"When you are in the water you swim."
-American Indian proverb
They came by the hundreds-men, women and children-some even three hours early. The early birds set up card tables, which were then stacked with snacks, water, fliers, wood-handled protest signs and blank petition forms ready for folks' signatures.
Soon, with the lot nearly full and the predominantly white crowd milling about outside the El Cajon Community Center, many with protest signs bouncing against their shoulders as if in some pre-game warm-up strut. Camera crews arrive, stake out temporary broadcast locations and begin feeling out the mood of the protesters.
These are refreshingly pleasant and down-to-earth people, but for the majority of them this is not a day they ever expected to come. One doesn't move 25 miles east of San Diego to the pastoral ambience of Jamul expecting to find yourself one day fighting for the very character of your beloved community. But that's the fix these folks see themselves in, as do many of the county's rural residents who find themselves living in a kind of a bizarre, spread-out Las Vegas South.
On this day early last month, the future of Jamul was on the line, both for its newer residents-including county Supervisor Diane Jacob, who with her husband owns a 25-acre spread east of Jamul-as well as for its indigenous people, a small cluster of Jamul Indians who call a six-acre plot in town home but who are seeking self-sufficiency by annexing another 101 acres next door to build a 500,000-square-foot combination casino-hotel complex.
The two sides on this battle had gathered for a hearing before a five-member panel from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was looking for feedback on its draft environmental report on arguably one of the most contentious tribal projects statewide. Even the format of the hearing was called into question and drew the ire-and political influence-of a local state assemblyman and a U.S. congressman.
Two days before the meeting, veteran Union-Tribune Indian affairs reporter Chet Barfield wrote that speakers at the hearing would be asked to file up one by one to a stenographer, who would then take their testimony. State Assemblyman Jay LaSeur, the area's Republican representative, blew his stack when he read the story and phoned up Congressman Duncan Hunter, who used his political clout to reformat the proceedings to the more traditional method, with a panel of bureau officials seated facing the audience as well as each speaker.
Some protesters suggested the original format was intended to deter the project's detractors, and even Barfield had to laugh at the implication. "Yes, it was all our fault-we were just trying to scare them away," he said mockingly before the hearing. "I wrote that story because I thought that people should know that's how they planned to have the meeting. Hunter basically leaned on some high-up in Interior and got them to change the format to where they can have their fun."
The format change did lead to a boisterous affair that stretched well into the night, with testimony punctuated by hoots and screams and taunts and deafening applause-even from the overflow crowd that surrounded the community center. Inside, many people jabbed their signs in the air while others sat quietly with no-casino bumper stickers slapped across their foreheads and clothing.
Members of the tribe, meanwhile, sat stoically in front or moved quietly to the back. Their faces told the story.
Later, Jamul tribal Councilman Bill Mesa would reflect on the heavily anti-casino tone of the evening. "I thoroughly understand that people out here are very passionate about this because it's their community and it's something they don't want," said Mesa, who admitted staying for only a portion of the testimony. "But the fact that they're emotional and acting like a mob and shaking their signs so that people couldn't talk, well to the bureau those comments don't carry any more weight than a letter that comes into the bureau.
"The one thing we're proud about is, we're the only tribe in the nation-in the whole nation-that has gone to the trouble of doing an environmental impact statement, and that's a fact. We've been working on this for three years, and we have followed the process and done everything we can to take care of the problems that these people are talking about."
Those concerns run the gamut of typical anti-development boilerplate that crop up for any controversial project, including the hot-button topics of increased traffic, wildlife-habitat destruction, crime, drops in property values, water resources and fire and emergency services.
But when it comes to Indian casinos, an interesting twist has developed. Fliers at the Jamul hearing, for example, warned speakers not to invoke Indian references in their comments. One flier cautioned protesters not to "mention ethnicity in any of your comments" or "discuss tribal membership or legal status of Jamul Indian Village," which remains a bone of contention for some casino opponents.
Bob Simmons, a member of the opposition group Jamulians Against Casinos, ripped the environmental report but frequently assured a reporter that he was not against the Jamul Indians pulling themselves out of poverty-and a 50 percent unemployment rate, according to Mesa-and into a life of economic self-reliance. Just not in his neighborhood.
The Jamul Indians, Simmons said, "don't believe they have to coexist with the rest of the community. It's just their way or the highway."
Such sentiments are not surprising, says Nikki Symington, who has immersed herself in the Indian gaming phenomenon for the past 12 years. Now a consultant to the Viejas tribe, Symington laments the dilemma of modern-day Indians.
