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Millions At Stake In California Tribe Membership Dispute


A dispute over membership is riling a Native American tribe near Yosemite in California. The Chukchansi tribe has been dis-enrolling members for decades, which means profits from the tribe's casino are being shared between fewer people. As Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports, recently the conflict came to an armed confrontation.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: It was a full house at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino last fall when the unexpected happened. An armed takeover - black SUVs, guns, bodyguards. A fight broke out. People were tasered. A federal judge shut down the casino that night, saying the public was at risk. The next day, one faction tried to remove sensitive documents from the casino.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Get my vehicle up here now. Tell them they need it up here now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Says they shall not attempt to repossess or take control of the casino.

ROMERO: Former tribal leader Tex McDonald led the takeover. He says the current tribal leaders running the casino mismanaged funds.

TEX MCDONALD: Since they've been in power, $11 million is missing. So we come in, we want to know what happened to it.

ROMERO: Today McDonald is in jail for his involvement with the armed conflict. The takeover was a final straw in a tribal dispute festering for more than three decades. Membership shrank from around 1,800 to 900 during that time because tribal leaders found ways to dis-enroll members. Nancy Ayala is on the current Chukchansi tribal council. Her opponents like McDonald say she wants to limit the tribe to just her family, 46 people.

NANCY AYALA: That's been a fear tactic that's been used in the tribe. People believe that stuff and people get grumpy. You know, you just have to talk to me, look me in the eye, look my family members in the eye.

ROMERO: If Ayala had gotten her way, the monthly casino profit checks to each member of her family would've jumped from $900 to around $17,000. But since the casino is closed, no checks have been written for months. Ayala says figuring out membership is key to the tribe's future.

AYALA: If we could tackle that and figure out how people fit in, where they fit in, do you belong - if we could figure that out, we would be a power to be reckoned with.

ROMERO: This struggle over membership for the Chukchansi people dates back even farther than the casino's opening in 2003. In the late '50s, the government disbanded the tribe and didn't recognize them again until the '80s. Fresno State political science professor Kenneth Hansen studies the tribe.

KENNETH HANSEN: People are robbed of their identity when a tribe is terminated. The community is dissolved. Records are destroyed. So you're not really sure who actually belongs to the tribe anymore.

ROMERO: Hansen says tribal insecurity, rules for membership, plus millions of dollars from the casino have created a subculture of greed in the tribe.

HANSEN: When they say it's not about politics, it is. When they say it's not about the money, it is. Where those two things converge, then you have an explosion.

ROMERO: That explosion has forced-out tribal members like 74-year-old Chris Ballew, despite her Chukchansi heritage.

CHRIS BALLEW: Great, great, great-grandfather was the last chief of the tribe. I had records proving that I was an ancestor of his.

ROMERO: That relationship apparently isn't enough. Tribes create their own rules for membership and Blue doesn't qualify because the council in 2012 said her proof wasn't good enough. She and 18 others in her family were dis-enrolled from the tribe at that time.

What was the mood like that day when you found out you were dis-enrolled?

BALLEW: Disbelief and anger and hurt. My uncle was honored as an elder at the powwow and a week later got a letter saying he was no longer a member.

ROMERO: Ballew doesn't think her family will ever be re-enrolled into the Chukchansi. The tribe hopes to solve membership problems and financial woes by opening a casino in three to six months and by holding an election for a new tribal council as early as May. For NPR News I'm Ezra David Romero. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero