10:00 PM PDT on Friday, July 2, 2010
By JANET ZIMMERMAN
A century-old oversight by the federal government was remedied this week when the Chemehuevi Indians were finally given official title to their 32,500-acre reservation along the Colorado River in eastern San Bernardino County.
Officials explained a missing signature on the 1907 document — a trust patent — as a “historical anomaly,” said Jan Bedrosian, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The omission was discovered in 1984 by a Chemehuevi law clerk researching other matters, said Charles Wood, tribal chairman.
A trust patent means the government holds the land for the tribe’s exclusive use; it also legally establishes property lines, utility rights-of-way and leases on the property.
“This is one of those important days in history for my tribe,” Wood said.
The formality didn’t stop the 1,000-member tribe from establishing its Havasu Landing Resort and Casino between Needles and Blythe, or from accessing tribal health clinics and other benefits.
But it did give critics ammunition to question the tribe’s entitlements, Wood said.
“It allowed people who opposed the tribe to say we didn’t legally exist,” he said Friday from the reservation offices at Havasu Lake, on the California side of the river.
The battle may not be over yet, Wood said. “There are people who are going to throw up red flags.”
Opponents of the land trust, some of them former lease holders evicted by the tribe, say the Chemehuevi are not entitled to the land because they are not covered under the Mission Indian Relief Act; the 1891 legislation identified reservation locations for tribes around California missions.
The critics also say the government is flip-flopping on its 1986 ruling that the Chemehuevi were not covered under the act.
They accuse U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who signed the trust patent Monday, of not having the authority to do so.
In March, the tribe named Salazar in a federal lawsuit over the delay of the patent.
The government established Chemehuevi Valley Reservation in 1907. But in 1935, Congress authorized use of the land to build Parker Dam, and by 1940 almost 8,000 acres was underwater.
The tribe didn’t get that 8,000 acres back but did receive monetary compensation, Wood said.
Today, 250 members live on the reservation, which includes 36 miles of Lake Havasu and Colorado River shoreline.
Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up for California, a Sacramento-area group that wants more regulatory oversight of Indian gambling, maintains that the signing of the trust patent was driven by Obama administration politics, not the law.
The Indians may have suffered “generational trauma” but have received numerous government benefits including grant funding and tax exemption, Schmit said.
“Developing policy based on historical sympathy doesn’t seem like a fair solution,” she said.
The state is losing tax revenue from recreational activities on the waterfront, and giving the land to the tribe threatens future water supplies, she said.
“They could do commercial development … and make the argument they need that water for economic viability,” Schmit said.
But Wood said the reservation’s water rights are plentiful enough to supply any future development.
The tribe’s claim to the land has been fraught with problems, he said, including a million-dollar tribal payout to former lease holders at Havasu Landing and court action by the former operators of Havasu Palms, a resort also known as Road’s End Camp on the California side of the lake.
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