"The thing that I think the tribes feel strongly [about] is that everybody likes poor Indians, the underdogs, the poor mistreated Indians," she says. "But when Indians are no longer poor and mistreated, then nobody likes them."
The problem, as Symington sees it, is that Indians "had been under the thumb of somebody until the '70s. We have treated them like goddamned children, but they were sick and hurting children. And now you know what? They've got a chance to grow up. When people grow up, sometimes they grow bad and sometimes they grow good. But they get to grow up. And that's important. That's dignity! That's responsibility! That's how we create responsible communities and citizens."
And gaming has given Indians that opportunity, she adds. Where once their reservations were primarily ignored, Indians are now gaining seats at the table of power as highly visible participants.
And as with Jamul, there will be clashes between differing interests, just as there are whenever commercial projects are proposed near residential areas. Along the tree-lined ridge above the huge casino-hotel development to the north of Jamul on the Barona Indian Reservation near Lakeside, residents have watched their water wells-and possibly their financial futures-run practically dry since the tribe laid sod for an 18-hole championship golf course.
Bill Bream, a longtime resident of Old Barona Road, used to trim the oak trees in front of his living-room picture window so he could look down into the bowl-shaped Barona Valley. No longer. Tree branches now partially obscure the view, but the Barona Indians' bright-white clapboard, 400-room hotel can still be seen.
"I don't want to see it," he explained. "At night, you used to need a flashlight to get around outside. Now, the white lights from that hotel make a flashlight unnecessary."
Bob Bowling, who lives just down the dirt road from Bream, has been the front man for a cluster of rural neighbors who are convinced that the Barona tribe has forced them to have water trucked in a few times a month at significant cost. "Three dollars worth of water to you in the city is more like $103 for us, with the cost of labor and all," the city Water Department employee said.
Bowling has met with local politicians and created a kind of data bank on his living-room floor of documents backing up his contention that the Barona tribe has nearly drained the area of the water that runs underground in the fractured-rock system common to the backcountry.
John Peterson, who recently retired as the county's groundwater geologist, reviewed the data and concluded that the information "presents a strong position" that the groundwater extraction for the golf course had affected residents' water-well levels. Peterson adds, however, that he cannot substantiate that because the Barona tribe never allow him on the reservation to check the tribe's water wells, which he said are "numerous."
Bowling says little or no water production is a fact of life for at least 25 families living on Old Barona Road, the old county road that splits off from Wildcat Canyon Road, the serpentine, two-lane thoroughfare that leads to the Barona casino resort promoted on TV by aging country singer Kenny Rogers with the tag line, "You'd think you were smack dab in the middle of Vegas!"
While Indian tribes are not required to abide by local or state land-use laws, the Barona tribe stepped into a regulatory netherworld when it attempted to run a 1.8-mile pipeline from the reservation to the nearby city-owned San Vicente Reservoir. While grading along an old jeep road, the tribe ran onto county land, sending up a slew of environmental red flags.
The tribe and the city of San Diego are in the midst of negotiations to remedy the situation and bring some additional water to the tribe, which at one point wrote officials that it had enough water for 50 years.
"So much for those predictions," Bowling said.
Art Brunce, an Escondido attorney representing the Barona tribe, had little to say about the negotiations this week when contacted by CityBeat. He said the discussions "would not benefit from coverage in newspapers."
Symington, the Viejas consultant, said such apprehension is common when it comes to tribes' sovereignty and Indians' history with local government.
She remembers 1971 vividly, when the county supervisors decided to zone all San Diego reservations as agricultural. "It gave them open space and made them look good on their general plans," Symington said. But the Rincon tribe sued the county, arguing that the county had no jurisdiction over reservation lands, which are held in federal trust. The tribe lost in local court but won on appeal.
"Tribes always have to sue to defend their damn rights," Symington sighed.
But with the advent of gaming, she said, Indians have been able to work beyond the entrenched mistrust of local government. "For the gaming tribes, now they have other interests, besides what the county did to them. But those wounds were nurtured for a long time."
Environmental concerns will continue to crop up, as with the Campo tribe's renewed interest in developing a solid-waste landfill along a rail line near the Mexico border. Or with the Manzanita tribe and its attempt to develop an off-road vehicle park and casino about an hour's drive east of San Diego.
In the end, these debates will be good for everyone, Symington insists. "This kind of friction is not unique, and it's rightfully always there. But for these tribes, we need to give them the right and the opportunity as a people and as a government to grow up and make their own decisions for good and for bad. Those are the rules, as far as I'm concerned."