A fourth tribal faction has emerged in the fight over leadership of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians as another group seeks a new tribal election — a key step toward reopening Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold.
The new faction is made up of the tribe’s original descendants — 43 total voting members — who the federal government at one time recognized after restoring the Chukchansi and 16 other previously terminated California tribes. The new faction wants to gain control of the tribe and could remove members of the other three factions.
As the new faction meets, the three existing factions continue to wrestle for control of the tribe as they seek to reopen the Chukchansi casino — the tribe’s main source of revenue.
A group previously headed by Tex McDonald continues to maintain a tribal council. Meanwhile, the council led by Reggie Lewis and Nancy Ayala is arranging a tribal members’ meeting in Fresno on Saturday that could lead to new elections. Another group led by Morris Reid last month sued the Lewis/Ayala faction for failing to pay monthly stipends in accordance with a federal judge’s order.
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No matter who leads the tribe, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino’s closure will continue well into the spring and maybe longer, Lewis said.
He said Saturday’s meeting is an attempt to bring the tribe’s members together, requiring a quorum of about 280 voting members. They are being asked to decide whether to move ahead with an election as soon as possible for a new council. Lewis said his group will provide expenses for those who have to travel long distances.
Federal officials told tribal lawyers that they want a large chunk of tribal membership to give the green light for an election and allow the tribe to select a new council.
Once that’s established, federal officials told the tribe they may allow Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino to reopen. Under the best-case scenario — a speedy election and the two or three months it will take to open the casino — the casino could be back in business by May, Lewis said.
“There is no guarantee if we do that, that we will get it open and they will recognize what we do,” he said. “It could go on for years (to open) or it could take two or three months.”
Regardless, he said, the casino closure has significantly affected Madera County’s economy and the nearby communities. The day after an Oct. 9 raid of the casino office by representatives of the McDonald group, the Coarsegold casino and hotel were closed by state and federal government officials.
Lewis also said that the monthly stipends for tribe members, known as per capita, will likely end in February since there is no money being generated from casino proceeds to dole out.
The Lewis and Ayala faction sent a letter this month to tribal members, warning that casino funds have dried up. “Unfortunately, due to this loss in revenue and as a result of the (casino) closure we anticipate the last per capita payment will be distributed in February,” the letter states.
A smaller tribe
The new faction, which filed an appeal about a year ago with the federal government to lead the tribe, is comprised of members from the two original tribal families. Chairman Luke Davis said all his group’s tribal members are from the tribe’s historic grounds and are in the Ramirez and Wyatt families.
Davis’ group, known as the “distributees,” want to lead a much smaller tribe.
As the tribe was restored in the 1980s, the Ramirez family lived on land that was recognized as the rancheria. But when family matriarch Maryan Ramirez died, reorganizing the tribe was left to the Wyatt family, which added people who did not own land on the 80-acre rancheria.
“No faction can prove their connection (to the rancheria land) here except for the 43 distributees,” said Davis, a Ramirez family member.
The Ramirezes previously sued the federal government in 2012 to shrink the tribe and give them control, but a federal judge said they had no standing since the tribe was restored more than 20 years earlier. In dismissing the Ramirezes’ suit, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel said “the Ramirez family now seeks to unwind more than twenty years of tribal governance.”
The Ramirezes continue to believe they are the only family that can legally authorize the tribe’s membership rolls and constitution, despite the judge’s ruling, said Davis.
In 2013, a petition was filed and approved by members of a tribal council led by Ayala — a Wyatt descendant — and members of the two families were briefly installed. Within a few days the tribal council was returned to a group of tribal members who extended beyond the two families.
But in an October hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill allowed the Davis faction’s lawyer to weigh in on the casino controversy.
In December, Davis was elected chairman of the newest council. He and the other tribal council members each received 28 votes.
“It’s about our birthright and our inherent right to self government that we inherited,” Davis said. “Other people are invading our rights to self government; it’s not about the casino.”
Dora Jones, who previously served as a council member from the Reid group, said that Davis’ faction should seek federal recognition as a separate band from the existing Chukchansi.
“They need to disenroll from our tribe,” she said. “Under the (2012) court order they had no standing so that would tell me they are not entitled to the money to run their own government.”