—— How long has the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay been here?
The Kumeyaay have lived in this region for more than 10,000 years! All told the Kumeyaay consist of 12 separate bands we're the Viejas band, but some of the others are well known too, such as Barona and Sycuan. The Viejas tribe is really different from many of the others though because most of the Indian tribes will not have anything to do with owls or owl feathers, were we did. We used owl feathers in a lot of our ceremonies.
—— What’s the significance of that?
Well, a lot of the tribes feel that owls are a bad omen. We didn't feel that way. Another thing that was different about us was how we passed on power. When the chief of our band passed away the next chief that took over did not come from ours, he came from another band. He was raised to be the chief in another band. The reason for this was that when he finally did come to live and lead us, when he had to make decisions affecting the people, he had no family and so he could make a fair and unbiased decision. No favoritism.
—— Over time Indian life has undergone numerous changes I’m sure, what was it like before?
When I was younger, I was poor, but before the coming of the Europeans this was a prosperous community. They estimate that there were about 25,000 of us when the first Europeans came here. By 1904 there were only 1,700 of us left, and in the 1850ﾕs during the gold-rush times it was even legal to kill Indians. Historians have us listed as hunters and gatherers, but the Kumeyaay we were probably the finest horticulturists around. We planted squash, corn, we even had special style of wheat to make bread that we'd plant in the fields. We would migrate through with the seasons. During the summer we'd be down at the beach, during the winter we'd be in Mission Valley, during the fall we'd be gathering acorns. We lived in harmony with the land and seasons. There would always be someone who stayed behind to tend to that area. We even had an elaborate messenger system that we used to communicate from one tribe to another and from one band to another. The young boys would run so far and hand off their messages to the next person at the next station. And that's how we relayed messages.
In more recent times, before gaming we were very poor. Nobody cared much about us and nobody even knew we existed. Discrimination was still common and my mom would tell how when she went to grade school in Alpine, there was a restroom for whites and one for Indians. Before gaming, nobody knew that there were 17 Indian reservations in San Diego County, and no one even knew what tribes were here. We didn't have anything so great grandfather made bows and arrows for us kids to sell. We had to live off of handouts programs from the Federal Government such as food programs and welfare, as well as, handouts from kind, caring people. Some people would bring clothes to the church. I can still remember my aunts going through the boxes of clothes, looking for something and seeing what would fit. Basically, we were very, very poor.
—— What are the reservation’s current boundaries?
Our boundaries are according to what the Federal Government put us on and that is fixed , unless we add to it, which we have. Our land once extended from the Pacific Ocean, south to Ensenada in Baja Norte, east to the Colorado River and north to Warner Springs Valley. We had our land, Viejas land, and then there was land that we shared. Currently, our reservation is about 1609 acres and we've purchased 800 more acres. Some of it is contiguous to this reservation and some of it is waiting to become trust land so it can be added to the reservation. We also own some property that we may not want because it's already zoned commercial and we have some other property in Alpine.
—— What led to the modern rebirth of your band and the Indian reservations?
The rebirth of our tribe started in 1983, when other tribes got into gaming. Barona got into it first when they opened up the bingo hall in 1983. We didn't get into gaming until 1990 we always seem to take a wait and see approach. When we did, it was backwards. We started a card room first and that ended up closing, then we got more investors, we remodeled and made it bigger, then opened up again on September 13, 1991. We were always a day-to-day operation at that time because at that time Gov. Wilson was in office. They even came and raided us and took our machines out. We were lucky though to get them back.
There were a lot of legal battles until we finally got the compact of 2000. Before that we were at the whim of the government. Now our relationship with the State and Federal governments has greatly improved. If you look at this building, you can look and see that it was built in pieces and as we got more successful we added on. When they allowed us to have the 2000 gaming machines... that was the turning point.
—— It kind of sounds like a Hollywood "rags-to-riches" American success story.
Exactly! We kind of snuck up on everyone. Unfortunately, when they started to see that we were making money and getting better at it, they started introducing more and more bills, and there were more and more lawsuits. They got mad though because we beat their legal challenges. Today's Indian lawyers are into lobbying and now we can beat them at their own game-in the courts! The courts have ruled for us. When we were fighting Gov. Wilson, we were battling the people that could change the rules of the game. So we grew up and learned how to lobby, and how the whole legislative system works. We learned and we learned fast. It's a shame that we've had to put so much money into watching to see what's happening next. We're always fighting and if we win today we've got another battle tomorrow. It's never finished.
—— What does Viejas Enterprises offer on the reservation?
At the moment we have the Viejas Casino, which is open 24 hours a day, and occupies more than 250,000 square feet. Through it we provide employment for more than 2,300 people. Inside we offer 2,000 of the most popular slots and over 80 tables for game players. Also, across the street we have the 57-store Viejas Outlet Center, which employs another 700 people. We've also got five restaurants, with a wide variety of great food like the Grove Steakhouse.
—— Cita, how did you get started working here?
During our ten years in business, I'm probably the member that has been here the longest. When we started out, we started as a card room, and I started as a security guard. When we had to close down and we were building the Viejas Casino, I worked as a night security guard. Later, when my family grew, I've got six kids, I needed to support them, so I became the night-manager of off-track betting. Eventually, I got tired of that, my wife did, and she made me get a regular job.(laughing) I was working Thursday to Sunday nights and she was working Monday to Friday days, so she'd be coming home and I'd be going to work. We had the best relationship because we never had time to argue! Sometimes when money was tight, during my night shifts I'd makes bows and arrows for my kids or as gifts just like my great grandfather taught me.
