In the foggy early morning hours of Wednesday, July 8, special agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration and state and local law enforcement descended on the Pit River Tribe’s XL Ranch and the Alturas Indian Rancheria in northeastern California, seizing 12,000 marijuana plants and 100 pounds of processed pot from the two large-scale growing facilities.
The Alturas Indian Rancheria and the XL Ranch are located on opposite sides of the town of Alturas, California. The tribes that operate them, Alturas and Pit River, are separate federally recognized tribes, but are descended from the same 11 bands of Achumawi- and Atsugewi-speaking peoples that called the region home long before the arrival of white settlers.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has not yet filed any charges against the tribes or individuals related to the raid. The office declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Pit River tribal leaders have declared the raid a violation of their sovereign rights. "We are very disappointed with the decision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as the lead federal agency, to descend on sovereign land with an army of nearly fifty law enforcement officers," Pit River Tribal Chairman Mickey Gemmill Jr. said in a press release. "That the BIA would take such a disrespectful approach to an Indian tribe on its own land is a serious assault to the Tribe’s right to self-governance."
The raid has reignited intense battles over sovereign rights on tribal land, particularly when it comes to the legalization of marijuana. But it’s also a story of two tribes’ conflicted internal politics when it comes to grow operations on tribal land, and of the perilous path faced by tribes looking to legalize pot.
Defiance grows along the banks of the Pit River. It is indigenous to the 11 autonomous bands of the Pit River Tribe. The 1970 film The Dispossessed detailed the Pit River peoples’ struggle to reclaim their land from the United States, California and big business. Another film, Forty-Seven Cents, won an Emmy in 1973 for its depiction of the tribe’s refusal to accept the U.S. government’s paltry offer of 47 cents an acre to each tribal member as repayment for lands stolen in 1853.
Inspired by the iconic occupation of Alcatraz that thrust the political demands of Native Americans into the mainstream, about 100 men, women and children from Pit River took over an area of forest land in a region known as the Four Corners in the summer of 1970, in protest of the Forest Service and Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s ownership of their stolen ancestral land. The occupiers erected a Quonset hut, a type of prefabricated military-surplus structure, and told authorities they’d “have to be killed” in order for law enforcement to tear it down and evict them.
On Oct. 27, 1970, 52 armed police officers and more than 50 Forest Service personnel carrying crowbars came to arrest the protesters in an effort to “break the back” of the tribe’s effort to reclaim their lands. A melee ensued, with Pit River people fighting back with tree limbs, two-by-fours and their bare fists. Dozens of Indians were arrested, but only one was ultimately sentenced. Six years later, Pit River won federal recognition of their sovereign rights.
That fighting spirit has endured over the decades at Pit River. More recently, the tribe has organized to protect their sacred Medicine Lake from geothermal developers. And in the tradition of leaders past, the current tribal chairman Gemmill’s email address includes the unofficial Pit River maxim: “resistanceresistance.”
When it comes to marijuana, the tribe has upheld this tradition of resistance.
The Justice Department released a memo in October 2014 laying out new guidelines about the proper regulatory steps tribes must take if they want to legalize marijuana. Soon after, Pit River and dozens of other tribes moved to legalize the cultivation of medical marijuana on tribal land.
But although the memo provided guidance to tribes seeking to legalize marijuana, it also clearly stated that "nothing herein precludes investigation or prosecution."
The Pit River told authorities they were legalizing marijuana and setting up a farm. At times, they were even cavalier: They set-up the XL Ranch, with 40 brand new greenhouses and the capacity to grow up to 60,000 plants, right alongside Highway 395, a main thoroughfare through town.
"We have been transparent in our conversations with the federal government and made no secret of our intent to exercise our sovereignty in the manner we believe appropriate," Gemmill said in a statement after the raid. "We consulted with the U.S. Attorney’s Office prior to implementing our Ordinance and continued to consult with that office and other government officials throughout its implementation."
Gemmill did not respond to The Huffington Post’s requests for comment beyond the press release.
