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Monday, March 5, 2007 | After a gray, drizzly morning east of San Diego, the sun at last breaks free from the clouds, unfurling its warmth across a small country hill. Two parallel fences trace the land’s narrow 6.2-acre boundary — just larger than an aircraft carrier’s deck.
Atop this nondescript rise, shaded only by a pepper tree, Karen Toggery and Walter Rosales stand amid nameless grave markers and the warm yellow blossoms of narcissus. Together, they narrate the slow erasure of the village where they have lived for decades. Rosales is talking.
“There were three houses torn down, and by the palm tree,” he gestures with his right hand, “there was one right there and one below that palm tree.”
Rosales, a strongly built 59-year-old man with long, graying hair, surveys the Jamul Indian Village, from wooden fence line to wooden fence line. He counts to nine and lets loose a whistle. The air slips out slow.
“Gee,” he says wistfully. “Nine trailers out of here.”
Rosales and Toggery, 52, know their homes may be next. Here in Jamul, where the Jamul Indian tribe has plans to build a $350 million, 12-story casino, other tribal members have moved out, one by one. They’ve left scattered remnants behind: a vacant, windowless home here, a dusty black couch there. But Toggery and Rosales are still here, continuing their eight-year fight against the casino. They say they are the true Jamul Indian tribe, that the others — recognized by the federal government — have not rightfully been given the land.
The fight has broad implications for the public acceptance of tribal gaming in San Diego County. The story of the Jamul casino opens a window not only into the state of tribal gaming, but also the divisiveness of tribal politics and perceptions of American Indians in the 21st century.
While tribal gaming has taken off in San Diego in the last decade, some see the public’s taste for new casino construction waning. Arguments about tribal sovereignty, which helped fuel early development of casinos, are increasingly being met with resistance from casino opponents who say the law should apply equally to everyone. Sovereignty, in effect, means the tribes make the rules. They must simply show a “good faith effort” to mitigate environmental impacts.
“In and around San Diego, that spread of casinos is not just saturating the market but creating a tipping point,” says Steven Light, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota. “At that point, gambling is seen as a bad thing. You sort of go over the precipice. There’s the perception that it’s too much.”
At the same time, for Toggery and Rosales, it is an intensely personal quest. They are reluctant dissidents, convinced of their cause but hesitant to embrace the hero label bestowed by fellow, non-tribal opponents. The two protest that the casino would destroy burial sites they consider sacred.
But they also worry that their battle may end soon. Eviction notices were taped to their doors Feb. 24, promising they’d be removed from their homes within five days. The Jamul tribal chairman says the two dissidents will be gone in 90 days. The casino, he says, will be built by 2009, the latest promised construction date.
This is why Toggery and Rosales talk about human fences and their plans to stand in front of bulldozers. This is why a neighbor hired security so the two could sleep soundly at night. This is why Toggery says she is afraid to leave her home for more than an hour, fearful she won’t have a house when she returns.
Still, they have fought the casino, despite the alienation, the threats, the severance of longstanding familial relations.
“What we have here, and what’s in the ground, it should stay,” Toggery says. “As long as you have one person who believes, that’s all that really matters.”
Two miles away from the Jamul Indian Village, Leon Acebedo sits inside a fluorescently lit office perched above the Upper Hand Spa Salon. Acebedo, 59, is in his fourth year as tribal chairman of the 51-member Jamul band. His job description sounds simple: Get the casino built.
The office walls are bare, save for a clock. The tables are messy, Pepsi cans and Styrofoam cups scattered about. The air smells like pizza. Acebedo, fresh out of a meeting with other tribal members, is reciting a familiar line about building the casino.
“The theme we have,” he says, “is building a legacy for the future.”
The casino would be an economic engine for the tribe, Acebedo explains, a way to improve housing, offer better health care and diversify the tribe’s income. Advertising materials describe a 75,000-square foot casino with 2,000 slot machines and 75 gaming tables. Promotional information boasts:
Guest activities will include: An unparalleled steakhouse featuring an upscale, yet comfortable lounge offering premium wines and liquors. … A café-deli featuring over-stuffed sandwiches. … Future phases of the property are planned to include a hotel, additional restaurants, and entertainment/event center.
The Jamul tribe agreed in 1999 to build the casino with the help of Lakes Entertainment, a publicly traded Minnesota company. The tribe wanted to build a three- or four-story casino on the existing village and put parking and other related buildings on a 101-acre neighboring site. When that plan ran into resistance from San Diego County supervisors, Acebedo says, the tribe decided to build up rather than out. A 30-story casino was proposed and later pared to 12 stories.
The casino will be built atop Toggery and Rosales’ homes. Acebedo offers little sympathy for their resistance, while acknowledging the two are blood relatives of tribal members, “no matter how distant down the line.”
“The majority rules,” Acebedo says. “If they were members, they’d be in the minority. They’re not members, so they really don’t have a voice.”
That hasn’t stopped Toggery and Rosales from being vocal. They have several suits pending challenging the tribe’s right to build atop land where their ancestors’ ashes have been spread. Neighbors fiercely opposed to the proposal laud the duo’s bravery.
