Skip to comments.Who are the Lyttons?
Posted on 12/12/2004 8:21:17 AM PST by SmithL
On the industrial western coast of Contra Costa County, a band of 277 Indians with no ancestral ties to the East Bay stands poised to open the Golden State's first urban casino.
The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians has taken a circuitous, improbable and controversial route to the booming world of California Indian gaming and a San Pablo casino about to brim with slot machines.
Sacred and sovereign is how they describe the San Pablo site -- home of an Arabian-themed card room that a British gaming company built and Congress turned into an Indian reservation exclusively for the band.
The Lyttons have won claims to government land before, only to sell it and later blame the government for deceiving them.
This time, they are about to turn land into gold.
All they need to put 2,500 slot machines in Casino San Pablo is state legislative approval of a deal the Lyttons and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to earlier this year.
The Lyttons stand to net between $100 million to $150 million a year from the estimated $400 million that would pour from those slot machines.
The band possesses broad federal rights to run a casino. All the state can do is negotiate the number of slots, a share of the profits and protections for the community.
Lytton leaders say the deal will let them break the band's generations of poverty.
The band's members have remained largely reclusive, allowing investors, lawyers and consultants to negotiate and speak for them. The constant message is that the Lyttons are a poor tribe entitled to casino riches.
The public knows little else about the band and what opponents call its questionable tribal status.
In their rare discussions with outsiders, the Lyttons have spoken both idealistically and sadly of the small tract in Sonoma County they left 40 years ago. They depict a land where apples grew that they had to abandon because of the government's false promises.
A starker history of the band appears in records the Times reviewed for the past four months in the U.S. archives, federal court cases and in tiny and remote Northern California county courthouses.
Who are the Lyttons? How can casino opponents question their legitimacy? How did the band arrive at this juncture in state history?
The answer begins with 56 words.
Bert Steele knew what he wanted: land. And he knew who to ask for it: the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs.
In February 1937, Steele wrote a 56-word letter to Indian Affairs in Sacramento asking for help.
It would not be the last time that a brief bit of writing involving the government would bring his family land when it had none.
Steele was one-quarter Pit River Indian married to a Pomo Indian from Bodega Bay named Mary Myers. They apparently lived in Mendocino County, where a flood had washed away their home. They had eight children.
The federal government had set aside 50 acres for homeless Indians north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County near Alexander Valley and Lytton Station roads.
More than a decade after its purchase no other Indians had settled it. The government let the Salvation Army grow corn on it. Could the Steeles relocate there?
A bureaucrat seemed relieved to say yes. Steele "had a reputation for industry," Indian Agent Roy Nash wrote to his superiors. Historians say Nash's words were code for telling his superiors that Steele wasn't shiftless, one of the prejudices Indians faced at the time.
Nash also asked if Steele had any Indian friends or relatives who could join him "because it was embarrassing for the government to be buying more land for California Indians while much already bought was growing weeds or leased to white men."
Mary Myers' brother worked on a Lake County onion farm. John Wesley Myers accepted the offer to relocate.
The families arrived as poor as the 50 scraggly acres that other Indians had rejected. They built one-room cabins. The government drilled wells.
The Lytton Rancheria was born.
Could Bert Steele have dreamt what those 56 words would bring to his family 67 years later?
Those words brought the family far more than some barely inhabitable acreage. Steele unknowingly had laid the foundation to a claim of tribal status - and a casino.
When the slots go in at San Pablo, five generations of Steele's family will rendezvous with millions of dollars, while the Bay Area's character will change in unknown ways.
So will the lives of many of the Lyttons.
Bert Steele probably thought he was bettering his family when he moved to the rancheria.
But Alexander Valley brought his offspring no escape from poverty, prejudice, addiction to alcohol and drugs and the crimes to which those conditions sometimes lead.
Nearly seven decades later some members of the Steele line know the smite of a police officer's baton, the cinch of handcuffs, the clang of cell doors, the indifference of public defenders and the clip of a sentencing judge's gavel.
