Casino money changes the ancient face of community, mostly for the better


Steve Eagleton gets a kiss from his dog Oz outside his office at a utility department on the Pala Reservation. His agency is paving dirt roads and laying miles of water pipes, thanks to the influx of casino cash.

PALA INDIAN RESERVATION – The night before the casino opened, Steve Eagleton gazed up at the stars, savoring the stillness that had enveloped his reservation for more than a century.

"This place," he thought aloud, "will never be the same."

He was right. On that April night in 2001, his North County tribe was at the threshold of a transformation.

The Pala Casino is profoundly changing San Diego County's largest tribe and the lives of its more than 900 Cupeño and Luiseño Indians.

Variations of this story abound on scores of reservations throughout the country. What makes Pala stand out are the pace and scale of its evolution.

On the surface, the big difference is money. Enough money to make work optional for any tribal member. Money to build homes, buy health insurance, pay college tuition. Money to turn a tribal government into a functioning government, with departments like a city's.

But a deeper metamorphosis is reshaping Pala at this juncture between its sorrowful past and promising future.

Tribal education director Doretta Musick helped Christian Griffith, 13, with history homework at the learning center.

People here are experiencing a new freedom – freedom to buy or do whatever they want, whether it lifts them up, pulls them down or simply provides enjoyment.

They are adapting to traffic streaming through a formerly quiet village and to strangers exploring what used to be an insulated community.

Parents are more wary of suitors wooing their sons and daughters: Are they after their hearts or their wallets? Elders worry about youth who seem content to coast, especially when they turn 18 and receive lump sums in the high five-figures.

And amid the prosperity, some wonder whether Pala is losing something irreplaceable: the interconnection that made it a tribe, that bound the people when they had no one but each other to depend on.

"Things are changing. It's got its good things and its bad things.
We always say, 'Gee, if our ancestors could come back to life, what would they think?' "

–Jane Blackman, tribal elder

Among the many new services on the reservation is a Wells Fargo Bank branch that opened in January. On a lobby wall, a floor-to-ceiling photo montage shows a caravan of horse-drawn wagons. The mournful scene depicts this tribe's defining event: the relocation.

Pala's forebears were evicted in 1903 from their ancestral village of Cupa, now called Warner Springs. By order of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Cupeños were marched 40 miles to Pala, joining a small band of Luiseños.

More than 100 years later, the descendants who constitute 90 percent of the Pala tribe have not forgotten.

"It's not that long ago for us," said Leroy Miranda, vice chairman of the governing council. "We have children of people who were relocated. We have seniors 55 or 60 who knew someone that was removed."

Pala persevered. Members took jobs in Escondido, Temecula or elsewhere. Leaders launched a commercial avocado business. They leased land to sand miners. They built a fire department and an education center.

By 2001, the tribe had a $1 million operating budget.

Pala Casino money has led to vast improvements on the reservation, including a $3 million gymnasium.

Then came Pala Casino with its 2,000 slot machines, making it one of the largest in the state. It drew customers by the thousands. Business grew even more with the addition in 2003 of a 507-room hotel. Its 10 stories tower like a sentinel over the San Luis Rey River valley.

Now the gravy train is rolling, carrying a tribe on its biggest journey since that wagon caravan in 1903.

"When you live in a world of poverty for so long and you wake up one day and don't have to worry about feeding your children or buying clothes, it's hard to believe. In the back of your head, you still have this, 'Can this be real?' " –Leroy Miranda, tribal vice chairman

The tribe's profit figures are closely guarded, but the monthly casino dividend, called "per capita," for each member is around $6,000, and it is rising. Payments for enrolled minors – those of at least 1/16th Pala Indian blood – go into trust funds they get at age 18, provided they graduate from high school.

This 12,500-acre reservation shows little outward sign of opulence. Homes are average-sized. Driveways are occupied by late-model cars, pickups, SUVs. They're American-or Japanese-made, not Jaguars or Mercedes-Benzes.