But others within the tribe thought the council was going too far in calling attention to the operations. "From tribal council it was this arrogance, really thumbing their nose to the Modoc County Sheriff," a source inside the Pit River government, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told The Huffington Post. "They could have put it on the other side of the hill and nobody would have seen it, but they wanted it out in the open. They wanted people to know what they were doing."
While openness of the operations may have made the farms a target for the feds, underlying tribal politics may have been their real downfall.
Among the parties implicated in the search warrant for the raid is Phillip Del Rosa, a member of the Alturas Indian Rancheria. The Alturas is a tiny tribe with only two undisputed members: Phillip and his sister Wendy, descendants of the 40 landless Indians that the Office of Indian Affairs originally placed onto the Alturas Rancheria in 1924.
Wendy is listed as a primary informant in the search warrant for last Wednesday’s raid, which is just the latest installment in an ongoing Del Rosa family drama.
Since 2008, the siblings have been locked in an internal struggle over the tribe and its business ventures, including the Desert Rose Casino, a second casino and failed attempts at cigarette manufacturing. In addition, Wendy has disputed Phillip’s claim to the chairmanship of the Alturas Rancheria. In October of 2013, Wendy accused Phillip of embezzlement and revoked his voting rights. The drama has continued to play out in state and federal courts over the last few years, costing the tiny tribe over $2 million in legal fees, prompting the BIA to withhold $500,000 in federal funding, and leading the California Gambling Control Commission to freeze $550,118 in revenue from the casino.
But Phillip Del Rosa doesn’t appear to be the mastermind behind the marijuana operations. A source within the Pit River government told The Huffington Post it was Indian law attorney John Peebles of the firm Frederick, Peebles & Morgan who brokered the Alturas and Pit River deals, and Canadian investor Jerry Montour, CEO of tobacco corporation Grand River Enterprises, who financed the grow operations. Peebles introduced both Phillip Del Rosa and Pit River representatives to Montour, the source said, facilitating the deal that got both grow operations underway.
Both Peebles and Montour are listed as people of interest in the search warrant for the raid, and the warrant also cites Wendy and several confidential informants as pointing to Peebles and Montour as the central players in both grow operations. Neither Peebles nor Montour responded to requests for comment for this story.
Montour, who is a Mohawk from the Canadian province of Ontario, has been convicted of multiple crimes in Canada, including conspiracy to import marijuana in 1988. And Peebles’ other business dealings include helping online payday lenders avoid state regulations by seeking shelter under the sovereign jurisdictions of Indian reservations (a subject The Huffington Post covered previously).
According to an agenda from a Feb. 24 meeting of the Pit River tribal council obtained by The Huffington Post, eight members of the Pit River tribal council approved an ordinance authorizing the XL Ranch operation. Two members abstained, while Gwen Wolfin, representative of the Atsugewi band, voted against it. The ordinance was ambiguously called a “Non-Profit Association Ordinance,” which the decision’s critics allege was an attempt to cover the council’s tracks.
But tribal members from both Pit River and the Alturas Rancheria now dispute whether those growing facilities received members' approval. In the search warrant for the raid, Wendy Del Rosa alleges that the actions of Phillip Del Rosa and his business partners do not represent the Alturas Rancheria. She claims the operation was opposed by the tribe (or perhaps more accurately, by her and her adopted allies within the tribe), and is quoted as asking authorities to "take all appropriate law enforcement action to close this illegal drug operation and bring those responsible to justice."
A press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office states that the two farms “appear to have been operating in conjunction with each other,” although Pit River leaders dispute this claim. Despite evidence indicating that the same attorney and investor, Peebles and Montour, orchestrated and financed both grow operations, Pit River claimed in a press release that it has "no affiliation with the Alturas Indian Rancheria and is not cooperating with any marijuana cultivation being conducted on the 20 acre Alturas Rancheria."
