukchansi people have found themselves divided into two opposing groups; one group siding with newly elected tribal council chairman Morris Reid and three other new council members who oppose disenrollment, the other camp siding with proponents of disenrollment, including tribal chairman Reggie Lewis, who was voted out of office in last year’s election, but has yet to vacate the position, along with the three other members that were voted out.
During the early morning hours on Monday, 27 February, several supporters of the newly elected council members broke into the tribal offices, and staged a takeover. Madera County Sheriff’s deputies, reluctant to intervene due to the issue of tribal land sovereignty, kept watch from across the street while both opposing factions set up camp in neighboring buildings within the tribal office area.(1)
The next day, tensions escalated into outright violence, requiring the intervention of local Sheriff’s deputies from both Madera and Fresno Counties, along with California Highway Patrol officers to help de-escalate and bring the situation back into a more controlled state. During Tuesday’s melee, a number of people sustained injuries, including a nineteen-year-old male who was stabbed, and a security guard who sustained a head injury. As of the date this article is being written, both sides in the contentious debate have agreed to a 48-hour truce which was, according to various sources, brokered by Madera County Sheriff John Anderson as a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the opposing factions. Security personnel from two companies now stand guard over the empty tribal offices, until a solution to the impasse can be reached.(2)
For those who are unfamiliar with the issue or those involved, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians is a subset of the Yokuts ethnic group of Native Americans, indigenous to California’s Central Valley and surrounding foothills. The people of the Picayune Rancheria are active participants in the Native American gaming industry, and since 2003, the rancheria has owned and operated the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, which is located just south of Coarsegold, California off of CA State Route 41. Revenues derived from the operation of the casino are distributed amongst the tribal members, with each member currently receiving an estimated 300 dollars monthly, according to a recent KFSN-ABC article dated December 28th of last year.(3)
The topic of disenrollment of tribal members has been a hotly contested issue within the rancheria in recent years, due to its implications on the amount of revenue received by each tribal member. In the intervening years since Chukchansi Gold opened to the public, tribal membership rolls have decreased from about 2,000, down to around 1,200 according to sources familiar with the issue. This would in practice, translate mathematically into more dollars, spread amongst fewer people. During an interview with KSEE-NBC news on Wednesday, tribal council member Jennifer Stanley stated that the newly elected members had not yet been sworn in, and would not be allowed to take their seats on the council until this happens. The reasoning behind the swearing-in delay is part and parcel of the larger debate between factions.(2)
In the wake of Tuesday’s spate of violence, there have been some who have questioned Sheriff Anderson’s decision to act to quell the violence, as it pertains to tribal land sovereignty. In a stated call to action directed towards the federal government, and more specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Morris Reid elaborated on his opposition to Sheriff Anderson’s action(s):
“As the duly elected leaders of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, charged with protecting the inherent sovereignty of the Chukchansi people, we strongly oppose the action of the Madera County Sheriff and other local non-Indian law enforcement officials ordering the removal of elected Tribal officials from a Tribally-owned Tribal Government building on federal trust land. This action by local non-Indian law enforcement is in excess of their authority under Federal law and is a flagrant violation of Tribal sovereignty and an affront to Tribal governments and Indian people across this country. To curtail this dangerous precedent, we are asking the Federal government to assume law enforcement authority over the Picayune Rancheria immediately.”(4)
In addition, local Madera-based publisher Jack Porter, Jr., owner and operator of the Big Valley News website, posted a highly biased article which also called into question Sheriff Anderson’s decision to act, and denoted Anderson’s purported ties to security firm operator and owner Zak Zacharias. The BVN article noted that Zacharias’ company was one of the two that assumed security duties at the site following the melee.(5)
[SOAPBOX=ON] I know that I’ve been uncharacteristically silent regarding my own opinions on this crisis, but the one thing that I find myself in total agreement with local law enforcement on, is their decision to act in the face of escalating violence. It would appear at least, that John Anderson was left with little choice but to act when and in the manner that he did, in the interests of maintaining order and preventing any possible (quite even likely!) further escalation of the violence, that had the chance of involving the nearby casino and its patrons. Had Sheriff Anderson not acted when he did, this story might instead include an accounting of fatalities and casualties from the general populace.
(1) Chukchansi Tribe Members Take Over Casino Offices // KFSN-ABC 30 // Published Monday, 27 February, 2012
(2) Chukchansi Dispute Continues // KSEE-NBC 24 // Published Wednesday, 29 February, 2012
(3) Chukchansi Tribal Members Fight Disenrollment // KFSN-ABC 30 // Published Wednesday, December 28, 2011
(4) Melee Erupts at Chukchansi Tribal Offices // KSEE-NBC 24 // Published Tuesday, 28 February, 2012
(5) Chukchansi Indians on the Warpath – Sovereignty Challenged By Sheriff // Big Valley News // Published Tuesday, 28 February, 2012