From Santa Rosa north to Crescent City and into the Oregon forests, the extended Steele family leaves a trail of warrants, arrests, convictions. It leaves letters from mothers, aunts and cousins begging court-appointed lawyers to care about the accused and judges to extend mercy to the convicted.
Court records in Sonoma, Mendocino and Del Norte counties show at least 45 living Steele descendants with arrest records ranging from multiple driving-under-the-influence charges to kidnapping, assault with firearms, battery and drug possession and distribution.
Those descendants, eligible for membership in the Lytton band, have records that would prohibit them from working at casinos in Las Vegas or New Jersey.
At least three, as of Friday, were the subjects of active arrest warrants in Sonoma County.
The Lyttons also know the world of civil courts.
They fought for years to win tribal status and the right to own a casino.
Opponents, first in Sonoma and later in the East Bay, say the extended family that draws its band name from a county road has never been an Indian tribe.
Records indicate that many of the band's younger members apparently lack the 25 percent of Indian blood needed for federal recognition as individual Indians. Their Indian status depends on their membership in a federally recognized tribe.
That status was decided in the settlement of a lawsuit that Northern California Indians brought in the 1980s and was based on the government land near Healdsburg where they once lived.
The Lyttons joined that suit after the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency charged with helping American Indians, ruled that the band didn't meet tribal status criteria.
A U.S. District Court judge approved the settlement in 1991, but a different judge last year called it "one of the most confusing legal documents I've come across."
It allows the federal government to recognize the Steele and Myers descendants as an Indian tribe. The ruling withstood a legal challenge in federal court that Bay Area card room owners brought in 2002.
Opponents promise more challenges. They insist the Lyttons never were a sovereign group and can't claim to be one now.
"They never had sovereignty. You can't restore what never existed," said Alan Titus, a Mill Valley attorney for Bay Area card room owners who have fought the Lyttons' casino plans.
The Lyttons' chairwoman insists that just because they fail to fit preconceived notions of what others think a tribe should be, doesn't mean they aren't one.
Tribal leader Margie Mejia, Steele's great-granddaughter who once was an aide to former Central Valley U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, said the Lyttons know they are Indians because of the way they have been treated.
She insists that California Indians carry a shameful identity. The Lyttons remain guarded. Even members of the tribal council mostly decline to discuss their lives.
Mejia's refusal to release a list of the band's members makes a full picture of the band more difficult to paint.
Some descendants of Bert Steele and John Wesley Myers who are eligible for Lytton membership are instead enrolled in other bands, such as ones based in Hopland and Smith River.
While the family lineage is relatively straightforward to determine through birth and death certificates and other public records, band membership is more elusive.
In court papers, Mejia has listed statistics about the band as cold facts: The tribe's members have an unemployment rate of between 40 percent and 50 percent; 90 percent have no health insurance, 15 percent are homeless, many are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and many suffer from mental illness, especially depression.
In a recent interview, she put the unemployment rate at 70 percent.
Mejia said she cooks stew for dinners at tribal meetings because it is the type of meal in which a limited amount of meat can be stretched to feed many hungry mouths.
Government records show that the Lytton band is far from destitute as an organization. It received more than $3.5 million in federal aid and state funds for nongaming tribes from Indian casino profits during the past five years.
A tribal spokesman said last week that the money was distributed to the band's adult members and the rest used for administrative costs.
The Lyttons' biggest need is housing, she said. She talked about "multigeneration trauma" going back "100 years, 200 years," leading to lives of addiction and crime. Mejia said she doesn't know how many of her members have criminal records.
"If you look back over the record and you're quoting facts, maybe so," she said of records that show at least 45 descendants with criminal convictions.
"But I live with these people day in and day out and I have seen a lot of changes and a lot of things have improved. They have hope."
Who are the hopeful?
They are people such as Donald Henry Gonzales Jr., who was paroled from Mule Creek State Prison in September after serving four years on assault and drug charges.