But inside, life is different. A father of three buys his kids $100 computer games. He takes them to San Diego Zoo and feeds them high-priced food instead of packing a lunch.

Husband-and-wife ministers of a small church lavish gifts on grandchildren and non-Indian parishioners – a bedroom set for one single mom, a mortgage payment for another.

Miranda, 38, says his mother bought him a train set and a Batman toy car. His older sister got a Barbie doll. "These were things she wanted to give us when we were young, but she couldn't afford to."

Pala also is learning abut the pitfalls of prosperity.

Members who had drug or alcohol problems before have gotten worse; some have died. Young adults raised without strong parental guidance spend nights partying and mornings sleeping in, showing little ambition for pursuits more meaningful than riding around on four-wheeled motorcycles.

Mel Lavato, past chairman of Pala's advisory Council of Elders, says the tribe has had a "spree period."

"People are still adjusting to and adapting to the new environment," he said. "People bought things they wanted to get or couldn't afford to get. The small segment of druggies that are here, they thought they'd found the gold mine."

Chairman Robert Smith notes that the tribe had 27 high school graduates last year, the most ever. It also has 28 students in college, with all costs paid by the tribe.

"We want our people to learn and grow," Smith said. "All the tools are there so they can enhance themselves. We can't make them do it."

Bruce Guachino Jr., 19, pitches to his brother, Bradly, 15, at one of the softball fields in the reservation's new sports park. Their father, Bruce Sr., is Pala's first paid sports director.

"What's changed is how people look at us. When I was in high school, people were asking us if we washed our clothes in the river. Now they think we're all rich.” –Christina Garcia, 22, utilities receptionist and law student

The most visible manifestation of Pala's progress express is its $5 million administration center and sports complex, opened two summers ago.

On the ground floor of the two-story administration building is a spacious assembly hall. There, at monthly meetings, members vote using hand-held electronic boxes, with results displayed by computer on a drop-down screen.

The sports park has tennis and basketball courts, and softball fields with electronic scoreboards. Elders take water aerobics classes in the heated pool. A $3 million gymnasium and fitness center is scheduled for completion this summer.

Sports programs are run by tribal member Bruce Guachino, 40. Last summer, he left a $60,000 job at a medical supply firm in Temecula to spend a month with his dying father before taking the newly created position of sports coordinator.

Guachino, his wife and their teenage sons and daughter are all avid softball players. A burly but good-natured man with Indian tattoos all over his arms, Guachino took a big pay cut pay for what he calls his "dream job" with the tribe. He could afford to, thanks to his casino stipend.

"It was a blessing being able to get this job, to make that choice, because of the per capita," he said. "Dad's right out there. I can look at the graveyard from the ball field."

Pala never had a paid sports director before. When Smith became chairman in 1990, the tribe's operating budget was $300,000. This year it's $20 million. The administration staff has more than quadrupled in 10 years from 30 to 139.

Eagleton's utilities department, one of 12 run by the tribe, is paving dirt roads and laying miles of new water pipes.

Pala doesn't rent bulldozers anymore or wait for help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"In the past two years we've probably purchased $1 million in equipment," said Eagleton, whose office building overlooks a new workshop and garage.

Pala's Environmental Protection Agency has removed 159 tons of trash and 34,000 discarded tires in those two years, said Lenore Volturno, a chemist hired in 2001 to run the department. Her staff includes specialists in air and water pollution, a pesticide expert and a computer-mapping technician.

With geographic information systems to layer data such as roads, topography and water lines, Volturno's team is helping map a long-range master plan.

"Prior to having the funds, the tribe wasn't really able to do land-use planning," she said. "Now they're able to think a lot further ahead, which is what cities and counties do."

Pala's housing department built 14 homes last year and has 17 under construction. Its senior-services department coordinates trips to Sea World, crews that clean yards of elders and drivers who ferry them on errands.

And as the government matures, the community it serves is changing even more.