—— Tell me a little about your current position here with Viejas Enterprises.
I work directly with the Chief Executive Officer of Viejas Enterprises, Frank Riolo. Basically, I do whatever he asks me to do and our job is to look after the investments for the tribe, Indian regulations and our own tribal ordinances. In addition to this, I give tours to our various guest dignitaries, including senators and congressmen or anyone else that comes here. I also serve as Frank's go-between with the tribe. I give him advice on tribal etiquette and what should and shouldn't be done and how to get his ideas across.
—— If I were meeting some tribe members for the first time, what kind of things should I be aware of?
It's basically the same as most meetings, but if you were going to visit a tribal elder, and you knew this, it would be best to bring something some sort of offering or a gift. Some tribes like tobacco, but it depends. If you were visiting my grandfather for the first time, you had better take him something; watermelon, carrot cake, apple pie. That will help you get your foot in the door and if you bring him watermelon it had better be chilled! I don't have to worry about that with Frank, because my grandfather is on his board of directors, but sometimes Frank will ask, "What do I do when the tribal council says this or that?"
—— What kind of investments do you look for?
Like any other company, we look for return on investment. We'll never find an investment better than the Viejas Casino, but still we want to look for things that will give us good returns over the long run and things that make sense strategically for us. We also have the Outlet Center, Borrego Springs Bank, two R.V.Parks, and then two investments in partnership with three other tribes. They're hotels, one is in Washington D.C. and it's only about a block a and a half way from the new Native American Museum thatﾕs going to open up in September, our hotel will open up in January 2005. The other is in Sacramento, right by the Capital building. In fact, if you're looking out the Capital's back doors you can see it through the trees.
—— A lot of people don’t realize that the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is recognized as a sovereign nation, can you explain a little bit about what that means?
We are granted our sovereignty by the U.S. Constitution and by treaties. We are basically a government, within a government, within a government. We are our own government and have the right to do, as we want to do and as we see fit for ourselves. We have governmental jurisdiction over our land and tribal members. We have a government-to-government relationship with the State of CA and with the U.S. Federal Government, but being that we are on federal land, we really have to obey federal laws within our own boundaries. You could think of it as being like Camp Pendleton in some ways. That gives us the right to decide what we want to do on our reservations.
We're a small tribe. There are only about 288 tribal members and 186 voting members 18 and over. Anything major has to be voted on by the people. The members of the tribal council are the ones who speak for us and are elected. They're just like senators and congressmen, but the people have the final decision You'll find our name at the forefront of many things. We lead by example on the national and state fronts. We know what we want and we get after it. We had great visionaries to begin with and now we know how to play the game. Who better to be out there representing yourself than yourself?
—— With your modern business culture and the traditional Indian culture and philosophy, is there a blending of culture or conflict?
Mostly there is a blending. Sometimes even we don't understand it completely ourselves. Often times we don't move as fast as some of those in corporate America. Sometimes we do things at the last minute, but basically we take a wait and see approach. Sometimes things have to move at a different pace than business usually expects because we're a government and everything has to be voted on or approved by the people. That can take time, but that's how we do things.
—— As far as the Casino is concerned is it growing or are there any plans to expand?
It's definitely growing. To be honest with you, everybody has been asking us, "Where's your hotel? Where's your golf course?" We are currently in the compact negotiations now, and we're about a month away from closing, so we are taking a wait and see approach. Barona has built their hotel and Pachanaga built their hotel, but we've been watching and learning from their successes and failures so we could better gauge things. Then we can make a decision that incorporates the best of what we've learned.
—— Tell us a little about how Viejas and you have been involved with the community.
We donate a lot of money every year to different organizations. Anything to do with children is always a favorite of ours and now we have so many requests that we can't contribute to all of them. We do a lot for breast cancer and M.S., and one of the biggest things we do is as a major funder of the S.D. Foodbank. Especially for Christmas and Thanksgiving, simply because at one time we were one of it's major recipients. It's nice to be able to repay that kindness. We're a very giving people anyways, so it's just part of our culture to give.
—— I hear that sometimes you’re personally involved with the community through teaching.
I'll tell you a little bit about that. I'm asked quite frequently by schools, especially during November because it's Native American Month, to come and speak to them. I'm the one that usually gets referred. I did it when my kids were in school, I would go to their classes and speak because they asked me to, so I just kind of continued it. I'll go from kindergarten to high school. They made this for me at St. Anthem's Academy (holding up a rosary) and if you look at that binder, behind you, it's full of letters that the students wrote to me. Depending upon what level they're at I tell them about what we've been talking about, our land base, what we ate and what we did. The younger the kids, the better my props need to be! They love the props like the cradleboard, bow and arrow, feathers and other things we've made. This arrow is authentic because I used Hawk feathers. When I make them for somebody else, I can't use Hawk feathers because they are bird's of prey and only Native Americans can have feathers from birds of prey, so I usually have to use turkey feathers or something.
—— What are you working on for the future?
Our main business goal now is to redefine the market, because we believe that the San Diego market has barely been tapped into. Nobody has really tapped into the tourist market yet. What I do know and what I can tell you is that we're probably going to have both, business and cultural endeavors. We can't tell you everything. the only thing I can tell you is to keep your eye on us.
(09-01-2004 issue Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)