A decades-old dispute between Bishop Tribal member Ron Napoles and the Bishop Paiute Tribe escalated earlier this month, with assault charges filed against tribal employees, and trespassing citations issued to Napoles and his family members.
Napoles and the tribe have been at odds for years over the ownership of two land allotments on North Pa Ha Lane, south of the Paiute Palace Casino. Recently, the dispute has gone public, with protests, petitions and op-ed pieces in the newspaper.
According to Napoles, the property, Block 3, lots 6 and 7, has been in his family since the tribe began handing out allotments in 1962.
In a statement provided by the Bishop Paiute Tribe, Tribal Chairman Chad Delgado Jr. said that the property in dispute has never been assigned to anyone other than the original landholder, Ida Warlie (Ron’s grandmother), and the Napoles family has no right to the allotment.
Since Warlie’s death, “there has been no legitimate Standard Grant (a document which is issued to a tribal member who is assigned a specific lot of land per the tribe’s Land Ordinance of 1962) and this land remains unassigned to any tribal member,” Delgado said in his statement.
Napoles said that the tribe is misinterpreting its own housing ordinance in an effort to obtain land prime for economic development, despite his family’s claim to it. He explained that his aunt, Geraldine Pasqua, applied for the family’s land in 1977, after Warlie’s death.
That application was approved by the tribe’s Land Assignment Committee, the Tribal Council and the Owens Valley Board of Trustees (a governing body comprised of members of tribes from throughout the Sierra) before the Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the application. The BIA said the application conflicted with the Tribe’s Assignment Ordinance.
That letter was followed in 1984 by another letter from the BIA, stating that “there has been some confusion to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ role in the processing of land assignments pursuant to the Owens Valley Assignment Ordinance. In the past we have signed the assignment document as the approving official, when actually, our role was for ‘review and consideration’ and the Owens Valley Board of Trustees was the approving official.”
Napoles asserts that, with the BIA recognizing that it does not have authority to deny a land application, and with the Owens Valley Board of Trustees having already approved his aunt’s application, the property should belong to his family.
However, no Standard Grant (the title document used by the tribe) was issued to the Napoles family following the BIA decision to bow out of the dispute.
For the tribe’s part, Delgado explained that tribal land is governed by the 1962 Land Ordinance. “This land ordinance clearly states that every eligible tribal member may receive up to two lots of land. This document is and has been a tribal law that governs our reservation lands since 1962 and pre-dates any land application or claims made by the Napoles family,” Delgado said in the tribe’s statement.
Napoles said he understands that the ordinance can be interpreted that way, but, because his grandmother was an original landholder, and applied for the property in the 1940s, prior to the ordinance, he believes that the property is exempt.
The ordinance reads, “In the past (prior to 1962) the size of assignments … generally were determined by the size of the assignee’s family. The assignments were granted for the purpose of providing a home and acreage to aid in supporting a family. The increased demand for assignments and the limited unassigned areas make it necessary to revise the procedure to allow as many as possible to share in the unassigned tribal land.”
Napoles believes the wording in that section of the ordinance means that the land obtained by his grandmother should remain in the Napoles family. He also believes the law Delgado cited that states that tribal members can hold only two allotments applies only to tribal members who applied for land after the 1962 ordinance was passed.
In 1977, the BIA recommended that the tribe rethink the wording in that part of the ordinance, as it could be open for interpretation. “A plain reading of the ordinance indicates that any applicant for trust lands after 1962 should be limited to only two lots,” a letter from the BIA dated Aug. 22, 1977 reads. “If this interpretation is unacceptable to the Owens Valley Band, they should amend the ordinance to more accurately reflect their intent.” The BIA also said that “ongoing family rights to large parcels of land is probably not in the tribe’s best interest.” However, no amendment to the ordinance was ever made to clarify the language.
In a nutshell, the BIA said in 1977 that the ordinance could be interpreted the way Napoles reads it, which is not the original intent of the ordinance.
Napoles, on the other hand, says that, because there was no amendment to the ordinance as directed by the BIA, his interpretation is correct.
Napoles said the dispute has been ongoing since his aunt applied for the land in the ’70s, but came to a head last year when the Tribal Economic Development Corporation began eyeing the property for a casino or other economic development program.
According to Delgado, the Bishop Tribal Council adopted a resolution in 1982, assigning Block 3, lots 6 and 7, to two descendents of Ida Warlie. “These two descendants were grandchildren of Richard Warlie, who is the son of Ida Warlie and the brother of Geraldine Pasqua. The Napoles family throughout the years has attempted to overturn this resolution but has failed every time,” Delgado said. “The current Tribal Council, along with previous Tribal Councils agree that the Napoles family is wrong in this instance. The Tribal Council has upheld this resolution designating these two lots because the descendants have every right to this family land as any other family member.”
Delgado said that several years ago the tribe approached the two family members who hold the Block 3, lots 6 and 7 parcels, asking if they would be interested in exchanging those pieces of property for land elsewhere on the reservation. He said they agreed, and the tribe took control of Block 3, lots 6 and 7 for economic development “and the betterment of the tribe as a whole.” The Napoles family says those two family members never had a legitimate claim to those two parcels in the first place and therefor had no right to trade them away.
Delgado added that in 2007 the Tribal Council also granted two lots across the street from Block 3, lots 6 and 7 to another Napoles family member, Mark Napoles. “Mark Napoles has been assigned these two lots and in fact lives there today in a new HUD home which was built for him last year. Geraldine Pasqua and the rest of the Napoles family continue to argue that she should maintain control of Block 3, lots 6 and 7, so that she could allow her nephew, Mark Napoles, to receive them.”
During a meeting with the Napoles family last year, Delgado said he asked the family if they would be willing to entertain an exchange of Block 3, lots 6 and 7, for the two lots the Tribe had granted to Mark. Delgado says the family refused.
Napoles said there is a stalemate in the dispute, as the federal government can’t get involved due to tribal sovereignty. He said if he were to appeal the Tribe’s decision on any matter, the same body that made the decision would handle the appeal. He said the only way to find a resolution would be to seek a vote of the tribe as a whole, rather than the Tribal Council.