Tribal Warfare How a wildly successful golf development split the Las Vegas Paiutes into spiteful, bickering factions

December 16, 2002

When Charles Frye tells the story of how he ceased to be an
Indian, he starts with that fateful afternoon in the early 1990s
when he sat down for lunch with Landmark Golf Company president
Ernie Vossler in the clubhouse of the La Quinta Resort and Club
near Palm Springs, Calif. "I remember looking out these huge
windows," Frye says, "and seeing this beautiful golf course."
Frye, who was then a member of the Las Vegas Paiutes tribal
council, had never touched a golf club. He didn't know Pete Dye
from aniline dye. When a waiter handed Frye a leather-bound
menu, he couldn't find the prices until Vossler diplomatically
pointed out that they were written out, in the style of wedding
invitations and sovereign treaties. (La Quinta Burger...ten
dollars and seventy-five cents.) Frye tried not to gawk, but
his eyes took inventory of all the nice touches--the polished
brass bar rails, the deep-pile carpets, the big chandeliers. So
this is what they like, he thought, people who play golf.

These days Frye, 47, doesn't have to drive for four hours to
experience that kind of luxury. A few miles north of his modern
ranch house, at the point where the surging northern suburbs of
Las Vegas meet the mountain desert, lies the Las Vegas Paiute
Golf Resort. There, for a greens fee ranging from $85 to $195,
visitors can play any of three Pete Dye--designed courses.
Afterward they can dine in the magnificent brick-and-stucco
clubhouse and look out through a La Quinta--inspired glass wall
at green fairways and the brown slopes of Snow Mountain.

There is nothing to detract from the golf experience. Sure,
Frye's sister Debra Faria pickets the place from time to time,
but because of a banishment order she has to park her blue Chevy
Suburban a mile down U.S. Highway 95, just short of the sign that
reads YOU ARE ENTERING LAS VEGAS PAIUTE INDIAN RESERVATION. Her
banner decries PAIUTE CORRUPTION, and a big U.S. flag flaps in
the breeze, but Faria's message, viewed from a vehicle going 70
miles an hour, is almost subliminal. Those two words fail to
convey how a golden-goose golf development split her
once-peaceful community into spiteful, bickering factions,
leading to her banishment from the tribe. But she can explain
what happened in eight words. "It's all about money," she says.
"Money makes people crazy."

The Las Vegas Paiute craziness started in 1975, when a
businessman offered to share his profits with the tribe if it let
him open a smoke shop in rented space on the Las Vegas Indian
Colony, a 10acre enclave of derelict trailers near downtown Las
Vegas. In its first year the shop sold close to a million cartons
of cigarettes, thanks to the tribe's immunity from sales and
tobacco taxes. Today the tribe's wholly owned shop on North Main
Street is the largest single tobacco retailer in the country,
with customers lined up at six registers and cars waiting at the
drive-through window. The profits from this and other tribe
businesses go to the Paiutes in the form of revenue distribution
checks, which by the late 1990s had risen to about $100,000 a
year for each of the 60 or so tribe members.

The Paiutes' fortunes had taken another uptick in 1983, when
Congress granted them 3,800 acres of undeveloped land 20 miles
northwest of Vegas. The location on U.S. Highway 95, the road
that connects Las Vegas and Reno, was flush in the path of the
city's future growth. In 1990 then tribal chairperson Alfreda
Mitre (pronounced MEE-tree) hired an economic development
adviser, Thomas Climo, a Pennsylvanian who had just returned to
the U.S. from England, where he'd been a finance professor at the
University of Kent at Canterbury. "Alfreda took me out and showed
me these 3,800 acres," Climo says. "The only things on it were
eight HUD homes, a powwow grounds and a factory that was in total
disrepair. There were black widow spiders in there the size of
Buicks." The factory, although derelict, was an omen. "Believe it
or not," says Climo, "they had been making graphite shafts for
golf clubs for Aldila."

