California’s West Bank: Tribes vs. residents on the Colorado River

Last month, Jim Foley got evicted from the land where he’s had a home since 1979 — land that he cleared himself, with 120 feet of shoreline on the Colorado River. He and his wife had lived there full time since retiring in 2000. It had a mobile home and a garage on it, along with other improvements he left in place.

But he went without a fight. After all, he hadn’t paid rent in 21 years.

“I decided not to pay them,” Foley said. “They did not belong there in the first place. I’m not going to pay somebody for something that doesn’t belong to them.”

“Them” is the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a collection of Chemehuevi, Hopi, Mohave and Navajo Indians collective known as “CRIT.” They’re based across the river in Arizona, and have been involved in a decades-long dispute with leaseholders along a 25-mile section of the California side of the river.

Foley and other people who have long lived along the river said that court cases two decades ago negated the tribes’ claim to any land in California. Some CRIT opponents assert that the tribe is seeking to get land on the California side to open a huge casino, and that they’ve coerced local residents to submit to the authority of a tribal court in Arizona. Foley also said they’ve cut off power to some residents and used other coercive methods.

But Eric Sheppard, the tribe’s attorney, said that residents are misunderstanding or misrepresenting the court case, which he said expanded the tribes’ land claims in California.

It was the city council in the nearby city of Blythe that asked the tribe to open a casino in California, but the tribe itself has decided not to pursue a facility, he said. As for the tribal courts, he added, residents agreed to submit to those authorities when they signed their original leases many years ago.

Sheppard also contends that the tribes are not seeking to expand their borders — but if they were, it wouldn’t just be a few miles of shoreline, but the wider region it had occupied historically.

“The tribe doesn’t define its own boundaries,” said Sheppard, who is not a member of CRIT. “The U.S.  defines the reservation’s boundaries. If the tribe were to define its own boundaries, it would be much more expansive. We would be well into the city of Blythe and down towards the Palo Verde Valley.”

While these disputes have been building for years, they’ve come to a head over the last year. In May, the tribes evicted the Blythe Boat Club, which had been in litigation with them for years. A prominent member of that club, and one of the tribe’s most outspoken opponents, was Toni Hawley. A photo in the Palo Verde Valley Times shows her being dragged away by a pair of CRIT tribal police officers. Hawley was reportedly injured and hospitalized afterward, but could not be reached for comment.

Last September, CRIT evicted Bob Johnson from the Water Wheel Resort he’d operated for 28 years. Johnson had stopped paying rent in 2008 when his lease ran out. He left shortly after the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal declined to hear his appeal of a case that originated in CRIT’s tribal court in Arizona.

The claim that the tribe doesn’t own the land goes all the way back to an 1876 federal executive order establishing the Colorado River as the tribe’s western boundary, according to Roger French, president of the West Bank Homeowners Association, which has been fighting the tribe. French also has a land dispute with the tribe.

The treaty was based on a “riparian” boundary, French said, meaning that if the river changed course, so did the boundary. The tribe’s claim to land in California goes back to an order from then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, which declared the tribe’s rights to land in California based on where the river used to run. His brother, Morris Udall, was then a congressman whose district included the tribe. The land in dispute is downstream of the Hoover Dam; French said the river moved around far more prior to Hoover’s construction in the 1930s.

In 1983, French said, the tribe won the case known as the Aranson decision. In it, CRIT won back 2,000 acres it had lost when the federal government cut a channel in the river, changing its course. This decision was based on the idea that the true boundary was the riparian boundary, French said, but their claim to the land on the California side of the river is based on the idea that the riparian boundary isn’t valid.  

“They’re trying to have it both ways,” French said.

Sheppard said that French is mischaracterizing the decision, which he said strengthened, not weakened, CRIT’s land claims in California. Overall, CRIT has almost 4,000 members, including some in California. The tribes’ lands cover an area half the size of Rhode Island.

In 2008, local Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, got involved, sending a letter to the U.S. Justice Department claiming the “reservation cannot legally extend into California.” The DOJ informed her that it is the “long-standing position of the United States … that the reservation extends past the west bank of the Colorado into the State of California.”

Some local residents also say that the tribes started radically increasing rent in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when many of the residents in dispute with the tribe stopped paying. Sheppard acknowledges the rent increases, but said they were moderate and came after years of paying below-market rents.

Currently, annual rent for property on the river is $55 per foot of shoreline, meaning that rent on Foley’s property was a reasonable $550 a month. The rents are so fair, he said, that less than 10 percent of the 2,000 or so leaseholders in the disputed area have been trying to fight them, Sheppard said.

Several of the people who have been withholding rent for years now owe anywhere between $50,000 and $80,000. But CRIT isn’t pursuing leaseholders who just walk away.
Then there’s the matter of tribal courts. Foley said part of the reason he decided to “just walk away” was that he didn’t think he’d win in tribal court. French said that leaseholders were forced to sign documents saying they’d accept the jurisdiction of tribal courts.

“Once they signed on to tribal jurisdiction, they realized their chances in court were basically nil,” French said.

But Sheppard said the leases have long demanded that renters bring any disputes to tribal courts. These decisions can be appealed in federal court if the litigant can show they didn’t receive due process or that the tribe didn’t have jurisdiction – things that West Bank leaseholders have not been able to prove.

Sheppard said that CRIT has no designs on a casino in California. They already have the Bluewater Casino in Arizona, with 475 slot machines. French said this wouldn’t compare with what the tribe could do in California, where a compact could give them far more slot machines in a better area – five miles from Interstate 10.

French pointed to correspondence with the Schwarzenegger administration in 2008, which he said shows the tribe has been seeking a casino. Letters between Sheppard and Andrea Hoch, who served as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legal affairs secretary, showed that the administration didn’t believe the tribe had land in California that would be eligible for a casino.

“As you know, the boundaries of CRIT reservation lands in California, if any, have not been resolved and are still subject to dispute,” Hoch wrote.

The tr
ibe disputed Hoch’s claims about their land with 43 pages of evidence. But Sheppard said they’re not currently pursuing gaming.

“We have not had a conversation with the current governor,” Sheppard said. “We have not resurrected this effort at all.”

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