Subversion of Guadalupe

Town and tribe fight over land, accountability

Cruise along Avenida del Yaqui, the main drag in Guadalupe, and you'll feel like a tourist in a cute little Sonoran town. Fuchsia houses are landscaped with scarlet hollyhocks and giant prickly pear. Mexican restaurants with Spanish signs promoting homemade menudo sit next to tiendas selling pinatas and Indian crafts. The bus stops look like miniature adobe missions.

Just off Avenida del Yaqui is La Cuarenta, sacred land where members of the Pascua Yaqui tribe conduct centuries-old "Passion of Christ" ceremonies every Easter. Yaqui Hall, where the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council conducts meetings in Spanish, English and Yaqui, is also situated in La Cuarenta, which means "The 40," as in 40 acres.

Although the official Pascua Yaqui reservation is located near Tucson, about 40 percent of the 4,500 or so residents of Guadalupe are Pascua Yaquis whose ancestors fled persecution in Sonora in the late 19th century and settled near present-day Guadalupe. The remaining 60 percent of the population is primarily Latino. The two groups have intermarried, creating the unique Guadalupe culture.

Dwarfed by its neighbors, Arizona Mills mall and the City of Tempe, the Town of Guadalupe is so quaint that it's hard to believe it's a suburb of Phoenix.

But don't let the quaintness fool you. These days, Guadalupe's got a palpable, mean-spirited vibe. It won't take you long to figure out more than a few Pascua Yaquis and Latinos are suspicious of each other, gossip about each other and call each other liars.

In fact, Pascua Yaquis and Latinos seem so Balkanized I wonder if they'll ever come together again.

The reason: The Pascua Yaqui tribe wants the feds to allow it to convert 23 acres in downtown Guadalupe--known as Los Heroes--into "trust land," which amounts to a mini sovereign nation that does not answer to local or state laws or pay taxes.

The tribe says it wants to use the land, which it purchased in 1995, to bring more social services to tribal members in the town. At the same time, the tribe is making moves to seal financial records that are now public. On the Pascua Yaqui team are really good lawyers and lobbyists, no doubt funded by earnings from the tribe's Tucson casino.

The town, fearing loss of tax revenues and control, is fighting the proposed trust status with the help of other Valley cities, Maricopa County and the state Department of Water Resources and their really good lawyers and lobbyists, who are paid with our tax dollars.

In 1998, the local director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the trust status for Los Heroes. Now the town and its allies are appealing the decision. It's up to the director of the BIA in Washington, D.C., to rule on the appeal. If he upholds the local director's ruling, the Town of Guadalupe could take the BIA to court. The whole thing could take years.

If the Pascua Yaquis gain trust status for the land in Guadalupe, the tribe can do whatever it wants with the property. Although it would be unlikely, it's possible that the tribe could put in a casino. Town fathers raised the specter of a casino in a newspaper it distributed to the electorate.

But Benito Valencia, chairman of the 13,000-member tribe, has vowed not to put in a casino. He says the tribe will put that promise in writing. As he sees it, the tribe has been willing to negotiate for three years, but recalcitrant town officials have refused.

Frances Osuna, Guadalupe's mayor, says just the opposite. She says it's the tribe that won't negotiate, won't answer questions and keeps the town in the dark. She points out that four members of the Guadalupe town council are registered members of the Pascua Yaqui tribe.

My sense is that although the town would never admit it, it doesn't want to negotiate. It doesn't want a sovereign nation within its boundaries, period.

Would you?
The "trust issue" is a national controversy, and Guadalupe is right in the middle of it. As Indian tribes finally get a little spare change from gaming, they're investing in real estate in cities and counties far from their reservations. And they're hiring expensive lawyers and lobbyists to help persuade the BIA-- an agency within the Department of the Interior--to let them convert their newly acquired real estate into "trust lands," which really amount to mini-reservations.

Of course, cities and towns are fighting the move, fearing loss of land and tax revenues and control.

The approval process is politicized and steeped in scandal. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is being investigated by a special prosecutor for his role in allegedly capitulating to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe, which also happened to be a generous contributor to the Democratic party, by not allowing trust status for a tribe that wanted to build a casino to compete with the Shakopees'.

Smarting from the Babbitt scandal, the BIA subsequently turned around and refused to let the Shakopee tribe put 593 acres of Twin Cities-area land into trust status.

Then, in late December, a federal judge ruled that the BIA wrongly allowed a Connecticut tribe, the Mashantucket Pequots, to put more than 100 acres into trust status. The cities and towns opposing the move told the judge the tribe, enriched by its Foxwoods Casino, would buy up Connecticut land and create little sovereign nations all over the place.

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