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Reservations: Burned Out

Some Native Americans who live on the dozen Indian reservations in eastern San Diego County have not received the same attention as other Californians for their suffering. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles visited the devastated San Pasqual Reservation, where one third of the residents' homes were devoured by flames.

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  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The fire-damaged suburbs of southern California have been in the national spotlight. This week, President Bush came to the outskirts of San Diego to see the devastation.

  • PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    I've has some families here that are obviously crushed by the material loss, and they look forward to rebuilding.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    But one heavily damaged place that hasn't received much public attention is eastern San Diego's back country, home to a dozen affected Indian reservations. The fires killed nine people on or near tribal land. More than 130 buildings on reservations were destroyed, at least 25,000 acres burned. Tribal leaders want to make sure the public hears their story of loss and destruction.

  • WENDY SCHLATER, Chairwoman, La Jolla Tribe:

    The people of America need to understand this is all we have left. We don't have the Great Plains, we don't have the coast. We don't have anything. We have this small acreage of which the government has corralled us on.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The San Pasqual Reservation, where about 500 people live– Indians and non- Indians– was hardest hit by the fire. About a third of its homes– 75 structures– were devoured by the flames. Robert Stewart, a tribal elder, and his grandson Roy, lived on one of the reservation's oldest properties. Their house and trailer burned down.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    So how long did you live here?

  • MAN:

    I lived here mostly all my life.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The Stewarts want to rebuild, but have no idea how they'll get the money. One of their properties, like most of the homes destroyed in Indian country, carried no fire insurance. It was too expensive.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    So what… what next? What are you going to do?

  • MAN:

    Rebuild.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Rebuild.

  • MAN:

    Shoot, yeah. About all we can do is start over again.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Can you afford to do that?

  • MAN:

    Not really. (Laughs) Not really.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The Stewarts say they're thankful for support from their tribe. Native American leaders say they've been proud of tribal self-reliance, thanks in part to a growing gambling economy. Six of the fire-affected tribes operate casinos, but those ventures have not erased poverty. Two tribes with casino resorts provided accommodations and food for people displaced by the fire. At the San Pasqual Community Center, volunteers brought in donations provided by neighboring tribes.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    We've had all the tribes contribute. Even those who lost a lot are contributing. Everybody is pitching in no matter where, what. Wherever I go, I am offered help. I am offered help everyplace.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The donations were also welcomed by non-Indian residents of the reservation and surrounding areas.

  • WOMAN (Translated):

    Everything I had was burned up. I was left with nothing. So I'm here to ask for some help. Maybe I can somehow find a trailer like the one I used to live in.

  • WOMAN:

    …Because there are a lot of kids that have asthma that are…

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    As Alfonzo Orosco helped out here, he was also worried about his grandson who almost died in the fire.

  • ALFONZO OROSCO, San Pasqual Tribe:

    He is in semi-critical condition. They are trying to get his infections down, because he has no skin from here to here. His face is damaged. They had to do some grafting on his face. They think that will be okay.

  • MAN:

    …Putting in together…

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    On Tuesday, representatives of the area's tribes met with federal and state officials to discuss their needs. Tribes will have a hard time rebuilding, said the meeting's organizer, James Fletcher of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

  • JAMES FLETCHER:

    It is very difficult, because a lot of the tribes are much poorer than people would suspect, because not everybody has successful gaming operations or operates large casinos.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    This week, utility crews worked to restore power. Other workers fixed an aqueduct. Firefighters checked on potential hotspots. San Pasqual leaders say, so far, they've been satisfied with the initial response by federal authorities.

  • MAN:

    As a consequence of your request for federal assistance…

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    A representative of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, took a report from the Stewarts. FEMA can offer cash assistance. Allen Lawson is the elected chairman of the San Pasqual tribe.

  • ALLEN LAWSON:

    As far as evaluating and doing all of the paperwork, FEMA is here doing that right now. So they were out here since last Thursday, so they're on top of it. Paperwork is one thing. Actually getting it done, we'll find out, I guess.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Members of a so- called BAER team represent one key element of the federal response. It's a multi-agency task force. Baer stands for the Burned Area Emergency Response program. Experts in water drainage, biology, soil erosion, and archeology came to San Pasqual to survey the damage.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    So after every rainfall, you're… you and your maintenance guys need to come up here and clean these things out.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Oh.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Biologist Chris Holbeck said one of his team's purposes here was to warn about perils the tribe will face in the wake of the fires.

  • CHRIS HOLBECK:

    Some of the things that can happen in the aftermath of a fire are mudslides, debris flows that threaten resources at risk like this road, homes, businesses, infrastructures. There are municipal water supplies that can be threatened. In the aftermath of a fire, often exotic plants invade. They are plants that didn't evolve in this area, and they came from overseas, from Asia, whatnot.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The team will make recommendations for federal grants to assist with flood control and preservation of archeological sites. Tribal member Robert Morales who escorted the BAER team hopes the tribe will emerge from this disaster with more of a sense of unity.

  • ROBERT MORALES:

    I think it's going to make us stronger here on the reservation, and things are going to look a lot better. We just have to learn to work all together, and I think that is going to happen now.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Slot machines, blackjack tables, and video poker will generate some of the cash needed for rebuilding. Casinos are the linchpins of tribal economies. The fire came uncomfortably close to the San Pasqual Casino, forcing it to close down for several days. But when it reopened for business Wednesday, loyal patrons returned in droves.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Welcome back!

  • WOMAN:

    Thank you!

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    Alfonso Orozco, the casino's greeter, was there to welcome them back.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Good to see you, buddy.

  • JEFFREY KAYE:

    The gamblers' return was one first sign of things returning to normal in Indian country.