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Protesters of new Quechan casino arrested
Andrade, Calif. - A small protest against the building site of the Quechan Tribe's new casino and resort ended before it began Tuesday, when police arrested organizers prior to the event and dismantled their ceremonial sweat lodge.
The tribe had ordered the protestors to leave on Monday when they began setting up the area.
Priscilla Prettybird, spokeswoman for the handful of protesters, said she's not opposed to the casino project, but insists that the location near the Algodones exit road is a historically important site.
"We're about to lose our legacy," Prettybird said, stressing that the area is rich with ancient tribal artifacts. "It is essentially a Mecca, equivalent to what the Statue of Liberty means to this country."
The Quechan Police Department, assisted by the Imperial County Sheriff's Office, arrested five protesters, including Prettybird, and the sweat lodge was dismantled.
Quechan Tribal President Mike Jackson Sr. said protesters were removed because of safety concerns and to allow construction workers to continue to prepare the site for a ceremonial groundbreaking planned for Thursday morning.
"We respect their right as tribal members to protest the project and exercise their right to free speech, just not on a construction site," Jackson said. "We don't want anyone hurt."
Prettybird said they planned to hold a protest Tuesday afternoon, then remain at the site as "silent reminders" through Thursday's ceremony "to remind tribal leaders that we disapprove of what's being done."
The casino and resort, a $200 million project, will be located just south of Interstate 8 off the Algodones exit road on tribal trust land within the Fort Yuma Reservation.
Prettybird said she became concerned about the casino project as a member of the tribal cultural committee. "The full body of the committee didn't approve the project. I'm afraid, but someone needs to speak up. Why couldn't they sit and talk with me before this?"
After being released from custody, Prettybird spoke briefly about being arrested. "It was very sad because of the fact it came from my people. It was sad that this came from tribal leaders who should know that when tribal members are on that land to conduct ceremony you are not to touch it."
She described a sweat lodge, where a fire is built in a shelter to create extreme heat. It is an ancient ceremonial tradition of the Quechan and many other American Indian tribes.
Prettybird said the casino site "is a prehistoric ceremonial site where five tribes annually met. In addition, it contains the cremated remains of the tribe's ancestors, she said, as well as sleeping circles and artifacts important to the Quechan tradition.
"The tribal people are here to have a traditional ceremony before desecration of the historic site," she said earlier in the day.
Jackson, however, said that the land already had been blessed by tribal members last week in a traditional ceremony.
Furthermore, he said, "We have a plan to protect the artifacts. A comprehensive cultural and archeological study was conducted of the site. There are some sites we know to be there and we're taking steps to protect them."
On Monday, a letter from the Quechan Tribal Council was delivered to the Prettybird family ordering the protesters "to cease and desist from further entering, constructing and trespassing on tribal property, more specifically, the tribal lands designated for the construction of the Quechan Casino Resort," listing "safety, liability, insurance and construction problems."
The letter also ordered the protesters to "immediately dismantle and remove sweat lodge and ramada structures erected by your party."
If they failed to do so, the letter stated, the tribe would remove the structures Tuesday.
Despite the order, Prettybird and a handful of others continued to occupy the site.
"This is the last time we'll be able to pray on the land," said Ticky Smith, a Quechan bird singer and Prettybird's nephew. "As a bird singer, my songs are in these mountains," he said, pointing to Pilot Knob.
"That mountain is a medicine mountain of the people," Prettybird said of Pilot Knob. "It has a very strong spiritual feeling."
Smith said he was participating in the protest "for my personal spiritual reasons and for my sons." That was to include one last ceremony in the sweat lodge - "my church."
Quechan Chief Judge Claudette White explained that the matter of public access to tribal land often becomes a confusing issue because the land may also fall under the authority of other governments, such as the states of Arizona or California. There is the question of whether or not a person wanting access to tribal land is in fact a registered tribal member, she said.
White stressed that access to public lands - tribal or not - are often regulated or overseen by the government.
"Even with public lands under the state or federal government, the public may not always have the right to access it," the judge said. "Take, for example, public use permits or curfews at public parks."
Prettybird said she will attend Thursday's ceremony, but does not plan to officially protest.
"I'll be there - hopefully - if they stop harassing us," she said.
WHO IS PRISCILLA PRETTYBIRD?
-Background - Tribal member born and raised on the Quechan reservation
-Language - Grew up speaking the native Quechan language
-Age - 56
-Family - Four children
-Work - Nurse for 18 years, student paralegal and current assistant administrator for Workforce Development Act/Department of Labor training program.
-Service - Member of the tribe's four-person cultural committee.
-Candidacy - Running for president in Tuesday's tribal election.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853. Darin Fenger also contributed to this report. He can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6860.