The Blood of the Tigua
Officially, the issue tearing apart the West Texas' largest native American tribe is one of lineage. Who is and is not a member. But the real dispute is over money—earned in unimaginable amounds at the casino on their reservation and coveted by rival factions willing to risk everything.
ON THE EASTERNMOST EDGE OF EL PASO, where the city gives way to the barren flats of the Chihuahuan Desert, the place once known as El Barrio de los Indios shimmers along the border after dusk, its casino resplendent in gaudy electric signs and antler chandeliers, reverberating with the sound of money. One can hear it any time of day, drifting out toward the Tigua Indian reservation: the relentless bells of slot machines and the shuffling of cards, the staccato patter of the number caller in the bingo hall, the coins rattling against metal. To see the casino at full tilt is to marvel at the resiliency of a tribe that has persisted, despite all odds, for the past three centuries—and to marvel at the blind faith of its neighbors, who are drawn there, night after night, on the strength of possibility. They jangle the change in their pockets in jittery anticipation as they walk up Old Pueblo Road: sunburned tourists in string ties and Juárez businessmen in guayaberas, retirees and office girls and Mexican day laborers, grandmothers clutching bingo markers and good-luck charms, young men wearing ironed Wranglers and cocksure grins beneath their black cowboy hats. They file past the seventeenth-century mission church—whose small bronze plaque reads, “For the civilizing and Christianizing of the Tigua Indians”—and into the casino next door, where they reach for their wallets and head for the card tables, invariably leaving behind hundreds of thousands of dollars a night.
The parade of gamblers and fortune seekers has transformed the long-beleaguered Tigua tribe into a West Texas empire, one whose casino generates, by the most conservative of estimates, a $60 million tax-free windfall each year. It is a staggering reversal of fortune, an upset in power unprecedented in this corner of the state, where even the most destitute of Mexican Americans have long regarded the Indians in their midst with contempt. Only a generation ago, the Tigua were living in mud huts that they lit with kerosene lamps, scavenging food from the city dump, and walking the streets of El Paso barefoot. Now flush with casino cash, they have become the most dynamic political force in West Texas, contributing lavishly to political campaigns and filing a slew of lawsuits aimed at increasing the tribe’s wealth and sphere of influence. Their ambitions have resulted in a fight with the federal government over the title to the better part of six West Texas counties, as well as a $4 billion lawsuit against the State of Texas seeking back rent on land within the city of El Paso, land which the Tigua believe they rightfully own. “People used to look at us and say, ‘los indios,’” explains the tribe’s governor, Vince Muñoz, trying to convey the revulsion with which those words were usually delivered. “But now,” he says, smiling broadly and gesturing around his office—an executive suite outfitted with marble floors—“everyone wants to be a Tigua.”
Such power and prosperity should be a source of celebration for the tribe, but when I first visited the reservation, on a mild winter evening this past February, it was clear that the Tigua’s good fortune had brought upon them a new kind of despair. I arrived just as a longstanding intertribal feud had reached its breaking point: Three blocks from the casino, tribal police officers armed with shotguns were pulling dozens of tribe members from their homes, leading them in handcuffs to the reservation’s edge, and ordering them never to return. This was officially a fight over Indian blood—who had it and who didn’t—but it was, at its heart, a fight for the soul of the tribe, which some believe has been corrupted by sudden, wild wealth. “Our traditional way of life has disappeared,” laments Marty Silvas, the tribe’s banished war captain, the keeper of traditions, who hid the Tigua’s sacred drum in protest, instigating what has become, literally, a blood feud. “The elders can’t speak their mind, there is no respect for traditions, people are paid to dance. There was once a connection between all of us because we were fighting for a just cause. Now we are being ruined by greed.”
