California First Nations are suffering greatly as a result of the recent wildfires which torched Souther California.  Despite the media images of multimilion dollar residences in ashes, not all those who lost everything live in these types of architectural gems.

Please take a few minutes to learn about an often overlooked segment of Californian life and donate if you're able.

In Scorched Hills, Tribes Feel Bereft and Forgotten

November 5, 2003

SAN PASQUAL INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif., Nov. 4 - The indigenous people who live in the hills of San Diego County hold to an old philosophy: Fire takes what it wants, floods take what is left and nothing lives long except the mountains.

"We've been living with fire forever," said Juana Majel-Dixon, a Pauma Indian. "The rain will come soon and there will be more suffering, but we'll get through it. Indian people always do."

While the nation's eyes were fixed on images of endangered resort towns and wealthy suburbs, it has nearly gone by the boards that Indian territory was hit inordinately hard by the recent wildfires.

With the last of the flames all but extinguished, the statistics of San Diego's major fires, the Paradise and the Cedar, are staggering: nearly 340,000 acres burned, 16 dead, more than 2,337 homes destroyed. While Indians are few in number, there are 18 reservations throughout the county with an estimated 6,200 people, located in what was once inaccessible scrub unsuited for farming.

The reservations are now the outer edges of the suburban sprawl and fire officials estimate that 10 percent of the total land burned was Indian country, with three reservations completely scorched and a handful of others severely damaged.

Hardest hit was the San Pasqual reservation, about 35 miles north of San Diego. Its entire 1,400 acres were burned, as were more than a third of its homes, mostly uninsured trailers and prefabricated units. Two local people died trying to escape the inferno; two others died on the Barona reservation to the south.

"Fire doesn't know city limits or reservation boundaries," said Allen E. Lawson, the San Pasqual tribal chairman. "It doesn't discriminate on the basis of skin color or wealth."

Indeed, much of the territory has been reduced to little more than cigarette tailings, bedsprings and auto carcasses.

Acres of manzanita resemble stickmen, the water canal is parched and the leaves on the oak trees are as hard as playing cards.

The reservation's casino, the sole engine of economic life here, escaped major damage. Just a wall and four slot machines were destroyed, and signs dot the reservation thanking firefighters for their efforts.

A few miles to the north, the Rincon reservation was 75 percent burned, with more than 20 homes lost. On the Barona reservation, home of one of the state's most successful casinos, two people died and 47 homes were lost, but the casino was spared.

In all, 14 reservations were affected.

Rumors run rampant here. While fire officials believe that a lost hunter started the Cedar fire to the south, there is no explanation for the Paradise fire, which started behind the Rincon Casino and destroyed more than 56,000 acres and 117 homes.

A report is circulating among Indians that a white may have started the blaze, someone who harbored bad feelings against Indians after the recent election that led to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.

During the campaign, Indian tribes donated millions of dollars to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and a lesser amount to Governor Davis. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to be elected governor, criticized Indians as the type of special interests that had hamstrung state government.

"No one wants to say this was set to take out Indian country," said Michele Nelson, a council member of the Rincon Indian Nation. "But you've got to wonder with all the bad feelings around here about the recall. We got calls during the fire saying, `That's what you Indians deserve.' "

President Bush surveyed the devastation by helicopter on Tuesday with Governor Davis and Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is scheduled to become governor on Nov. 17. They met with local officials, including some Indian leaders, allaying fears among Indians that their needs would be ignored.

"We feel like we were on our own," said Ms. Nelson of the Rincon Indian Nation. "There are some hard feelings that linger around here."

While Governor Davis and Mr. Schwarzenegger have toured some of the devastation across the state, neither has set foot on Indian lands since the fires broke out.

Mr. Lawson, the San Pasqual chairman, was among the Indian leaders invited to speak with the president on Tuesday. He said he planned to present a wish list to Mr. Bush and explain that most people from his reservation who were burned out were not insured and lived on trust land.

Frances Jones is one such person. At 94, she is the oldest member of the San Pasqual tribe. When she saw the fires racing up the hill toward her trailer, she grabbed her keys, purse and a sweater and drove away. In 15 minutes her home was gone.

"I never thought there would be a fire like this in all my life," Mrs. Jones said. "Then again, I never thought I'd live this long."

Dressed in borrowed clothes, Mrs. Jones said she felt fortunate. She is alive and is staying nearby with a friend. "My daughter wants me to come to Los Angeles with her," she said. "But that's the last place I'd ever want to live."

The inevitable complaining about how much could have been done or done differently has begun. To a person, private citizens thank the firefighters for their efforts, but have accused Governor Davis of being too slow in responding to the fires. They also complain about nearby military equipment and personnel sitting idle, and the decision to ground a sheriff's pilot because of darkness just minutes before he was to dump water on the fledgling Cedar fire.

Indian leaders also contend that too little attention is being paid to the situation of their people.

"All the attention is being paid to Scripps Ranch and those million-dollar homes," said Bobby Barrett, vice president of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Whether they lost a mansion or a trailer, he said, people are equal when they are homeless.

Audrey Toler, 76, a Pasqual Indian who stood shoeless in a burning field while the reservation burned around her, said it was better to concentrate on the positive.

"I'm happy to be alive," she said. "People should think about that."

Steven Lovett, a member of the Pasqual tribe, remains in a San Diego hospital, struggling with an infection and the likely loss of his ears. Mr. Lovett, a Navy corpsman who returned from Iraq in August, was severely burned after he managed to get a young woman safely to a hilltop before he was enveloped in flames. The woman's sister died in her car just down the road.

"He's awake and talking," said Mr. Lovett's aunt, Marilyn Lycett. "He says he feels bad because he couldn't save the other girl. He is a good, young man."

IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Below are the details and information on the Disaster Relief Fund for Tribes that the Executive Committee directed be created to assist tribes affected by the wild fires in Southern CA. We are aware that many calls of interest have been received on how people might be able to help the tribal communities.

Contribution checks should be made out to:
The Disaster Relief Fund for Tribes

Checks should be mailed to:
Borrego Springs Bank
ATTN: Joanne McBride
7777 Alvarado Road, Suite 114
La Mesa, CA 91941