Climo understood that it would be foolhardy to enter the casino
business--a significant source of revenue for 201 U.S. native
tribes--because of the land's proximity to the Las Vegas Strip,
and the Paiutes agreed. But when Climo floated the idea of a golf
resort, it made sense to almost no one except Mitre and council
member Frye. Climo remembers one meeting at which a tribal elder
barked, "Who is this white man telling us what to do? Nobody is
going to walk 20 miles in the sun with clubs on his back to play
golf!"

The point was well taken. As the 1990s began, Las Vegas had fewer
than two dozen courses, including private clubs and pint-sized
par3 layouts. The casinos, fearing that golf would lure people
away from the gaming tables, saw to it that most development
proposals were shot down. The Las Vegas Valley Water District was
even less enthusiastic, arguing that the tribe did not have the
water rights. (The cost of irrigating 18 holes in Nevada can
approach $1 million a year.)

The Las Vegas Paiutes believed they had no reason to worry about
water or any other pretext for opposition; they had legal
autonomy on the reservation and assumed they could claim the
water in the aquifer beneath it. "We knew we had to use that land
to diversify our interests," says Mitre, who later left tribal
government for an academic post at UC Santa Cruz. (She has since
moved on to the University of Colorado.) "We saw that the smoke
shop wouldn't support us forever."

As it turned out, there were prolonged battles with the city and
the water district over water and other development issues, but
the tribe ultimately prevailed. By the time the first Las Vegas
Paiute course, Snow Mountain, opened in March 1995, the
reservation--previously populated only by undernourished yucca
plants and Joshua trees--had become a sea of lush turf that
seemed almost luridly green compared with its dusty desert
surroundings. Business boomed. A second course, Sun Mountain,
opened a year and a half later and was equally well received.

The city's business and political leaders were more impressed by
another kind of green: the kind that golfers pushed across the
counter of the temporary pro shop, which was housed in a
double-wide trailer. Between 1995 and '98, almost 25 courses
opened or began construction in the Las Vegas--Henderson area.
"The Paiutes cut the trail," says one tourist-industry insider.
"They brought the business community, kicking and screaming, to
the realization that golf paid off."

No one was happier about the Paiute golf connection than Frye,
who had supported the resort from the start and had helped bring
in Landmark Golf Company as operating manager. At Mitre's urging,
Frye left his job in the parts department of a Vegas car
dealership and became a purchasing agent at the resort. Frye even
took up the game. "At first I didn't like it because I'd shoot
150," he says. "But I finally got to where I could shoot in the
low 100s and then the 90s." Within four years Frye had his
handicap down to single digits, and it would be fair to say that
no Las Vegas Paiute had fallen more deeply in love with the game
or better appreciated having the resort's world-class courses at
his disposal.

All that ended one evening in July 1999, when Frye received a
form letter printed on tribal letterhead. The message, in
underlined type, was as blunt as a punch: "...your tribal
membership with the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe is hereby terminated,
effective immediately."

In the days after he got the disenrollment letter, Frye swept his
house of almost everything that reminded him of golf. "All the
photos of me at the courses, all the shirts I had with the resort
logo on them"--he gives a helpless shrug--"I threw them all
away."

But Frye couldn't bring himself to part with his clubs. His golf
bag still leans against a wall in his antiseptically clean
garage, waiting for a change of tribal temperature. "I miss the
game a lot," he says, pulling the headcover off an old Big Bertha
driver and holding it up to the light. "I was hoping to teach my
son David how to play. I figured by now he'd be playing junior
golf."

Being an ex-golfer is one thing. Being an ex-Indian is another.
According to his disenrollment letter, the tribal council had
ruled that information contained in a 1940 tribal census was now
deemed inaccurate. Frye's grandfather, Manuel Lopez, it claimed,
was not a Native American. Without a grandfather of Native
American blood Frye fell short of the one-quarter blood quantum
required for membership. His sister Debra Faria and three other
relatives were also disenrolled, based on the Lopez bloodline.
Ten additional Las Vegas Paiutes were purged, most of them the
victims of a similar decision regarding a deceased member named
Juanita Weed. With a few strokes of the pen, the tribe had shrunk
to 49 members.