IT WAS GOLD, OR RATHER CORONADO’S VAIN SEARCH FOR IT, that first brought the Tigua in contact with the world of their conquerors. Lured by travelers’ stories of the Seven Cities of Cíbola—a mythic empire paved with gold, where sapphires and rubies were so plentiful that they served as children’s playthings—Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his caravan of soldiers traveled in 1540 from Mexico to the province of Tiguex, in what is now northern New Mexico. There he discovered the Tigua, who a subsequent sixteenth-century explorer described as “handsome and fair-skinned” people who were “willing to serve.” The Tigua are believed to be descended from the Anasazi, whose spectacular ruins lie in Chaco Canyon and other sites in the Four Corners region. Like other Pueblo Indians, they crafted fine pottery and irrigated their farmland and lived in three- and four-story adobe dwellings along the Rio Grande. The Tigua’s traditional way of life came to an end when Don Juan de Oñate arrived in 1598 with a mandate from the viceroy of Mexico to colonize the Southwest, initiating a reign of brute force; Indians who did not submit to Spanish rule or to Catholicism were punished with maiming or death. The Indians revolted against the Spanish in 1680, mockingly singing the Latin liturgy as they attacked the governor’s palace in Santa Fe and driving their colonizers off their land. But rather than rejoicing when Spanish soldiers and their Franciscan padres retreated southward along the Rio Grande, 317 Tigua accompanied them. Whether they traveled as unwilling refugees or as traitors to the Pueblo Revolt is uncertain, but these Tigua were long regarded as brujos—witches—by other Indian tribes for their perceived betrayal.
The Spanish settled with the Tigua a few miles east of present-day El Paso in a place they called Ysleta del Sur, or Island of the South, after the pueblo named Isleta that the tribe had left behind. Forced into labor, the Tigua built a mission church out of reeds and cottonwood branches that they covered with mud and which they later fortified with logs and sun-dried adobe. The tribe made the desert bloom, digging canals whose water brought forth fields of wheat and corn and spectacular gardens and vineyards that produced pears, figs, and wine grapes. For their service, King Charles V gave them title in 1751 to a 36-square-mile area that much of eastern El Paso occupies today. Ysleta del Sur came under Texas rule in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; less than thirty years later, when the Texas Legislature allowed towns such as El Paso to give public lands to homesteaders, settlers quickly seized the tribe’s fertile farmland. “[My grandfather] said a white man rode up on a horse and showed him a piece of paper,” former Tigua governor Miguel Pedraza told the El Paso Times before his death. “He said the city had given him this piece of land and he ordered my grandfather off.” By the turn of the century the Tigua had only 66 acres left in their possession. They eked out a living working for their neighbors, picking cotton from the fields that they had once owned.
Some tribe members moved elsewhere in search of opportunity; many intermarried with Mexican Americans, preferring to disclaim their heritage rather than suffer the slights of neighbors. By mid-century most anthropologists and historians believed that the tribe had vanished. The Indians of Texas, the definitive text on the subject, devotes only one sentence to the Tigua in its 404 pages, observing that they “were thoroughly Mexicanized by the beginning of the twentieth century and are presumably extinct in a cultural sense.” In fact the Tigua continued to practice many of their native customs past the turn of the century, but tribal elders who struggled to keep traditions alive felt a sense of fatalism about the tribe’s future. “Our race soon will be forgotten because the children of our children are not interested in perpetuating tradition,” Chief Domasio Colmenero remarked to a newspaper reporter in 1931. “A few more years will come and go. Then, we will be no more. Time is pressing us all.” By the 1960’s, when a student anthropological linguist named Jerry Gathings visited the Tigua, there were few remnants of Indian culture left to observe. “I was witnessing the final days of a moribund culture,” he remembers. “Only a few people identified themselves as Indians, and virtually no one knew the language.” Gathings recorded three elders speaking some broken Tiwa, the tribe’s native language, and then traveled to the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico to play the tape for the Tiwa speakers who still resided there. “The chief and the elders listened to the tape and agreed that it was Tiwa being spoken,” remembers Gathings, who now teaches at El Paso Community College, “but they found it difficult to understand. The chief said, ‘It sounds like F Troop.’”
