FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – In an ironic twist, several members of the Bishop Paiute Tribe claim their own tribal council has accused them of trespass so it can take their family land for a casino.
The Napoles and Williams families filed a 37-page petition against the tribal council and Tribal Court Judge Bill Kockenmeister in the Eastern District of California.
“The tribal council is basically trying to carve off two lots of our family land, and are doing it because they say they can,” petitioner Ronald Napoles said in an interview. “It’s not true because they were never granted the authority to do anything with land.”
“We think they don’t have a legal case, but they have a lot of control because they have the tribal police and tribal employees doing what they want,” he added. “For us, it’s really clear because our reservation is comprised of individual land grants given to individual Paiute families.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bought up all the land in the Owens Valley for water. The DWP then partnered with the federal government to convince Paiute families to leave their lands in Owens Valley in exchange for land assignments on what is now the Bishop Paiute Reservation, Napoles said.
The Bishop Paiute tribe is a federally recognized tribe of Mono and Timbisha Indians on the lower slopes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. With approximately 2,000 members, the tribe is the fifth largest in the state, according to its website.
Under the tribe’s customs and traditions, family land can only be passed down to surviving family members or assigned from one individual member to another, and cannot be used for economic development, the petition says.
“The idea was that the land should stay in the family. You should be able to keep the land and build homes there,” Napoles said.
Nevertheless, the families claim the tribal council in 2006 unilaterally decided to take their land for a casino expansion project despite having no authority to do so.
“They’re relying on the idea of what a tribal council’s authority is, and it’s just not there,” Napoles said. “They’re telling everyone, ‘we’re the tribal council, so we have jurisdiction to take your land.’”
“Even if they were the governing body, they still can’t skirt around the law that’s sitting there and do whatever they want,” he added.
The families fought back, refusing to let project surveyors onto their land. When the matter was brought before the tribe’s general council, the majority shot down the casino expansion project, according to Monday’s complaint.
But the tribal council ignored that decision, fencing off the families’ land and citing them for trespassing. Judge Kockenmeister affirmed those citations despite past rulings that the tribal court lacks jurisdiction to adjudicate land disputes, the families claim.
The families prevailed on appeal and got the trespass charges dismissed, but members of the tribal council came back onto their lands this past November with Inyo County Sheriff’s officers in tow, threatening to cite them again for trespassing and rip out their fencing if they refused to leave, according to the complaint.
The tribal council not only made good on their citation threats, but also got several members of the families fired from their jobs with the tribe and convinced Judge Kockenmeister to issue a restraining order against them under the Violence Against Women Act, which has nothing to do with the situation, the complaint states.
“The temporary restraining order would let local law enforcement arrest us on the spot,” Napoles said. “For us, it was a trespass deal, not anything to do with domestic violence. Nothing on the scale of being arrested. It also threatens federal charges for stepping on our land.”
Worried for their safety, the families reluctantly left their land.
Napoles said the prolonged fight to protect their land is taking a huge toll on his family.
“We’ve been pretty bashed in the media by the tribal council in press releases and newsletters. They portray us as selfish and greedy, and it’s very hurtful,” he said.
“It’s a tough deal because this land has been in our family since 1941. It’s also an emotional thing, too. It’s hard. Every day we look out and see this fence keeping us off our land,” Napoles said.
Other families also had their land taken, but they didn’t have the resources to fight back and were forced to move, he said.
“It’s been grueling,” Napoles added. “We’re not lawbreakers. It’s tough being treated like a criminal.”
The Bishop Paiute Tribal Council did not respond to emailed requests for comment sent Thursday afternoon.
The families are asking the court to nullify the temporary restraining orders against them and order the tribal council to let them back onto their land. They also want a declaration that the council violated their rights under the Indian Civil Rights Act and an injunction preventing the council from using their lands for the casino project.
They are represented by Jack Duran of Roseville, California.