To Frye, who had spent seven years of his childhood in the Las
Vegas Indian Colony, the charge that he was not a real Las Vegas
Paiute was outrageous, particularly coming from newly installed
tribal chairman Curtis Anderson, who had once sued to gain his
Las Vegas Paiute membership after living for a time in Utah with
the Indian Peaks tribe. Says Frye, "He had signed a legal
document"--specifically, a property deed--"as an official with
the other tribe, and we had rules to prevent people who do that
from claiming membership here, too."

Frye's reaction was mild compared with that of his sister.
Forty-four at the time and living in Alta Loma, Calif., with her
husband, Robert Faria, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force,
Debra says she cried for three days after she got the letter. All
she could think about were her childhood years in the Colony,
where she and her neighbors lived in little shacks without
electricity, phones or indoor plumbing. She remembered chopping
firewood for heat and doing her homework in the flickering light
of kerosene lamps. "We lived that experience as Indians," Faria
says, "so that's who we are. Throwing us out of the tribe is like
saying that we're really white."

The disenrollments also bucked a national trend. Many Native
American tribes are worried that mobility and intermarriage will
eventually take them to the brink of extinction, so they have
liberalized their blood-quantum requirements, preferring
inclusion to exclusion. "But they're not like our tribe--greedy
and small," Frye notes with a wry smile.

Believing that the Anderson-led council was motivated by a desire
to cut them out of future smoke-shop and golf-resort revenues,
the disenrolled 15 hired a lawyer and filed a reinstatement suit
against the tribe. Faria, a small, feisty woman, went even
further. Declaring it her personal mission to discredit Anderson
and the council, she persuaded her husband to sell their
California house and move back to Las Vegas. For almost three
years now she has waged a dogged p.r. campaign from her
tastefully decorated home in the northern suburbs. "This is not a
money issue for me," she says. "They took away my heritage."

They certainly didn't take away her spunk. When Faria learned
that LPGA stars Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb were going to
play at the Paiute Resort in October 2001 for an episode of
Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, she sent the show's producer a
series of faxes threatening to interrupt the match unless the
tribal council reversed itself. The tribe, in response, got a
one-day restraining order banning Faria from tribal grounds. On
the day of the Sorenstam-Webb match, Faria had to display her
PAIUTE CORRUPTION banner on the shoulder of Highway 95, several
miles from the Wonderful World cameras.

"Golf is the tribe's future," says Faria, explaining why she
targets golf events. (In 2000, with its third course, the Wolf,
still under construction, the Paiute resort grossed $10 million
in greens fees alone. By '04, when the courses' loans are
supposed to be paid off, more golf profits will flow to tribal
members.) Apart from the disenrolled members' cultural identity,
these dollars are what's at stake in their fight for
reinstatement. But Faria concedes that she also has personal
reasons for so vehemently targeting the golf operation. Her older
brother Billy, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1988, led the
campaign to acquire the North Las Vegas lands. "It was Billy who
lobbied for years in Washington and stood up in front of the
Senate to give the speech asking them to give us the land," Faria
says. "He wanted a better way of life for our people." And it was
her brother Charles, after all, who along with Mitre pursued the
dream of a golf resort against stiff tribal opposition. (The
tribe's attorney, David Colvin, has defended the disenrollments
as going "to the very heart of what sovereignty means to tribes.
An inherent right of a tribe is to determine who is and also who
is not a member. If people don't meet the standards, they don't
meet the standards.")

The tribe hasn't taken Faria's picketing lightly, and some
members are enraged by the two polemical websites she manages,
lvpaiutes.com and paiutecorruption.com. When the council failed
last year to get a permanent injunction barring her from
reservation lands, it took matters into its own hands and simply
banished her. "Now I can't go to the burial grounds to put
flowers on my mother's grave," she says. Neither can she go to
the Colony to help care for her sister, Betsy, who despite having
also been disenrolled, has been permitted to remain on the
reservation because she is disabled. Faria was arrested earlier
this year when she tried to take her 14-year-old daughter, Ali,
to the tribal clinic for a checkup. "The tribal police put the
handcuffs on me right in front of her," Faria says. "I spent a
day and a half in the city jail. They treated me like a
terrorist."

