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California Tribe Remains Dangerously Divided Over who is Running it

Two factions of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians in Northern California remain locked in a power struggle that caused the newly appointed police chief, Clay Parker to quit in frustration last week. The tribe’s Rolling Hills Casino (l.) remains closed although one faction insists that it’s open.

The short-lived career of former Tehama County Sheriff Clay Parker as police chief of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians in Northern California ended last week when the embattled chief resigned after serving for one month.

The resignation came a few days before the tribal council that hired him began taking action to close the 12-year old Rolling Hills Casino, which it says is being run illegally.

Parker was originally hired by four tribal council members who had been ousted by the tribal Chairman Andy Freeman during an April 12 meeting in which he tried to dis-enroll about a third of the tribe’s members, a total of 76 people, including several council members and members of the Pata, Henthorn, Lohse and Crosby families. Freeman then appointed his own candidates to fill the council seats.

Parker issued a statement about his resignation: “For a month, I have been serving as the police chief of the Paskenta Tribe. When I took the post I let everybody involved know that I would serve as chief until all means and modes of peaceful resolution had been exhausted; and that at any point when I realized there would be no peaceful resolution to this discord, I would resign.”

Meanwhile a dozen Sheriff’s deputies are keeping the peace and keeping the disputing tribal members at a distance from each other.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently wrote a letter saying that the ousted council members, Leslie Lohse, David Swearinger, Geraldine Freeman, and Allen Swearinger are part of the legal tribal council. Parker still insists that they are the legal, “duly elected,” tribal government, as well. However, the opposing faction has said it will appeal that decision.

The BIA letter was signed by Central California Agency Superintendent Troy Burdick and instructed the tribe to “cease and desist your operation, remove all structures, vehicles and to restore the land to its original state prior to the unauthorized use.”

Parker told the Appeal-Democrat, “I have worked side by side with the duly elected Tribal Council and I have been very impressed by their efforts to call for tribal unity and work through the legal process,” He added, “They have also engaged with state and federal officials, who have not realized the urgency of making a decision. The four members of the Tribal Council have remained true to their resolve to maintain peace and call for a unified tribe.”

Freeman’s faction continues to control the casino and other tribal facilities, and accuse some dis-enrolled members of mishandling as much as $2 million in casino funds.

The four tribal council members countercharge that “non-Indian” casino management is walking off with millions of dollars of casino money.

Before he resigned Parker had warned that members of the tribe were in physical danger from members of both factions who have threatened violence.

“What has become clear is that the Paskenta Tribe is under siege, completely out of control of its casino, and unless a federal agency steps in, this could truly turn violent,” he said, calling for federal intervention.

Parker noted that three members of the council met with Mike Smith, deputy director of field operations for the BIA last week. Until the BIA designated a legal tribal council, no federal agency will step in, Parker said.

So far no one has been named to replace the outgoing chief of police.

Despite the infighting Rolling Hills Casino is assuring customers that it is safe to visit and play there. “Our principals and core values for running the casino have not changed,” said CEO Bruce Thomas in a press release, who called the action by the four council members, “terrorism.”

“What they are doing is embarrassing to the name of the tribe and the casino. But we appreciate the public’s support in that our patrons are still coming to the casino as we remain open for business as usual.”

The current sheriff of Tehama County, David Hencratt said that while his deputies will not involve themselves in the tribe’s internal affairs, that they will keep the peace.

They have their work cut out for them since on June 9 the tribal council took action to close the casino until such time that the dispute can be resolved.

Vice Chairman David Swearinger said, “Our number-one priority is public safety, and that is why the physical closure of the casino is necessary. It is not safe. Until we are sure that the casino is safe, we ask the public to allow the tribe to resolve this internal matter. Once order is restored, Rolling Hills Casino will reopen and provide the public with the gaming experience it has come to expect.”

Freeman accuses his opponents of trying to create chaos and hurt the business of the casino for their own ends. “They’re trying to make it look like we’re doing bad and we don’t know what we’re doing,” he said, adding that they had also infected the casino’s computers with a virus in an attempt to sabotage it.

The Tribal Police Department, sans Parker, erected barricades and manned them to prevent traffic from entering the casino. But it also did not come in direct contact with the security force that has been hired by the casino management, and which recognizes Freeman’s authority.

The shutdown was done in coordination with the sheriff’s department whose assistant sheriff, Phil Johnston said, “There’s a standoff between the factions, and we’re monitoring the situation. We have not aligned ourselves with any particular group or faction within the tribe. Both sides are pretty passionate about this.” Nevertheless, no arrests have been made as yet.

Nevertheless the casino continued to operate, and Freeman was the only council member allowed to enter the property.

Deputy Police Chief Erik Nilssen said in a statement, “This police action is being conducted without direct conflict with the armed security force that has occupied the property for nearly nine weeks. The property will be closed until the Tribal Council directs the Paskenta Police Department to stand down.”

On the same day that four-member council attempted to shut down the casino the BIA’s local director recognized Swearinger’s group as the legal council. However, Freeman and his group have promised to appeal to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.