The Esselen Nation fights itself.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
‘Long reckoned as an independent stock, the Esselen were one of the
least populous groups in California, exceedingly restricted in
territory, the first to become entirely extinct, and in consequence are
now as good as unknown—as far as specific information goes—a name
rather than a people of whom anything can be said.’
Handbook of the Indians of California
He won’t say who—he’s keeping that a secret. But some heavy casino operators tried to woo Rudy Rosales not too long ago. They wined him and dined him. They took him to the south end of Lake Tahoe, got him a hotel room for three days and showed him a good time, even if Rosales, a local Indian leader, is “as good as unknown.”
It went okay until they got down to business—business being the construction and operation of an Indian casino on Fort Ord. If it can get its paperwork in order, Rosales’ tribe, the Esselen Nation, will receive 45 acres of land near East Garrison through a “public benefit conveyance.” Plunking down a gambling palace there remains within the realm of possibilities, as there are some 41 gaming tribes in California and Indian casinos exert hefty political force in Sacramento.
That said, it still looks like a bad bet. The Esselen Nation has split into two bickering, bitter and now litigious entities, each claiming the mantle of legitimacy. And so a casino stays a ways off.
Following a short conversation with the casino men, Rosales says, he was on his way home after spending one extra night in the hotel room, which was, after all already paid for.
“I said, ‘I don’t sign nothing. My tribal membership decides. It’s not my decision,’” Rosales recounts, standing in an empty piece of land his people might inherit in the wild backside of Fort Ord. “When they figured out I couldn’t sign anything they got rid of my ass and sent me back to Monterey.”
Rosales, 57, is the elected—if now disputed—chairman of the Ohlone/Costanoan- Esselen Nation (OCEN). He grew up on Dutra Street in Monterey and graduated in 1964 from Pacific Grove High School. Rosales has made headlines dating back at least to October, 1992, when he took an hour off from his job site and stormed into the offices of a now defunct newspaper. Angry, he wanted to set the record straight about his tribe and its customs.
“We never had sweat houses. We never wore feathers. As a matter of fact, John Steinbeck said we ran around naked. This is ridiculous,” he is quoted as saying in the Weekly Sun.
A newspaper mischaracterizing local Indians can be understood because, unlike the tribes of the Plains and the Southwest, the Esselen Nation has no reservation, no geographic center nor a headquarters. Nor are they clearly identifiable.
Membership reportedly numbers about 500, dispersed from Carmel Valley and Monterey to Palo Alto, San Jose and Fresno. There are no full-blooded Esselen left. Rosales says he is three-quarters Indian and a quarter Spanish. He and these few hundred others claim Esselen blood, but they don’t exist as a tribe, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Rosales is retired from a job as a laborer with Granite Construction. He says he’s got a good pension, and he drives a late-model red Jeep Grand Cherokee. He makes walking sticks and dreamcatcher-style ornaments. He’s a big guy with big mitts, dark skin and black hair in a ponytail. He sees coyotes and thinks they might be ancestors, so he talks to them, he says. He plays lots of golf. And he’s on the warpath.
On April 2, Rosales has a date before Judge Robert O’Farrell in Superior Court in Monterey for a lawsuit against what he calls the “rogue faction” of his tribe. His leadership of the 500 or so members of the Esselen Nation has been challenged and the tribe is split.
Duane Thielman, a 52-year-old cabinetmaker from Clovis, leads the breakaway faction. He’s been on the council for five years and served as vice chair under Rosales. Late last year he and two other members of the OCEN council launched a campaign to assume control of the tribe. They began separating themselves, discrediting Rosales by accusing him of various abuses, including embezzlement—charges that Rosales flatly denies. At the same time, Thielman and his two associates began making claims as the legitimate leaders of the tribe.
On Dec. 10, according to court records, a notice was sent by Thielman and breakaway council members Phil Greene and Cindy Crain to “all Esselen Tribal Members,” calling on Rosales and fellow tribal members Lorraine Escobar and Gloria Ritter to resign. The letter included a list of accusations including holding meetings without a quorum, “disrespect” and “mishandling funds.”
The notice also accuses Rosales of verbally and physically abusing Thielman and fellow faction member Phil Greene—accusations that Rosales denies. It included a questionnaire for tribal voters, asking whether Rosales, Ritter and Escobar should be removed.
