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Fight Over Chukchansi Has Deep Roots, Casino Still Closed

Factions of the Chukchansi Indians have been going at it for decades. Last week their tribal dispute escalated to a boiling point endangering the public. FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports from Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino near Coarsegold.

In the hills of Madera County a 25 year old family dispute has surfaced.

The Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians is split into three factions over family conflicts that’ve stewed for generations. And now that fight has escalated into the alleged loss of millions of dollars, a missing audit and the control of the tribe’s main source of income.

"They stole money from us; $11 million is missing since they've been in power. So we come in and we want to know what happened to it and we want to bring criminal charges against them" - Tex McDonald

“It’s very much like a family business in turmoil,” says Victor Rocha. “There is no bad guys, there is no good guys. There’s just a lot of confusion."

Rocha runs the Native American news site Pechanga.net. He knows all about tribal friction.

"One of the things I tell people about Indian country, you know we talk about how we look ahead seven generations,” Rocha says. “Well we also carry the grudges of seven generations behind us with us. Now you add the equation of money and that always make an interesting stew of calamity."

On Friday state and federal authorities ordered the closure after one of the factions tried to take it over at gunpoint Thursday, endangering over 500 employees and visitors in the building.

“They went in there and tasered security guards,” Rocha says. “They still have to prove that this place is not a safety hazard.”

At some point during the takeover a fire alarm was pulled, the casino was evacuated and the factions locked themselves in two different parts of the building. Rocha says the Native American world is watching the situation very carefully.

“In one hand it is absurd and everyone is just appalled by it, but in the other hand it’s a learning lesson for the rest of us,” Rocha says. “If it can happen to them it can happen to us.”  

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
The Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino remains closed following a standoff between rival tribal factions.

The latest chapter in the conflict began last week when the federal government announced it would shut down the casino unless audits and other financial information were turned in by Oct. 27. The faction led by Tex McDonald claims it attempted the takeover in order to retrieve the audit information.

“They didn’t want to do an audit,” McDonald says. “They stole money from us; $11 million is missing since they’ve been in power. So we come in and we want to know what happened to it and we want to bring criminal charges against them.”

But the other factions who ran the casino at the time refused to hand over the documents. And on Friday when McDonald’s group tried to remove paperwork an argument ensued between the opposing groups. 

"Get my vehicle up here now." "This is attempting to repossess." "Tell them we need it up here now." "The federal court order says they shall not attempt to repossess or take control of the casino. These are casino documents." "These are not casino documents."
Listen to the argument here.

But the documents only made it a few feet outside the casinos front door before Madera County Sheriff John Anderson brought them inside, which is where they’ll stay until Wednesday when all three factions appear in Federal Court in Fresno.

Sheriff Anderson has worked with the tribe for years.

“I’m glad to see that finally someone at the state level and someone at the federal level listened to us and said someone’s got to do something about this,” Sherriff Anderson. “They don’t listen to the Sherriff. A lot of times they say come in here, you go to this, you got to this and when we come in and do something the other side is like you can’t do that we’re a sovereign nation.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Diane Avery (seen here with her husband Gene) has been in housekeeping at Chukchansi for three years. She's afraid she may have to look for a new job.

But not everyone is relieved. The temporary closure is making it hard for many like Diane Avery, who’s worked in housekeeping at the resort for three years, to pay her bills. 

“It hurts us because we need two paychecks to make it,” Avery says. “And with this who knows when that place is going to open, if it’s going to open back up.”

Perhaps Avery’s husband Gene sums up the situation the best.

“Nobody knows who the bad guys are, nobody knows who the good guys are,” Avery says.” So why don’t you just get together and be a team and make it work. Every other casino around has done that. There is money to be made.”

And if the casino every opens back up it may have a hard time attracting visitors. Jenny Reyes and her family drove from Paso Robles Friday to spend the weekend at the casino, but were turned away.

“I think they should of just given us the courtesy to call us because we’ve made reservations two weeks in advance,” Reyes says. “I’ve never coming to this casino again.”

But until the tribe comes to an agreement law enforcement including officers and policeman from Fresno and Madera will guard the casino and turn away any patrons that stop by.


Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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