In the years since the proposal became public, the Jamul casino has become a divisive issue without room for compromise. Neighbors are outraged about increased traffic on the serpentine, two-lane Highway 94. The tribe has offered $6 million to improve the roadway, a figure opponents scoff at. Widening the road would cost a half billion dollars, opponents estimate.
The Jamul Action Committee has renamed itself Jamulians Against the Casino and is prepared to sue to stop construction. Supervisor Dianne Jacob has rallied around them, though she has been accused of opposing the proposal because she lives in Jamul. Patrick Webb, the attorney for Rosales and Toggery, also lives in Jamul. Jacob says she is representing her constituency.
“This is the wrong location for such a massive, intensive development smack dab in a rural area,” she says. “There’s no way the extremely significant impacts could be mitigated.”
After years of going back-and-forth, both sides now unequivocally say they are right. The casino is either perfect for the land or an abomination. These are not their opinions, each side says, but plain facts.
Marcia Spurgeon, a 30-year Jamul resident and Realtor who is a vocal opponent, asks why the $1.1 million the state annually gives the tribe isn’t enough money. She says this: “All these people can get a job and work like the rest of us. This argument about economic need, it doesn’t exist. They’re being bought off with this carrot of making this fortune. But at the total destruction of an area. Enough’s enough. How many casinos do you need?”
Acebedo points out that state funding given each tribal member amounts to $25,000 apiece. He responds: “This is the United States of America. It was built on a capitalistic society. Is $25,000 a year enough for her? To pursue personal wealth and security is ohh-kay.”
He hangs on that last word, drags it out. Ohh-kay.
“She’s a Realtor,” he adds. “I would wager she’s probably doing fairly well.”
A Tipping Point
Larger issues lie just beneath the surface of the arguments for and against the casino. Its construction says as much about tribal sovereignty as it does about the effects of development in San Diego’s suburbanizing backcountry. Though Jamul is frequently called rural, it is less bucolic than some suggest. Afternoon traffic is fierce; its storefronts are filled: a tae kwon do studio, a Subway and nail salons.
The battle is emblematic of the country’s increasing resistance to new casinos, a pushback with an epicenter in San Diego County, home to nine of California’s 56 tribal casinos. Tribal gaming has exploded in the country in the last decade. What was a $5 billion nationwide industry in 1995 now produces annual revenues exceeding $19 billion, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Racial issues and other stereotypes simmer, too. Opponents claim that Lakes Entertainment, which was temporarily de-listed from the Nasdaq in 2005 for financial irregularities, is taking advantage of the tribe and exploiting its members for monetary gain. The tribe is portrayed as being a victim of a casino that could generate $200 million in annual revenues.
Those claims ignore the federal regulations and oversight surrounding those business arrangements, says Nancy Carol Carter, a University of San Diego law professor who follows tribal issues. Opponents are trying to capitalize on stereotypes that American Indians are too naive to make their own decisions, she says.
Outside help is especially necessary for small tribes trying to build a casino, says Light, the University of North Dakota professor. It allows the tribe to leverage financing, while tapping into the expertise and manpower needed to design and develop the casino.
“A 50-member tribe, they can’t do it. They’ve got to go outside the tribe,” Light says. “How would you expect a 50-member township to run a multimillion dollar business? It would be impossible.”
Carter describes the Jamul casino proposal as part of a larger story about American Indians’ experience in the San Diego region. Few people pay attention to the historical reasons why tribes can run casinos when no one else is allowed to, she says. She traces the resulting controversy back to California’s refusal to establish large reservations in the late 19th century. Instead of a dozen sprawling reservations like those found across the Great Plains, California tribes settled on dozens of smaller parcels spread out across the state.
And the smaller the tribe, the more its strife gets amplified, Light says. In tribes across the Plains that have thousands of members, the dissention of two people resonates less forcefully.
But while individual members stand to earn a larger share of casino revenue in smaller tribes, the size also works against the tribe’s off-reservation image. On large reservations where poverty runs rampant, casinos are often viewed as ways to improve health services, to create daycare and elder-care, Light says. Conversely, among smaller tribes, outsiders view casinos as a way for a few people to get rich.
Light, who has studied casino proposals across the country, says these projects typically give rise to two stereotypes. At the same time, each side does little to dispel the preconceived images.
Stereotype No. 1: Dances With Wolves. Patrick Webb, the attorney representing Toggery and Rosales, leans on this Hollywood-fueled image. He says his clients embody the iconic view of American Indians with close ties to the land.
“This isn’t about payback,” Webb says. “This isn’t about getting our due. That’s not what the world is about.”
Stereotype No. 2: Revenge. This suggests that the tribes are building casinos to exact revenge for long-standing injustices. Acebedo, the Jamul tribal chairman, seems to embrace this.
“I don’t know if you saw my cartoon out there,” he tells a reporter. “That’s a significant message.”
The 9-by-11 cartoon is taped, facing out, to a tinted window in the tribal office. Anyone who enters the tribal office walks past it. A white man is kneeling on the ground in front of a slot machine, empty pockets turned out, hands covering his head.
Two American Indians stand nearby, looking down at him. One says to the other: “I’m just sorry it took us 400 years to figure out how to beat them.”
“In one respect,” Acebedo says, “it’s a jab at everybody. We finally found a way to get ours.”