In the court filing, Rosales argues that the ballot is illegitimate and that the notice and ballot were declared “null and void” at a meeting of the tribal council on January 11.
The breakaway group sent out a second notice on Jan. 26 called “Recall Election Under Constitution.” It alleges “gross misconduct in office” and asks for nominees to the tribal council.
On Feb. 9, 2004, a public notice showed up in the classified pages of the Monterey County Herald beside an ad for a 1979 Volvo station wagon. Signed by Thielman, the ad proclaimed:
“Rudy Rosales, Lorraine Escobar, and Gloria Ritter are no longer representing the Esselen Nation, aka Esselen Tribe, or OCEN, as Council Members. Anyone needing to correspond with Esselen may do so by contacting Interim Chair Duane Thielman at P.O. Box 1301, Monterey, CA 93942.”
Reached at his home by telephone, Thielman says he’s the new chair, fair and square.
A native of Monterey County, Thielman says his mother’s grandmother was a full-blooded Indian. Unlike some members of the tribe, Thielman has nothing overtly Indian about him. He has a long mullet and a long scar across his neck that he says he got for stealing horses and cows, but then admits it was a little joke, that no one cut his neck for being a thief. He doesn’t say how he got cut.
He says the tribal constitution justifies his ousting Rosales and the other council members and redirecting all incoming material to himself. He says the shift is no different than when the public votes a city council member out of office.
“We had a majority that called for a change in leadership,” he says. ”I didn’t put my hat into the ring. I was vice chair. I did not desire to take that position but the members decided to vote me in.”
Despite the air of legitimacy, Thielman cannot recall the tally that propelled him to tribal chair. Thielman’s faction later claimed 44 votes out of 122 registered tribal voters.
“I think the tribe felt it was time for change,” he says. And though confusion now reigns over the Esselen Nation in the absence of a single leader’s reign, Thielman expresses confidence about the future of the tribe.
“The Esselen Nation is probably in a better position now than we have been in some time,” he says.
That position will be split on either side of the counsel table in the Monterey courthouse, as Rosales has filed a “Complaint for injunctive relief and damages” against Thielman, his wife Patt, “rogue” former Rosales council member Phil Greene of Prunedale, Greene’s wife Debbie, and Cindy Crain, also a former member of the Rosales council.
Allegations and name-calling fly back and forth. The tribe has fractured and now holds separate meetings to try to figure out who’s got what files and where donations should go and who’s really in the tribe and who is not.
“They’re just a Mickey Mouse group of people trying to take over the tribe. That’s it,” Rosales says. “They are causing confusion in the tribe. Agencies are calling me and saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ I explain that this is an illegal faction that’s trying to take over the tribe… God, it’s just damn irritating. I don’t even like to talk about it this much.”
The thing is, the Esselen Nation may not be extinct, as anthropologist A.L. Kroeber declared, but according to the federal government it does not in fact exist as a tribe. And until it can prove that it functions as a single tribe—something that seems even more unlikely now with nasty infighting and a court battle looming—its entitlement to the land at Fort Ord remains a long shot.
As for Rosales, when tribal elections come around in August, he won’t even look for the chair again. Long the face of the local Indians, he says he doesn’t want to be on the “pedestal” as the leader anymore.
“My heart can’t take it,” he says. “I lose my breath when I walk up hills.”
Rosales and Thielman trace their roots to a group of indigenous people who lived in scattered villages or rancherias in the region of the Monterey Bay for at least 4,000 years before the Spanish began settling the West Coast 200 years ago.
The arrival of European invaders meant violence and eventual decline for the people known variously as Esselen, Ohlone and Costanoan. A 1773 letter from Junipero Serra to his superiors complained that the spread of his missions through California was being undermined by the rape and pillage of local Indians by Spanish soldiers.
In the morning, six or seven soldiers would set out together…and go to the distant rancherías [villages] even many leagues away. When both men and women at the sight of them would take off running…the soldiers, adept as they are at lassoing cows and mules, would lasso Indian women—who then became prey for their unbridled lust. Several Indian men who tried to defend the women were shot to death.