The irony, of course, is that everyone who grew up in the Las
Vegas Indian Colony--both the disenrolled and those who
engineered their dismissals--grew up knowing how it feels to be
shunned. In the early 1960s Native American children were
required to attend the public Washington School, a few blocks
from their tumbledown houses. There they were teased, mocked and
sometimes beaten by white children. "They made fun of everything
about us," Faria says, "where we lived, the clothes we wore, what
we had to eat." The mistreatment made the Paiute children "an
incredibly tight-knit group," she says, which is why Faria, Frye
and the other disenrolled view their social ostracism as a bigger
punishment than their financial loss. "It hurt in the heart,"
disenrolled member Tilford Landis Jr. told the Las Vegas Sun.
"Nobody has the right to tamper with my family's heritage."

The reinstatement suit has taken as many twists and turns as a
desert wash. Terry Coffing, a Las Vegas attorney who presides
over the tribal court, in June 2001 found that the council had
violated the tribal constitution by disenrolling members without
a popular vote. Eight months later a tribal appeals court (a
three-member panel comprised of two law professors and a member
of another Paiute tribe) decided that the tribal council's
actions may have been unconstitutional and sent the case back to
Coffing for reexamination. Coffing's subsequent decision, in
September, radically changed the litigation's momentum. He ruled
that based on the appeals court's specifications the tribe had
acted constitutionally. The case returns to the tribal appeals
court in February.

So many elements of the case remain unresolved because the
tribe's constitution, formally adopted in 1970, provides vague
criteria for membership. To be a member, it states, one must have
at least one ancestor on the 1940 tribal census and be
one-quarter Paiute. Not Las Vegas Paiute or Southern Paiute, but
simply Paiute. (This is a telling omission, because the word
Paiute appears in the name of four federally recognized tribes.)
The constitution makes scant provision for possible genealogical
errors in the 60-year-old records that were the basis for the
disenrollments. Faria says she has documentation proving that
Lopez, her grandfather, was a full-blooded Paiute, but there has
not yet been an opportunity to submit those documents at any
stage of the legal proceedings.

The dispute was further complicated in July, when all seven
members of the council were voted out of office. The new council
chairperson, Gloria Hernandez, has shown a measure of sympathy
for the disenrolled. Says Hernandez, "It's obvious to me that
some of the disenrollments"--in particular those based on the
blood quantum of Lopez--"were due to mathematical error."
Nevertheless, her council has decided not to settle the suits.
"We want to arrive at a firm ruling on membership qualifications
so that we don't have any similar confusion in the future,"
Hernandez says.

Faria, for one, would like to see a quicker conclusion. "The new
council can rescind the disenrollments anytime it wants," she
says. In the meantime the disenrolled spend their days and nights
pondering two dramatically different outcomes. "When I think
about the possibility that we might not be let back in," Frye
says, "it makes me sick."

Sometimes Frye dreams about his ancestral lands, but it's a dream
his Paiute forebearers wouldn't understand. He's asleep, and all
of a sudden he's back on the golf course on one of those late
afternoons when sunlight knifes through the sky and shadows seem
to stretch all the way to Sun Mountain. "The only customers left
are on the back nine," he says, "and all the staff goes out
together and plays the front. Groups of seven or eight of us,
just having fun." A coyote lopes across a fairway. A hawk swoops
and glides, looking for prey.

This is what we like, he thinks, we who play golf.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA OASIS Las Vegas has sprawled northward toward the three golf courses owned and operated by the Paiutes. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA BLOOD MONEY After being tossed out of the tribe, Faria no longer qualified for the annual payout all the Las Vegas Paiutes get. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA FAMILY MATTERS Faria (top, at her mother's grave) was disenrolled because of her grandfather (second from right). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA GREEN MACHINE The three golf courses at the Paiutes' resort take in more than $10 million a year in greens fees alone. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA BY THE BOOK Frye and Faria say they can document their Paiute bloodlines, but their proof has yet to be admitted in court.

Most tribes prefer inclusion to exclusion, "but they're not like
our tribe--greedy and small," says Frye.

When Climo first suggested a course, a tribal elder said, "Nobody
is going to walk 20 miles to play golf."

After her arrest at a tribal clinic, Faria says she "spent a day
and a half in jail. They treated me like a terrorist."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)