He wrote to a Del Norte County judge earlier this year, begging for relief from more than $37,000 in unpaid child support and also to see his 14-year-old daughter.
The judge granted Gonzales' request to waive his unpaid support, but set his monthly payments upon release at $198 - money Gonzales said he didn't have.
Gonzales was one of the few tribal members Mejia would discuss during an interview.
"He has a history," she said. "I think he wants to (reform)."
The Lyttons are also people like Mary Figueroa.
She is Bert Steele's granddaughter and a member of the Lytton Tribal Council who lives with family in Santa Rosa. At 54, she is old enough to remember the rancheria and has never escaped the poverty of many of her people.
"I can't rent a house," said Figueroa, a retired nurses aide who survives on Social Security disability.
She has lived with as many as five generations under one roof in conditions she described as "a real bad situation."
She sees the casino as an end to generations of poverty and a better future for the band's 137 children. "I never even heard the word college in my age group."
The trap of poverty is sometimes evident in the court records of family members such as 27-year-old Telesfaro Soto of Crescent City, one of Bert Steele's dozens of great-grandchildren.
When he got a $270 traffic ticket in 1997, he couldn't pay it. The fine compounded to $1,620.
Soto tried paying it off at $40 a month, but couldn't. He ended up in the Del Norte County Jail to work it off at $50 a day. It was the best job he could find. In 2002, he was arrested in Mendocino County on suspicion of felony auto theft.
Among the Lyttons' ranks is Joyce Steele, another tribal council member.
A soft-spoken woman with graying, curly hair and a warm, inviting face, she moved to Crescent City in the early 1960s and became a manager in one of the commercial fishing operations there.
As a supervisor, she encountered whites who responded to her with grunts and turned backs. "It was so hard for them to take orders from me."
And the Lyttons are people such as James M. Myers. He is John Wesley Myers' grandson and a Point Arena High School teacher and coach.
James M. Myers, like his father, the retired Navy submariner, is one of the Lytton members who escaped poverty. He earned a Sonoma State teaching degree as an adult.
At his home in Manchester on the Mendocino County coast he talked about how his grandmother in her youth had to wait for all of the whites to board the train to Santa Rosa before she could get on.
His grandmother, he said, once "wanted to go to nursing school."
But the family had no money to buy her a watch so she could learn to take a patient's pulse.
Her dream died for want of a few dollars.
Such was Indian life.
The Lyttons' history is part of the larger story of Northern California Indians, American natives whose past is far different than those of larger, better known groups elsewhere in North America like the Sioux or Navajo.
The seeds of the recent rush of Indian gaming in California and the Lyttons' acquisition of Casino San Pablo were sown shortly after the United States and Mexico signed the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Feb. 2, 1848, making California a U.S. territory.
Under Spanish and Mexican rule, Indians were uprooted and during the Mission period were forced to convert to Christianity.
They became exposed to a substance foreign to their culture to which they had little biological resistance or tolerance. Alcohol haunts Indian communities today.
But it was the discovery of gold along the American River near Sacramento 11 months after the treaty's signing that began the genocide of California Indians.
Tens of thousands of prospectors poured into the state and found Indians nothing more than a nuisance.
"It is mercy on the red devils to exterminate them," editors of a Chico newspaperwrote in an 1866 editorial, according to historical records. "There is only one type of treaty that is effective -- cold lead."
Miners frantic for riches saw Indians "as less than human. They hunted them down like animals," said Clifford E. Trafzer, a professor at UC Riverside's Native American Studies program.
Indian children were sold into slavery, adults rounded up and shot. The native population, estimated at somewhere between 150,000 to 300,000 before the discovery of gold, plummeted. Few were left by the end of the Civil War.
California Indians spent the next 40 years hiding in squalor. Among them were the Pomos, who inhabited coastal lands north of San Francisco.
In 1905, Congress asked the Interior Department to investigate the plight of California Indians. It sent Special Agent C.E. Kelsey west.
What he saw appalled him.