The various injustices against the local native people are documented through correspondence between the Serra and colonial officials. The introduction of disease and forced subjugation of the Indians of the Central Coast reduced them down to the point that Kroeber, surveying traces of Indians throughout the state, could find nothing left. The 1993 paper “Sexual Violence in the Politics of Conquest,” published by the University of California Press, concludes: “In California as elsewhere, sexual violence…was one instrument of sociopolitical terrorism and control—first of women and then of the group under conquest.”
By all accounts the native people of the Central Coast were peaceful and autonomous. According to Kroeber, the “heart of Esselen territory at the time of discovery was the drainage of the Carmel River, exclusive however, of its lower reaches, where Costanoans were situated and the mission was established.” Their territory extended into what is now the Ventana Wilderness. They survived on acorns, dandelions, roots, deer, crustaceans, rabbits, lizards and fish. Their idyllic life along the Central Coast ended when the Spanish began to colonize California.
Starting in 1770, the San Carlos Mission in Monterey was converting Indians to Christianity via baptism and force. The Esselen, due to their small size and unfortunate co-location with the early established missions in Monterey and Carmel, are said to have been culturally extinct by the early 1840s, according to the county historical society.
When the US took Monterey and California from the Mexicans in 1846, several treaties were crafted to protect Indian rights. According to a pamphlet published with the help of the City of Monterey, agreements that would have set aside 8.5 million acres of land for Indian reservations were hidden and never ratified.
In 1992, the tribe began submitting extensive documentation and “tribal
narrative” to the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research, an arm of the
Bureau of Indian Affairs, which verifies tribal status for the
Department of Interior. As it exists now, the tribe has not been
recognized by the federal government and will not be until the BAR
makes its determination. The split exacerbates the delay because, among
other problems, the breakaway faction holds the enrollment records and
does not plan to surrender them.
In comparison to its rich cousins who have been operating casinos across California, the Esselen Nation is poor. According to a recent news report, California’s 55 Indian casinos generate $6 billion a year. In contrast, OCEN has about $300 in the bank, according to Rosales. Besides donations the tribe relies on an annual $10-a-head picnic for revenue.
Rosales has permission to drive in the otherwise motorized-restricted area of Fort Ord. As a kid, he and his brother were allowed to come into the very same area to shoot rabbits. Today, he takes his Cherokee up what’s now a mountain-bike trail to the spot that has been set aside for the tribe. It’s up on a bluff, high enough that ocean views could be had a few stories up.
His ancestors passed down that the Salinas Valley was once a giant river, as was the Carmel Valley, a river that went across hillside to hillside.
“I can’t explain to people how proud I am of this area because I am an indigenous person,” he says.
He says that if the land is ever conveyed to the tribe, it will become home to a cultural center and museum. But he’s not against the idea of a casino either. Clearly, the tribe could use the income.
“I don’t like answering the phone and saying we don’t have a source of income to get a kid through school or to help the elders,” Rosales says, kicking hard at a clump of grass with his head down.
He’s firm that the decision whether to pursue gaming in Monterey County is not up to him.
“The casino would be a great thing for the tribe; not only the tribe but the community,” he says with his hands out. “When I talk about it, there’s nothing we can’t do if we open a casino.”
But it won’t happen, if Monterey Mayor Dan Albert has anything to do with it. Last spring a fracas between Albert and Rosales was sparked after a local paper ran an April Fools story about an Indian casino being built on the Peninsula. The joke turned serious.
On the May 6, 2003 City Council agenda was an item: Policy Guidance Regarding Tribal Gaming. In a memo to the city council, Dan Albert says, “In a recent phone conversation with the city manager, Mr. Rosales confirmed that his personal goal was to create a casino. He further stated that the Esselen Tribe was split on the issue. He also stated that a casino would only move forward if supported by a majority of the Tribe and if supported by the community.”
Albert followed with a May 1 draft letter to Rosales himself, threatening to retaliate if the casino talk continued.
“Because of your stated purpose to build a casino, the City of Monterey is considering opposing tribal status [to the federal government]. We will oppose any action that would facilitate creation of a casino in Monterey. Our city council can think of no scenario where tribal gaming in Monterey or on the Monterey Peninsula would be good for this community.”
In a letter to Jerry Smith, Chairman of the Fort Ord Re-Use Authority, Albert asks that the board consider opposing tribal status “…if it might lead to a gaming facility at Ft. Ord…if tribal status provides a sovereignty level that trumps local land use.”
