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Chukchansi starting disenrollment for some founding families’ members

Nancy Ayala, former chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians pictured here in 2013, was sent a disenrollment letter by the current tribal council.
Nancy Ayala, former chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians pictured here in 2013, was sent a disenrollment letter by the current tribal council. Fresno Bee file

The Chukchansi tribe is in the midst of a new disenrollment battle, one that could disqualify founding families in the tribe.

It’s rekindling hard feelings that have been building over the years, sparking open feuding two years ago between rival leadership factions at the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold and resulting in a 14-month closure of the tribe’s main source of income.

It’s been relatively quiet since the casino and resort reopened in late December – until now.

14 Number of months Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino was closed following a 2014 tribal dispute

Members of the Ramirez and Wyatt families confirm they have been sent letters in the past two weeks from the existing federally recognized tribal council, which they oppose.

Claudia Gonzales, chairwoman of the tribe, confirmed about a dozen letters were mailed to “distributees,” members of the tribe’s founding families.

The reasoning, according to the letters, is their “dual enrollment” under the tribe’s constitution.

That dual enrollment refers to the second council established by the distributees who have appealed to the federal Interior Board of Indian Appeals to establish themselves as the federally recognized tribal council. The distributees created their own government by election last year and appealed to the federal government for recognition. The appeal hasn’t been heard by the Interior Board.

The federally recognized tribal council recently approved amendments to its enrollment ordinance. It clarified who is eligible for membership in the tribe and prohibited disenrollment except in limited circumstances, Gonzales said.

“We are hopeful the new membership rules will remove any questions over who is eligible for membership and discourage further disputes,” she said.

The amended ordinance recognizes the tribe’s certification of its membership as it stood on Dec. 22, 2008, and prohibits revisiting the eligibility of those members.

Gary Montana, a lawyer who represents the distributees, said there are about four dozen members in the two families.

Among those receiving letters was Luke Davis, chairman of the distributees’ council.

The disenrollment letter accuses him and other family members of dual enrollment, which does not necessarily mean they are enrolled in two tribes.

By them disenrolling us is really adding fuel to the fire.

Luke Davis, chairman of the distributees’ tribal council

Davis said the disenrollment letter could trigger protests similar to those that occurred outside the casino after it reopened at the end of December.

“By them disenrolling us is really adding fuel to the fire,” he said.

Nancy Ayala, who is a member of the founding Wyatt family, said she was disappointed to get the disenrollment letter.

Ayala has long been a target of other factions. She was a controversial leader on the council in 2011 that disenrolled dozens of tribe members and was part of the branch that plotted an August 2014 takeover of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, then overseen by the Tex McDonald faction.

In October 2014, her group was being pushed out of the casino by McDonald’s wing when the hotel and casino were cleared out over security concerns. The incident led to a 14-month closure mandated by federal and state officials.

But for the past eight months, Ayala said, she has avoided tribal politics.

“I’ve been keeping a low profile and trying to stay out of everything,” she said.

The letter said that “dual enrollment is not limited to enrollment in another federally recognized Indian tribe, band or Indian community.”

A hearing will be scheduled for each person sent a letter so they can either relinquish their membership in the other Indian group or risk being removed from the Chukchansi tribal rolls.

The tribe has received credible reports regarding a handful of persons who may be dually enrolled in another tribe.

Claudia Gonzales, federally recognized Chukchansi tribal chairwoman

Montana, the lawyer for the distributees, said he was considering dropping the federal appeal and was looking to Gonzales’ council for a compromise.

“If they would have treated my people decently, I would have dropped it,” Montana said. “I was trying to get them to come together, but they wouldn’t.”

Gonzales, the federally recognized tribal chairwoman, said tribal officials have been working to revise the tribe’s enrollment ordinance to clarify who is eligible as a tribe member.

“The tribe has received credible reports regarding a handful of persons who may be dually enrolled in another tribe, which is prohibited by the  constitution,” she said. “We can confirm there are currently investigations into these reports.”

Ayala said the disenrollment letter is proof that the tribe hasn’t changed over the past few years.

“They were promising it was a new day and let bygones be bygones, but that was to get the casino open,” she said. “There has to be some kind of healing and moving forward and it just isn’t happening. It’s the same stuff.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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