In the months since the ordinance authorizing the marijuana operation was approved, Pit River members have raised concerns about policing, environmental issues and labor issues at the XL Ranch. "At individual band meetings, members expressed to their council people that they had concerns about the venture," the Pit River government source told The Huffington Post.
"Tribal members who were coming in and out were being profiled, followed and stopped by police," said the source. "The tribe held a 'know your rights' training at one point to inform tribal members about what to say and what not to say to the cops."
Members also raised concerns about the environmental impact of the operations, which were located near the headwaters of the Pit River -- particularly in light of the unprecedented California drought. "When you are talking about 50,000 plants and eight to 10 gallons of water per day per plant, that’s just a lot of water," the source said.
They also raised concerns about labor conditions at the sites, especially after Don Rouse, a 74-year-old member of the Hoopa tribe employed on the ranch, died in early June. Some employees on the ranch said they thought working conditions contributed to his death.
"It was really hot, people didn’t have enough water, there was no adequate restrooms or camping, and no overtime, so they were basically working however long they could stand it," said the Pit River government source.
Gerri McGarva, who worked at the XL Ranch facility and rode to work with Rouse every morning disputed claims about mistreatment. “They let Don have pretty decent jobs for his age,” said McGarva. “If it was so bad, why are his grandkids still out their working? … It was a very good place to work and them guys treated you really good.”
Rouse’s family did not respond to a request for comment on his death.
A job posting on the Pit River website advertises a temporary $15-per-hour job through Pomari-Awte at the XL Ranch. The listing leaves the number of hours open-ended, and does not mention any overtime compensation.
Backlash also seems to be growing among Pit River members who are frustrated with the way tribal council has responded to the raid. “Our people in power that we have elected dropped the ball on us,” said Yogi McGarva, a Pit River tribal member, brother to Gerri and also an employee at the XL Ranch.
The memory of the 1970 Four Corners occupation weighs heavily on his mind, and Yogi is concerned that the tribal council won’t stand up to the federal government for the Pit River peoples’ hard-won rights. “They’re gonna roll over and play dead, like they always do, and get their checks and go on,” he said.
Shortly after the raid, staff of the Pit River Tribe received a directive from tribal council not to speak to the media, according to the government source. Workers at the XL Ranch received a similar gag order, several confirmed to The Huffington Post. And the tribal council passed a motion on July 14 that would suspend without pay any staff or workers who comment on the raid or the marijuana operation to the media or on social media.
It rained hard on the Tuesday night before the raid, and law enforcement rolled in with the fog on Wednesday morning. "They just keep flying around the rez ????" one tribal member posted on Facebook in alarm and confusion at 6:42 that morning.
The raid had clearly been planned some time in advance. The search warrant indicates that federal agents began surveilling the sites in April. “I had been telling people for days that we were being watched by somebody up there,” said the worker, referring to the hill above the XL Ranch.
Law enforcement, dressed in camouflage and wielding Tasers and assault rifles, descended on the ranch at around 7 a.m., according to accounts from the scene. The Pit River Tribe’s press release described the police force that entered tribal land as an "army." One tribal member who worked at the facility and wished to remain anonymous because employees aren’t authorized to talk to the press said "it felt like the cavalry coming in."
"You could see them coming off the hill, all the pickups and everything,” said Gerri McGarva, who was working at the facility that morning. “They said, ‘This is a raid, put your hands up’ before anybody stepped out of the car.”
"At one time I counted 55 law enforcement vehicles with three or four people in each vehicle," said her brother Yogi. "There was 100 to 150 officers down roaming around in there."
Witnesses allege that workers were brutalized by the police, and Pit River tribal members responded with indignation about what they perceived to be a violent invasion of sovereign Indian land.
"They told us to walk through the gates with our arms up, or they would shoot and kill us," said Gerri, who said four people were initially arrested but that the authorities "got a bunch more later."
