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Court rules for government in fight over tribal expulsions

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Expelled Native American tribe members can't look to the federal government to reinstate them when their tribes have assumed final say over membership decisions, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a case involving dozens of people who said they were kicked out of a Southern California tribe by leaders who wanted a bigger cut of casino revenues.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs not to overrule the Pala Band of Mission Indians' expulsion of more than 150 members. The court said the federal agency reasonably concluded that the San Diego County-based Pala were operating under a tribal constitution that gave the tribe ultimate authority over enrollment decisions.

"In reaching our decision, we recognize with regret that plaintiffs will suffer severe and significant consequences from losing their membership in the Pala Band," Judge Milan Smith wrote for the three-judge panel.

But he went on to say that the federal government does not interfere in tribal enrollment decisions "in the absence of specific authority to do so."

The Pala's executive committee decided several years ago that the members' ancestral bloodlines disqualified them from enrollment.

The members accused tribal officials of trying to increase their share of profits from the Pala Casino Spa and Resort.

"It's like an atomic bomb's been dropped," said Tracy Emblem, an attorney for about 62 expelled Pala members who were plaintiffs in Friday's ruling. She said she is looking into a possible appeal.

Similar membership purges have affected hundreds of people in tribes around the country. They are particularly numerous in California, where many tribes reconstituted over the last several decades and then entered the casino business, according to advocates. Expelled tribal members can lose thousands of dollars in monthly stipends and other benefits.

The Pala dispute centers on whether a revered tribal elder who has since died, Margarita Britten, was half Pala or a full-blooded Pala. If she was half Indian, as the tribe has ruled, that means her descendants with less than 1/16th of Pala blood are not entitled to tribal membership.

At issue in the dispute was also whether the Pala were operating under a constitution that relegated the Bureau of Indian Affairs to an advisory role in tribal enrollment decisions or an earlier governing document that gave the agency final say on the matter.

Emblem said the 9th Circuit refused to consider evidence of federal officials' repeated acknowledgment that the tribe was operating under the earlier governing document.

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