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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Tribal Dispute Boils Over in California

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A rural Central California county with a lucrative Indian casino is beset by a skirmish between three tribal factions, one of which set up a "purported" court which took action against the sheriff, the sheriff claims in court.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson sued the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, Chukchansi Economic Development Authority and Chukchansi Indian Housing Authority in Federal Court.

Also sued are "Lewis faction" leaders Jack Duran Jr., Donna Howard, Reggie Lewis, Chance Alberta, Carl Bushman, Irene Waltz, Lynn Chenot, David Castillo and Melvin Espe, all sued "in (their) purported official capacities."

Lead defendant Duran, for example, is sued "in his purported official capacity as judge of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians Tribal Court."

According to the sheriff's lawsuit, the history of bad blood in the Picayune Rancheria goes back to 1983 and the resolution of a class action challenge to the California Rancheria Act of 1958.

That act terminated dozens of Indian tribes and stripped members of their Native American status - including the Picayune Rancheria.

After a federal judge restored the rancheria's status, the Bureau of Indian Affairs worked with two families - the Ramirezes and the Wyatts - to create a tribal government. Ultimately, the Wyatt descendants gained control of tribal leadership and adopted a constitution in 1988.

But the power struggle continues.

Madera County and the Picayune Rancheria clashed in 2003, after the tribe finished building the Chukchansi casino and the county reassessed the land for property taxes. In 2007, a federal judge declared the rancheria sovereign Native American land, but gave the Madera County Sheriff's Department limited access to it for law enforcement purposes.

Anderson claims his department has been called to the rancheria frequently since 2011 to respond to election disputes. The tribal council last year fractured into three factions, each claiming its leader to be chairman of the tribe - the Ayala faction, the Lewis faction and the Reid faction.

This year the Lewis faction demanded that Anderson remove the Ayala faction from the tribal government compound. Andersons says he refused, partly because he didn't know which faction was legally in power, and partly because of uncertainty whether the 2007 settlement agreement gave him the power to forcibly remove tribal government officials from the rancheria.

Two days later, Anderson says, he learned that the Lewis faction's armed security force was planning a takeover of the compound and was recruiting other members of the tribe. Anderson claims the Lewis faction also brought in a helicopter, dump truck and armed recruits to stage the coup.

"The situation posed a serious and substantial risk of injury and/or death to those involved as well as to non-Indians," Anderson says in the lawsuit. "Pursuant to the 2007 memorandum of understanding and federal law, and consistent with governing law and his authority (as were all of his actions at issue), Sheriff Anderson marshaled forces from his department, the California Department of Justice, the Fresno police and sheriff's departments and the Mariposa Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Anderson's efforts deterred the threatened unlawful, armed and violent conflict, but at a cost of approximately $70,000 to the county and local taxpayers." (Parentheses in complaint.)


Anderson claims the Lewis faction called his department to the rancheria several times after its process servers were threatened with violence while trying to serve the Ayala clan with court documents. Other members of the tribe have complained of the tactics of the Lewis faction's armed guards.

"The Sheriff's Department has received numerous complaints from tribal members about the security company, Zak's Security, that has been hired by the Lewis faction and which allegedly has been denominated by the Lewis faction as 'tribal police,'" Anderson says in the complaint. "The complaints are that these armed security forces while on the rancheria and elsewhere dress in 'storm trooper' or 'SWAT-like' uniforms with tactical vests and carry multiple firearms, including what have been described as 'long guns' and side arms. There have been claims that Zak's Security forces acting at the direction of the Lewis faction at times treat people in an intimidating and threatening manner."

Zak's Security is not a party to the lawsuit.

The discord spilled over into defendant the Chukchansi Indian Housing Authority, which - before the dispute, and as the receiver of millions of dollars in federal HUD money - had been run as a separate entity from the tribal council. Anderson claims armed security forces from the Lewis and Ayala factions clashed at the housing authority building, which is on private property outside the rancheria, and again he had to send officers to keep the peace.

Both sides agreed to stay out of the building until they settled their dispute, and Anderson says he posted a deputy outside the building around the clock to enforce the lockout, at a cost of $72,000 to Madera County.

In July, HUD and the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized an Ayala-affiliated commission as the legitimate Chukchansi Indian Housing Authority board, to keep federal housing funds flowing into the rancheria.

But the federal government revoked its approval a month later, finding the tribe lacked any official government it could legally deal with.

The Lewis and Ayala factions responded by setting up their own tribal courts and moved to take control of the millions of dollars in annual revenue from the Chukchansi Casino and Resort.

Meanwhile, the feud kept hundreds of millions of dollars in debt from casino construction from being paid by defendant Chukchansi Economic Development Agency, or CEDA.

Wells Fargo sued after the tribal leadership dispute caused interest payments on a $250 million loan to go unpaid - though both sides declare they are the only lawful members of CEDA.

The Wells Fargo case is pending in New York County Supreme Court. The Merced Sun-Star reported in June that bank officials said the casino is also in danger of losing its gaming license because it owes more than $551,000 to the California Gambling Control Commission.

Sheriff Anderson's most recent involvement with the tribe - and the subject of his lawsuit - stems from litigation after CEDA fired its casino manager, Matthew Olin. After Olin sued for breach of contract, the Lewis faction agreed to pay $725,000 to settle his claims, but the Ayala faction has attempted to quash the agreement.

Olin's attorneys directed Anderson to seize casino assets to satisfy the Lewis agreement.

The Lewis faction then created its own tribunal and had its appointed judge, Duran, sign a temporary restraining order, barring Anderson from entering the casino to carry Olin's writ of execution.

Anderson claims Duran is a licensed attorney but is not and has never been a judge. Furthermore, he is a Placer County supervisor - an officer of the state of California sworn to uphold the state constitution - who lives in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, nearly 200 miles away.

Sheriff Anderson says he is not a member of the tribe and takes no sides in the battle for control. But he says the settlement between the Picayune Rancheria and Madera County obliges him to perform his law enforcement duties at the rancheria, and the Lewis faction's legal maneuvering against him has made that impossible.

Federal law gives him immunity from such legal actions anyway, Anderson says.

"The combined effect of these lawsuits and proceedings demonstrates unquestionably that there is no recognized tribal authority presently in control of the tribe, that there is no basis or authority for the Lewis faction lawsuit to be filed and/or the Lewis faction tribunal to issue any orders against Sheriff Anderson, and that defendants herein should be ordered to cease and desist in all such legal proceedings against Sheriff Anderson," the sheriff says in his complaint.

Anderson seeks declaratory judgment that the Lewis faction's restraining order is invalid, and an order barring any future actions by its purported court.

He is represented by Thomas Slovak, with firm Slovak Baron Empey Murphy & Pinkney, of Palm Springs.

The Chukchansi casino is in Coarsegold, between Fresno and Yosemite National Park. It has 400 hotel rooms and 56,000 square feet of gambling space.

Chukchansi is a dialect of the Yokuts language family. Fewer than 10 native speakers survive.

The famous, violent 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, was preceded by factional tribal politics and allegations of abuse by factional armed guards. That dispute was complicated when members of the American Indian Movement, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service all moved in to try to impose their version of order.

The best history of that siege is Peter Matthiessen's book, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," which was briefly banned in South Dakota.

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