Kelsey toured 55 counties on horseback and "personally inspected almost every settlement between Oregon to the Mexico border," he wrote in a report. He found "1,700 families with nearly 6,000 souls ... dangerously near the famine line."
In other parts of the country, Indians had received monetary reparations for land stripped from them. California Indians received nothing.
Most lived in small villages called rancherias "located on wasted or worthless land. The sanitary conditions (are) bad, but the feeling of helplessness and despair is worse.
"No amount of money can repay these Indians for the years of misery, despair and death which the government policy has inflicted upon them," Kelsey wrote.
He suggested Northern California Indians be allowed to settle small government-owned tracts where they could farm and live while working at other jobs like logging and ranching.
The government began purchasing 50-acre parcels.
In 1925, it bought one north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County near Alexander Valley and Lytton Station roads.
The government encountered only one problem. No Indians wanted to live there.
When Bert Steele and John Wesley Myers moved to the land in 1937, other Indians in nearby Geyserville suddenly tried to claim it.
Problems began almost immediately. The settlers were seen as outsiders.
"Lytton Rancheria: The War in Sonoma County" was how Indian Agent Roy Nash titled a March 1939 memo to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington.
Other Indians protested Steele and Myers' settlement "by petition, arguments and fights, he wrote."
Nash called a meeting among the Indians. It went badly.
"There was loose talk of shooting Steele," Nash reported.
When the Steele children attended school, other students taunted them that the family wouldn't live to drink from wells being drilled on the rancheria.
Nash's memos show that what angered other Indians about Steele was a claim that he had once owned land.
He had sold "60 mostly worthless acres" near Round Valley east of Red Bluff for $40 in the 1920s, Nash wrote to Washington.
Steele "has had his opportunity," members of the Geyserville Band told Nash. Steele had also insulted them, they said.
"He told us that we were degraded people and that we did not know how to handle our own affairs," four members of the Geyserville Band wrote.
Lytton chairwoman Mejia said she never knew of a claim that Steele owned land before settling Lytton Rancheria.
"An Indian owning land would have been almost unheard of," she said. Family lore, she said, which is essentially an oral history, never mentioned Steele owning property. If he had, she said, his descendants would know about it.
Mejia also said she didn't know that Steele and Myers didn't get along, something Nash often wrote about. Apparently, the two disputed how much of the rancheria each was entitled to.
The family history, Mejia said, could also have dropped "bad stories" because hearing about them proved too painful.
The record shows many painful stories.
Somehow, Nash kept a fragile peace, but he acknowledged to Washington that he made a mistake in letting Steele and Myers move to the rancheria.
"I freely admit the tactical error," he wrote. But it wouldn't have been right to force Steele and Myers from the land after they had built cabins on it, he added.
Steele signed on as a Sonoma County constable and stocked his home with firearms.
"He held some minor posts," said James E. Myers, the son of John Wesley Myers. James E. Myers, a retired Navy submariner, lives in Tennessee. He was a child when his family settled the rancheria.
"They like to say Bert was a sheriff, but he wasn't. The things he did were very low paying," he said.
His father found work as a logger and was gone for periods of time.
Both families struggled, living in one-room houses without plumbing. James E. Myers was an only child, but the eight Steele children brought a new generation to the rancheria.
Bert Steele's grandchildren arrived in waves, even as two of his sons left to fight in World War II.
"The girls all married into the Mexican community," James E. Myers said. Sonoma County records show that Steele's offspring bore at least 39 children.
One of the Steele's daughters lost four infants between 1939 and 1943.
On Nov. 24, 1943, Bert Steele was burning a field to clear it, when his clothes caught fire. He died the next day at age 49.
With the family patriarch dead and two sons fighting in the war, life on the rancheria became desperate, James E. Myers said.
"They were in dire straits," he said of the Steeles. "They lived week to week."
Joyce Steele, who today is a member of the Lyttons' tribal council, said the house where the family lived "was just one big room."
Curtains and "old bed spreads" were hung to create something akin to rooms. "There were a lot of people," she said.