Michael Houlemard, executive officer of FORA, says he respects the tribe’s sovereignty, but rules are in place against a casino.
“There is a basewide prohibition on gambling on Fort Ord,” he says. “No, there will not be a casino.”
Rosales remains defiant.
“Dan Albert has to understand it’s up to the voters, not him,” he says.
On Sunday, March 14, there were simultaneous meetings of the Esselen Nation. The Rosales council met in Building 17 at CSUMB at noon. The Thielman council met in the 101 Livestock Market on Highway 101 near Prunedale.
Prior to Sunday, Rosales was clear about the purpose of the CSUMB gathering.
“The next step is getting rid of the Thielmans. To terminate them. Which we will do at the next meeting.”
At noon, about 15 tribe members and tribal council members begin gathering in a cramped classroom in the social studies section. Council member and tribal genealogist Lorraine Escobar arrives carrying a bulky briefcase with an “Esselen Nation is Not Extinct” bumper sticker slapped on the side. Rosales arrives in bare feet and shorts, with a T-shirt that says “An Easy Day on the Warpath,” and a cartoon of a stopped stagecoach and some Indian warriors on horseback. He wields a gavel, albeit a toy gavel, dwarfed by his large frame. Fellow council member Theresa Machado mocks the prop, saying it should be old and cracked like it’s been beaten into a few tables.
Rosales jokes that the first item on the agenda will be removing her from the council. She replies by saying, “Hey, I’d rather be shopping.”
After organizational delays and a prayer to the Great Spirit grandfather asking for strength and “unification” the meeting comes to order and the termination commences.
Alleging “gross misconduct and negligence of duty,” Rosales asked for a vote on Thielman, Crain and Greene. According to the tally of voting tribe members read for the record, all three were voted off the council. Thielman and Greene had votes of 104 to go and one to stay and Crain had 101 votes for her to be ejected and four that she stay.
After the tally is read, Rosales speaks from the corner of the room where he sits beside an overhead projector.
“As everyone can see,” Rosales says, “the tribe has spoken and spoken loudly.”
Meanwhile 15 miles away, Thielman leans against a livestock fence that wraps around an auction pen before a bank of seats filled with about 25 tribal members.
Despite his ad re-directing mail to a new address, the message has not been received.
“There’s been no mail in the tribal mailbox,” reports tribal administrator Valerie-Jean Rivera, a graphic artist in Monterey.
“For months,” echoes Thielman.
Thielman’s band—in which there are many relatives—goes through its own agenda, not unlike the agenda for the Rosales council. It is mostly tribal business but they also hear a report from environmental advocate Lee Willoughby about the Pacific Grove Tide Pool Coalition.
Part of the effort of Thielman’s council will be to establish its own identity. So they talk about making new identity cards and how they would run the tribal website and so on. They also hear from an unemployed 38-year-old self-proclaimed Christian named Timberwolf, who offers to be a spiritual advisor to the breakaway group. When he finishes his rambling introduction of himself, Thielman’s wife stops him and asks if he is a member of the tribe. His response only underlines the tribe’s problems.
“I choose not to. I am a California Indian,” Timberwolf replies. “You know there’s so many of us fighting. If I choose I’ve chosen and that can be used against me in the future and I don’t want that. I want to remain spiritual on it. I don’t want to get on a team.”
Afterwards Thielman speaks about what he’s trying to do. He’s adamant that the split is a constitutionally legitimate move, not a personal jab at Rosales.
“You could call it, it’s been a constitutional event. Anyone who goes through a constitution will have these events. We had a civil war and all,” Thielman says. “Basically we’re a dying entity. Take a look at it.”
It’s been said before that the casino issue splits the tribe, but neither Rosales or Thielman are definitive about it. Rosales sees how it could help the tribe financially, but Thielman is not so sure.
“The casino is not an issue for me personally,” he says. “I am not interested in gambling. I’d rather watch the people [in the casino]. As for the money side, you’d have to show me it would be solid financially for the tribe.”
Rivera, who is standing nearby interjects, “That could be a million miles away because we’re not federally recognized.”
“Our elders are dying. We are a dying people,” Thielman says, standing outside the auction barn on a sunny Sunday afternoon. “In several generations, we could well be gone. As far as the gaming, that’s a rainbow out there. If it happens it happens. I think we have more important things to do.”