Since the early 1900s, Rick Cuevas' family lived on the Pechanga reservation in Southern California as enrolled members of the tribe. Paulina Hunter, Cuevas' great grandmother, was one of the original landowners when the Pechanga were granted their reservation. But in 2005, almost 100 years after her death, the tribe questioned her Native American heritage and post-humously disenrolled her–creating a rippling effect that disenrolled over 105 of her living descendants.
When the group was disenrolled, they were no longer eligible to receive their monthly stipend from the tribe's casino profits, known as per capita payments, or "per caps." According to Cuevas, at the time of his disenrollment, tribal members were receiving monthly checks totaling about $268,000 a year.
Cuevas wasn’t a stranger to what kicking people out of the tribe means for those that remain. A few years prior, 135 descendants from another allotment owner were kicked out. As a result, their per caps went from about $230,000 a year to the $268,000.
For the 245 disenrolled members of the Pechanga tribe, they have collectively lost nearly $1 billion over the years.
According to indigenous rights lawyer Gabriel Galanda, Southern California is the "hotbed” for disenrollment over per caps and the Pechanga tribe has set that precedent for casino tribes across the nation.
But for Cuevas and his family, per caps were not the only thing they lost, nor the most important.
The Pechanga casino and resort (footage and gif by Natasha Brennan)
“We mentioned per capita because the number's really sexy, but it's not the total thing,” Cuevas said. “All the children that have been born after our disenrollment are denied their Pechanga heritage.”
Enrolled adult members of the tribe are entitled to a $200,000 scholarship toward their college education, Cuevas said.
"I'm lucky that my children had the opportunity to be educated before they were disenrolled," Cuevas said. "But my grandchildren have been stripped of that right."
They also lost what Cuevas described as a “Cadillac” of a healthcare plan, forcing many into federal and state sponsored programs.
“Some of my cousins have health issues and they're basically pushed back onto government assistance instead of being a beneficiary of a good tribal health care,” he said. “So disenrollment affects non-Indians too by having to absorb those costs.”
One of Cuevas’ first requests, if ever re-enrolled, would be for the tribe to pay off the healthcare bills for the elders they disenrolled.
PER CAP THOUGHTS?
Per capita payments, commonly known as "per caps", are payments that tribal members who belong to tribes that participate in casino gaming or other business ventures receive. They are a point of contention in the Native American community. Some tribes get large per caps, some get a little. Some get none at all. Here are four members of the California indigenous community and their thoughts on per caps.
According to Cuevas, the experiences for disenrolled Pechanga members can be painful socially as well. Those who still live on the reservation (and are only allowed to because they own their homes and land) are treated as second class citizens.
“Our tribe has an apartheid system on their reservation. My family can’t go to a park, they can't go drink from a water fountain, they can't go to the tribal swimming pool on their own unless they're accompanied by a tribal member,” he said. “Some people have been there for 60 years. And now, even though they've lived there longer than some of the newer residents on Pechanga, they have to come in through a separate gate.”
For Cuevas, one of the worst issues disenrollment caused was this “cultural apartheid.” But he does not see an end to it or to disenrollment any time soon. Yet, he continues to document the issue on his blog and does interviews regularly.
He advocates via social media and his blog for the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians and other advocacy groups to unite against disenrollment and sanction tribes that disenroll.
“If the Native American rights organizations don’t care about the rights for 11,000 Native Americans, what good are they? If the National Congress of American Indians will put a disenrolling tribe's chairman on their board, which they did, why should anybody take them seriously,” he said.