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American Indians battle over valuable Orange County land


Gambling is at center of controversy

May 4, 1997
Web posted at: 9:00 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Jim Hill

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Two bands of American Indians in Southern California are at odds with each other in a battle pitting reverence for heritage against a potential economic windfall.

The two groups are the Juaneno and the Coastal Gabrieleno bands of Mission Indians, and they are fighting over a very rare commodity -- an undeveloped tract of land in suburban Orange County. The Juanenos want to keep it as is, out of respect for ancestors buried there. The Gabrielenos, however, want to build a casino on the land.

Jim Velasquez, a leader of the Gabrielenos, points to the potential economic upside of putting a casino on the doorstep of Los Angeles -- "millions and millions and millions of dollars, with no competitor."


Gambling is the fastest-growing source of income for American Indian tribes. But for Juaneno leader Sonia Johnston, maintaining an ancestral homeland is more important than making money from a casino.

"To care for our people ... we would like a land base," she says. "We've always been here. We have documentation that we've been here 20,000 years."

Velasquez sharply dismisses the argument about preserving heritage and maintaining respect for dead ancestors, saying the Juanenos would "dig them up themselves if you paid them the right amount of money."

In order to establish a claim to the land, both bands need to become federally recognized tribes. Both are now racing to obtain that all-important designation. But it remains unclear which band has the best claim to the land at the center of the dispute.

"We believe that the boundaries between groups like the Gabrieleno and the Juaneno were rather fluid," says William McCawley, an Indian historian. "We believe that historically there was a lot of interaction that occurred across these boundaries."

In the meantime, the battle between the Juanenos and the Gabrielenos has become rather heated. Velasquez says he recently received a bullet in the mail bearing the inscription, "Our ancestors await you." Johnston says the Juanenos aren't responsible.

"We know of no Achashmamen -- which is our tribal name -- who would do anything like that," she says. "So we're disturbed by it."


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