The Alturas Indian Rancheria, a tiny, federally-recognized tribe of Achomawi Indians with a casino in the Northern California county of Modoc, legally adopted outsiders, including one who went to prison, in order to tip the political balance of the deeply divided group.
It didn’t work out too well.
Stephen Magagnini at the Sacramento Bee tells the tribe’s convoluted tale, which began with its recognition in 1924 as one of 50 or so quasi-sovereign states in California, whose five official members—yes, five—could vote on the constitution in 1971.
Paul Del Rosa, the son and grandson of founders, supervised the opening of the tribe’s Desert Rose Casino in 1999 as chairman of the rancheria three years before his death. The three of them died in separate car accidents.
The casino generates $700,000 a year in revenue, but that’s only a piece of the tribe’s cash stream. The state’s big casino tribes share $1.1 million of their revenue and the federal government earmarks several hundred thousand dollars through various programs.
Paul’s children, Phillip and Wendy, are locked in a battle over control of the tribe’s assets, but they’ve complicated matters somewhat by bringing in outsiders. It started with adopting a couple of struggling cousins back before the casino opened, at a time when federal grant money from the additional tribal bodies was a factor.
The tribe adopted Darren Rose, said to have Karuk and Shasta Indian heritage, in 2003 when he said he could build them a second casino on the I-5 Freeway 150 miles away. Wayne Smith, a former No. 2 at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), was brought in to help get the project approved by his old agency.
Phillip and Wendy said they didn’t know that news reports said he had been forced out of the BIA over alleged influence peddling. He was never prosecuted. The casino didn’t get built.
In 2008, adoptees Rose and the two cousins joined forces and were about to vote Phillip out as tribal chairman when he and Wendy adopted two white men. Calvin Phelps is a former cigarette manufacturer from North Carolina and Donald Packingham is reportedly retired law enforcement from New Mexico.
In addition to being voting allies, Phelps and Packingham were going to establish a cigarette manufacturing operation on tribal land and sell tax-free cigarettes in California. That hasn’t happened. Phelps went to prison in March 2014. He was sentenced to 40 months and ordered to pay $5.1 million in restitution after pleading guilty to federal fraud charges.
Phelps was considered a tribal member in good standing and communicates with them remotely, but Packingham got kicked out.
Wendy and Phillip clashed numerous times over myriad issues as alliances shifted. Phillip wanted ties with Wendy’s ally, Smith, severed. Phelps abandoned Phillip for Wendy when Phillip tried to have him disenrolled, and they joined with Smith to try to revoke Phillip’s voting rights. Rose sided with Phillip.
The judge said it was not his job to determine the ultimate membership of the tribe and sounded as if he didn’t really want to get involved. “The Tribe’s chaotic governance is mired in continual litigation,” he wrote in the decision. “Allegations of fraud, embezzlement, forgery, and perjury abound even within this administrative case dealing only with mail delivery.”
But he did make some determinations of membership as they pertained to the postal issue. Wendy, Rose and his daughter Alyssa Rose were members for the purpose of voting on who gets the mail. He did not rule on the eligibility of Phillip, who may or may not have been kicked off the tribal council at some point. The incarcerated Phelps, he said, is not a tribal member.
Wendy disputes the judge’s jurisdiction and the judge didn’t sound as if he expected the tribal warfare to end with his ruling.
“It has become clear to me that the disputants and others involved in the Tribe’s governance will act in whatever manner seems expedient to them at the moment, depending on the situation at the time amid continually shifting alliances.”