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U.S. judge rejects bid by ousted tribe members for reinstatement

March 30, 2012 |  7:20 pm

Margarita BrittenA federal judge in San Diego has refused to block the Pala Band of Mission Indians in northern San Diego County from "disenrolling" about five dozen members and making them ineligible for payments from the tribe's casino and hotel and other business ventures.

The 60 were among 162 members -- about 15% of the tribe -- who were ousted by the tribe's governing board.

U.S. District Judge William Hayes declined to issue a temporary restraining order, finding that the ousted tribal members' lawsuit seeking to force the Bureau of Indian Affairs to require the tribe to reinstate them had little chance of success.

"It is well established that Indian tribes are sovereign political entities that possess the exclusive right to develop their own laws and govern their own internal affairs," Hayes wrote.

At issue is the lineage of Margarita Britten, a tribal elder who died in 1925. The tribe's governing board in the last year declared that Britten was not a full-blooded Indian and thus her descendants did not have enough "blood quantum" to qualify as tribal members.

Tribe leaders say Britten's relatives have long known that her father was white and thus she was not a full-blooded Indian. But the "disenrollees" say that the motive for their ouster is greed and power.

Each tribal member receives about $7,500 a month under the tribe's profit sharing plan, along with access to healthcare, housing and other benefits.

The lawsuit alleged that the tribal's 1997 constitution giving the tribe -- not the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- authority over membership was never properly approved. Hayes disagreed.

The suit, brought by an Escondido attorney, was filed against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk and other Bureau of Indian Affairs officials. Salazar and the others were represented by the U.S. attorney's office.

--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Margarita Britten at the Pala reservation in the 1920s. Credit: Britten family