The Steele sons survived the war. They came home to poverty, prejudice and death.
"Your family has never made much use of your assignment," the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote to the Steeles in 1946.
Edward Calvin Steele tried to lead the family. Indians Affairs listed him as the family member to whom the rancheria was formally assigned.
The government pointed out in writing when it made the assignment that Edward Steele "naturally ... is not a member of any organized group."
It was the type of declaration that Lytton casino opponents now use to claim that the Steele and Myers families had no tribal structure on the rancheria.
Edward Steele had been wounded in the Pacific during the war and endured a long, painful rehabilitation. The other Steele children eventually complained to Indian Affairs that Edward wasn't doing enough to support them and their widowed mother.
Another Steele son, Daniel, took over the assignment along with his mother.
Edward Calvin Steele was clearing a field on Sept. 1, 1955, when his clothes caught on fire.
His wife, Della, was holding his burned body when an ambulance arrived. He died two days later of burns, like his father had 12 years earlier. The coroner found he had been drinking heavily. He was 41.
According to his obituary, his siblings were living in Santa Rosa -- not on the rancheria -- at the time of his death.
The Myerses still lived there. Government documents show that since 1940, John Wesley Myers had wanted the government to disband the rancheria and give it to the family as its own property.
"We have requested the Bureau of Indian Affairs on many occasions to deed this land to us," he wrote to U.S. Rep. Hubert B. Scudder in January 1957.
That summer, Congress debated just what rancherias were and what to do with them.
The Indians on them "are completely independent of membership or residence in any particular Indian group," a Bureau of Indian Affairs official told a house subcommittee, according to a transcript.
The lands "are not held in trust for any particular Indian or group of Indians."
The next year, shortly after John Wesley Myers died, Congress granted his wish.
"The Indians living at Lytton Rancheria have no tribal organization," a July 1958 congressional report stated. The family approved a plan to end government ownership of the land.
In 1961, Myers' widow, Deloris, and Mary Myers Steele each received a lot. So did six Steele children.
The family owned land.
But within a year of obtaining land of their own, the Steele and Myers families had sold and gone away.
Nearly 30 years later, Congress would pass a law allowing Indians to operate gambling casinos on their own lands.
After the Steeles and Myers left the rancheria, "the family just disintegrated," James E. Myers said.
Tribal leader Mejia described what happened as a broken dream. The Lyttons' position is that the government had promised to improve the property.
The plan noted that there were two wells on the land and that no others were needed. It called for a road that was never built.
Mejia said the government also didn't counsel the family about the responsibilities of land ownership. "They didn't know anything about taxes."
In a letter to the government shortly after her husband's death, Deloris Myers wrote that she was prepared to deal with "all business (and) property taxes. I do not mean to imply that I am not a capable person."
The law called for Indians to receive job training and educational programs to create self-sufficiency. The plan that Steele and Myers approved for their land states that they declined training.
"The government wanted to get out of the Indian business," said Steven Quesenberry, an attorney who later represented the Lyttons and other Indians in their fight for tribal status.
While Congress passed the law requiring land improvements and vocational training, it then failed to fund the programs, Quesenberry said.
"They conducted everything on a shoestring, promising and then not delivering," he said in an interview.
The end of the rancheria is the most shameful and painful period in the Lyttons' history, Mejia said.
Some of the family moved to Crescent City, where they found work in commercial fishing.
Others stayed in Sonoma County.
There was talk at family dinners about what happened to the land and how the government failed to do what it promised.
The Lyttons weren't alone. Other Northern California Indians who had lived on other rancherias also claimed they suffered the same fate.
By the mid-1970s, the Lyttons wanted the government to recognize them as a tribe.
It didn't take long for the government to say no. The Lyttons had voted to dissolve the rancheria, took ownership of it, and then sold the land, a committee of federal bureaucrats found in early 1977.
In the late 1980s, the Lyttons joined a suit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs that charged rancherias had been illegally disbanded.
The Lyttons demanded that the government return the rancheria.