"Part of it is the price of progress." –Stan McGarr, governing council secretary

People here enjoy catered meals at tribal functions. But they also miss the tamales and beans their aunts and grandmas made when that was all they could afford.

What they're really longing for is something less tangible.

Members of a tribe share a cultural history that connects the present and future to the past, a thread weaving each individual to the group. It goes beyond family ties, which also are powerful forces in Indian country.

Tribal council Secretary Stan McGarr, 64, explains it with memories from childhood: "When you left your house in the morning, if you were hungry, you got fed. If someone needed wood chopped, you chopped the wood."

Proud as he is of Pala's progress, McGarr is concerned about a growing reliance on the casino instead of one another.

"We're losing our tribalism. We're becoming more mainstream. We're becoming more assimilated," he said. "We as Indian people have always lost something in our eyes that the outside world doesn't see.

"They see profits as a wonderful thing, 'money solves all your problems.' "

As the coffers have grown, so has the involvement of the approximately 140 members who live off the reservation.

"Now that we have all this money, we have people moving in here trying to change things," said Christina Garcia, 22, who works at the utilities department while taking online courses to become a tribal attorney.

Bruce Ortega brought his family of five back to Pala five years ago. Raised on the reservation, he left to work at various jobs in various places. Now he's a security guard at the casino, helping protect his tribe's economic engine.

Ortega, 40, doesn't need the paycheck but doesn't want to sit idle. He wants his youngest son, 6, to grow up in the tribal community.

"I want him to have the attitudes and philosophy we have here," he said. "We have our traditions. We have our funerals, our gatherings, that kind of stuff."

At the Cupa Cultural Center, a young anthropologist hired as assistant director said prosperity can strengthen rather than erode tribal culture by eliminating the struggle for essentials such as housing and health care.

"When you don't have to worry about those things, you can think about giving to the community," said Shasta Gaughen. "Indian people don't have to grind acorns on a metate to be cultural."

As Pala evolves, it interacts more with the outside world. Its leaders and department heads meet with those of other governments, county, state and federal.

Meanwhile, the tribe signed a new state gambling compact last summer that allows it unlimited numbers of slot machines, though so far it has added fewer than 300.

But Pala is expanding its business in other ways. It's buying land to lease to big-box retailers in Simi Valley and Idaho. It has an investment share in a Bay Area Indian casino.

It is even trying to buy back its ancestral home: the Warner Springs Ranch resort and its sulfur hot springs.

But Smith and other leaders say the best hope for Pala's future lies in the heart of the village, in places like the education center and sports complex.

"I've been planting seeds, and it's working." –Doretta Musick, tribal education director

At the learning center, Doretta Musick supervises teens pursuing college-prep courses and elementary students getting after-school tutoring from tribal mentors.

"My ultimate goal is that everyone become educated and become good contributors to their society and to their tribe," she said. "I talk to the students individually, and I stay on them. I'm attacking them one by one."

Musick knows she won't reach them all. Some would rather keep playing and partying.

"I lose a couple and I gain the others," she said. "If I can get a few wonders a year, I'm happy."

At the sports complex, Guachino describes how, when the softball leagues start up again this spring, families from Pala and other reservations will fill the bleachers and picnic tables. In the concession stand, women will make tamales and beans, like in the old days, to raise funds for various tribal groups.

McGarr has similar hopes for the new gym.

"Younger people will play sports and the older people will watch them," he said. "We're trying to bring the community closer together."

But, as lives get busier, those connections can be harder to maintain.

"We haven't lost it, but you can see the crack," McGarr said. "If you don't want it to happen, then you don't let it happen."

Lavato of the elders' council said Pala is "still in that embryonic stage" of rebuilding cultural and spiritual strength to balance its economic growth.

"I believe we're coming out of that spending splurge," he said. "I think we've satisfied our palate and are ready to start focusing on deeper things."

By Chet Barfield February 27, 2005
photo credit: EDUARDO CONTRERAS / Union-Tribune photo.

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