Violent skirmish breaks out among casino tribe’s factions

COARSEGOLD, Calif. — Sheriff’s deputies and security guards from rivaling factions of a casino tribe were on patrol Wednesday, one day after a violent skirmish described as “absolute pandemonium” left three people injured.

The fight Tuesday was between supporters of the sitting council of the Chukchansi tribe and a group whose leaders claim they were denied their rightful place in tribal government after a disputed December election.

The tribe owns the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in the Sierra foothills near Yosemite National Park.

Supporters of the rival group say their candidates would overturn the tribe’s recent decisions to expel dozens of members. The expulsions cut tribal members from a share of casino profits that can amount to $1,000 a month.

Critics say the thinning of membership ranks is motivated by greed, a charge that tribal officials vehemently denied.

Many expulsions have occurred around the country, but they are particularly numerous in California, where many tribes reconstituted over the last several decades then entered the casino business, advocates say. With the tribes claiming sovereign status, experts say these people have little recourse to challenge tribes’ enrollment decisions in courts.

But representatives of the sitting council say the disenrollment issue is a red herring. They say the disputed election involves one of the four people elected in December, who was disqualified after he used an invalid tribal badge in the casino, the Fresno Bee (http://bit.ly/wFGI3d) reported.

The skirmish came after the rival group took over the tribal office on Monday. About 20 people clashed Tuesday outside the tribe’s government center campus in Coarsegold, about 200 miles southeast of San Francisco, according to Madera County sheriff’s officials.

A total of about 100 sheriff’s deputies and other local authorities responded to the scene, which sheriff’s spokeswoman Erica Stuart described as “absolute pandemonium.”

Two people were hospitalized but expected to recover from injuries that included a stab wound. Stuart said two people from the brawl were detained.

A day after the fight, deputies patrolled the area as security guards hired by both sides remained on the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians.

The rival factions voluntarily left and agreed to stay away for 48 hours to give the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs time to intervene, according to sheriff’s officials.

Nedra Darling, a BIA spokeswoman, told The Associated Press she was looking into whether the agency had been asked to intervene and what, if anything, it planned to do.

“We’re pretty much at a nonviolent standoff,” Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said. “They are not in contact with each other. We’re at an impasse.”

The leader of one of the factions objected to the sheriff’s decision to move in to end the standoff, calling it a violation of tribal sovereignty. Anderson had threatened to arrest anyone who did not leave the government compound.

Stuart said the sheriff’s office has jurisdiction when a crime occurs.

Other casino-owning tribes in the state that have kicked out members include the Pala Band of Mission Indians in northern San Diego County. That tribe owns the Pala Resort and Casino and expelled more than 150 people earlier this month.

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