By then, the Alexander Valley had become prime vineyard land. The 50-acre tract was divided among 13 owners.
Those owners argued the government owed the Lyttons nothing. They also found that the Lyttons wanted to acquire adjoining property and build a high-stakes bingo parlor there.
"The Lytton Rancheria was terminated in precisely the manner in which the Lytton Indian Community requested," the landowners' lawyer, Mark Peters, wrote in legal papers.
The issue was never fully decided.
After years of fighting and negotiating, the Lyttons and three other bands agreed to a settlement with government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs would give the Lyttons "individual and collective status ... which they had prior to termination."
The settlement also stated the Lyttons would be a tribal entity consistent with its status prior to termination. When and if the (Lytton) members organize pursuant to federal statute the (government) agrees to recognize them."
It didn't return the rancheria to the Lyttons or give them any other land.
The settlement allowed the federal government to recognize the Lyttons as an Indian tribe - without land.
How the Lyttons acquired Casino San Pablo is an oft-told tale.
The band's leaders had a chance meeting with a well-known Philadelphia developer and politician named Sam Katz. He agreed to help them find land for a casino.
After a failed attempt to build a casino in Napa County, Katz eyed the card room in San Pablo.
But how to obtain it and make it Indian land?
U.S. Rep George Miller, D-Martinez, inserted an order not much longer than Bert Steele's 1937 letter into legislation in 2000 that ordered the Interior Department to make the casino an Indian reservation for the Lyttons.
Card rooms sued to stop and lost twice. In legal papers filed last year, Lytton attorney Tony Cohen wrote, "It is beyond controversy that (the band) has been federally recognized since 1991."
Now the Lyttons stand on the verge of riches that Mejia says they can't imagine.
But the legal questions about the Lyttons and fights over those questions don't appear over.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge David Levi in Sacramento ruled that the government could put the San Pablo land in trust for the band. He noted that a judge has never overturned the federal government's recognition of an Indian tribe and said he doubted the card rooms could win.
But Levi found the settlement that proclaimed the Lyttons a tribe "confusing." He concluded that legal challenges of the Lyttons' status could go forward.
Alan Titus, the attorney for the card room owners opposed to the Lyttons' casino plans, said his clients will likely go back to court.
The rancheria north of Healdsburg was never held in trust specifically for the Lyttons, Titus said. If so, then the government had nothing to restore for the band, he said.
The Lyttons maintain they have a strong legal right to call the rancheria their land, giving the government the right to replace it with Casino San Pablo. The band refused repeated requests to make their attorney available for an interview for this story.
Before any further court fights, state lawmakers will debate the deal Gov. Schwarzenegger and Lyttons reached to put 2,500 slot machines in San Pablo.
The Lyttons say that land is theirs.
This time, Mejia and others insist, they will not give it up.
ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the
Lyttons. Who's castle is that?
WOMAN: King of the who?
ARTHUR: The Lyttons.
WOMAN: Who are the Lyttons?
ARTHUR: Well, we all are. We're all Lyttons and I am your king.
WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an
I, as chief of the Kookielakka Tribe, cordially invite you to join.
Then we'll open a casino.
Only if I get to hire the beverage maids. ;-)
This land is sacred, where our grandfathers prayed to Gitchee Manitou, and no one may desecrate this land....What? Build a casino? Make how many millions a year?
This is trashy land, bunch of old tires laying around. Our ancesters used it to chip flint for spears and threw their garbage there. May as well do something useful with it, like build a casino.
Hmmm....I thought they made microwave ovens.
Once you have just a bit of native blood in your veins; you are native. What really makes you one way or another is how you were raised. Have seen alot of 3/4 white natives that were raised native because their white relatives wouldn't accept them; and saw themselves as true natives.
I wonder how much some of these lower 48 natives actually follow the native way, or are they just opportunists? If I was ask one of the natives where I live what he thought about those lower 48 natives and casinos; he'd probably tell me that those people down there just need money more than us up here, a kick in the face to them
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