Gerri alleges that at least one tribal member was hit with a Taser, an account another tribal member repeated on Facebook. The worker who wished to remain anonymous claims to have witnessed two officers beating another worker. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, DEA and Modoc County Sheriff declined to comment on the allegations. Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency “is not aware of any instance of inappropriate conduct by law enforcement during the execution of the judicially authorized search warrants.” But, because of “the ongoing nature of the investigation, we are unable to provide further comment,” she said.
In a press release last Friday, Gemmill expressed outrage over the treatment of tribal members. "This action was especially appalling given that some tribal members were subjected to excessive police force, severely injured and arrested during the search."
Peebles and Montour, the business partners who were identified as persons of interest in the ongoing investigation into the financing and management of the operation, were not at the scene and were not among the workers allegedly hit with Tasers and arrested by the police. According to tribal members, they haven’t been seen since the raid.
“Them lawyers [from Frederick, Peebles & Morgan] should be right here in Alturas defending us in front of the courthouse,” said Yogi.
In the aftermath, one tribal member beseeched the community to rally at the Modoc County Sheriff’s Department in support of brutalized and arrested workers, calling on Facebook for "support of our Native Brother an Sisters for standing for our rights ON OUR OWN LAND. MODOC COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT will be held accountable for their excess force an use of Taser Guns," and using the hashtag #OurLandTakeAStand.
The high-drama raid might just be the result of a big misunderstanding about the legal status of marijuana operations on tribal land. Following the Justice Department’s memo from October, many tribes rushed to legalize marijuana.
"When this memo appeared, everyone was like, ‘Marijuana is legal! Marijuana is legal in Indian Country!" said Lael Echo-Hawk, an attorney at Garvey Schubert Barer and member of the National Indian Cannabis Coalition. "It absolutely is not."
"What that memo said was that tribes need to go talk with the U.S. District Attorney, and the District Attorney can decide whether or not to use his prosecutorial discretion and not prosecute tribes and entrepreneurs as long as they are operating under a robust regulatory scheme, which is what the Department of Justice is requiring all the states to do that are regulating marijuana," explains Echo-Hawk.
Legalizing marijuana, which remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law, requires robust regulations and painstaking care in legal, financial and environmental planning -- details that Alturas and Pit River hop-scotched over in their rush to cash in on the industry.
"[Alturas and Pit River] talked to the U.S. District Attorney, but they didn’t have any non-prosecution agreements," said Echo-Hawk. "They didn’t have any agreements worked out with the sheriff."
There are many considerations tribes must weigh before jumping into the marijuana industry. Although tribes have jurisdiction over their own members on their land, non-tribal members are still subject to state laws. The state also maintains jurisdiction of roads on the reservation -- and, of course, of roads off the reservation, which tribes presumably will use to ship marijuana and production implements.
Water is another issue, as the Bureau of Reclamation has said it will not provide water to legalized marijuana growers, a decision that would extend to tribes.
Echo-Hawk also says tribes could be jeopardizing essential federal funding, and must procure statements from federal departments promising they won’t cut funding if tribes pursue legalization.
For these reasons and others, tribes have generally followed the states they are located within rather than preceding them on the path to legalization. A recent exception to this rule, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, has faced opposition from the state of South Dakota, where marijuana is not legal.
Despite these obstacles, Echo-Hawk believes the medicinal and economic benefits of marijuana and hemp make pursuing legalization in Indian Country a worthwhile endeavor. "It has to be done right," she said. "Every single ‘i’ has to be dotted, every ‘t’ crossed. It’s going to take time to lay the groundwork and put it all in place, and you can’t jump the gun."
But Pit River and Alturas appear to have done just that.
Pit River officials may now be backtracking and pointing fingers about who’s to blame for the raid, but the tribe has remained assertive about what it views to be its sovereign right to cultivate marijuana. It’s the latest act of defiance in a place where defiance is indigenous.
But this time around, the industry that brought law enforcement into Pit River land wasn’t gold, like it was in the 1800s, or natural resources and energy, like it was in the 1970s. After generations of attempts to “civilize” Indians by teaching them to cultivate the land and start their own businesses, it was a farm that brought in the feds again.