If not for 77-year-old El Paso attorney Tom Diamond, the tribe would most likely have ceased to exist. “There is a saying in El Paso,” says James Speer, the counsel for the local water utility that the tribe is currently suing, “God created the world, but Tom Diamond created the Tigua Indians.” In the mid-sixties Diamond was urged by a friend who was familiar with the tribe’s dire living conditions to seek economic support for the Tigua from the Texas Legislature. He initially approached the task with some reluctance since he was skeptical about the tribe’s ancestral claims. “But I went down there with an anthropologist friend of mine, Bernard Fontana, and he said the chief’s house was the finest Indian museum he’d ever seen. That was enough for me. Of course, I had to get a white man to tell me they were Indians!” Diamond roars. Suspicions about the tribe’s authenticity did not prove to be a hurdle in winning state recognition, since Diamond, then the chairman of El Paso County’s Democratic Committee, was able to persuade the state’s most powerful politicians to take up the Tigua’s cause. Then Congress had to be convinced as well. “[U.S. senator] Ralph Yarborough took a bottle of whiskey to one congressman who was reluctant to vote for the bill. They stayed up all night talking and drinking, and by the time the sun came up, Yarborough had his vote,” Diamond recalls with a throaty laugh. “Whiskey was a very important part of winning the Tigua their recognition.” Texas assumed guardianship of the tribe in 1967, and twenty years later, when state funds for Indian tribes began to run low, Diamond sought, and then won, federal recognition for the Tigua—transforming their sliver of land into a sovereign nation.
Such backroom politics have earned the Tigua a measure of distrust in El Paso, where some residents believe that tribe members are simply Mexican Americans masquerading as Indians for the sake of federal entitlements: “Mestizos with good lawyers,” in the words of one local attorney. Most of the adults I met on the reservation were only one-eighth Tigua, their Indian features so blurred by generations of Mexican American parentage that they were indistinguishable from their neighbors. Under federal law, anyone who is at least one-eighth Tigua—that is, descended from one great-grandparent who was full-blooded—is recognized as a member of the tribe, though the Tigua are trying to pass legislation that would lower the blood quantum to one-sixteenth, so that their children can reap the same financial benefits. The 1,282-member tribe is by no means exceptional for its diluted Indian blood; the Cherokee Nation, for example, has no blood quantum requirement and includes anyone who can demonstrate even the most distant of lineal connections to the tribe. Cynics may dismiss the Tigua as opportunists, and there is no doubt that there are those among the tribe—the “program Indians,” as they are called on the reservation—who are interested solely in financial benefits. But after talking with many tribe members, I was struck by their tremendous and seemingly genuine pride in their Indian ancestry, no matter how remote. The blood quantum, some suggested, is an insulting colonial artifact that bears little relevance to their lives. “You have full-blooded Tigua who know nothing about tradition, and you have people with one-sixteenth Tigua blood who have such reverence for the old ways,” one man explained to me. “So how do you determine who is a ‘real’ Tigua and who is not?”
THE MAN LARGELY RESPONSIBLE FOR bringing gambling to the reservation—and, his critics would say, for the discord that has followed—is Vince Muñoz, the 48-year-old governor of the tribe, who has helped transform the barrio into a thriving economic center. It measures just one tenth of a square mile and still shows remnants of the tribe’s streak of hard luck: the abandoned mud jacals; the walled-in cemetery with fallen wooden crosses; the dirt lot where, if one looks closely enough, one can see hundreds of old pottery shards lying among the broken beer bottles. More visible than the signs of a dying culture, however, are the signs of a rejuvenated one. Old Pueblo Road, once a desolate spot where outsiders dared not venture, is now a busy, palm tree—lined street that is home to the casino, the tribal council’s offices, an upscale restaurant, and Running Bear Gas Station—the first of the Tigua’s new chain of convenience stores, whose logo features a grinning cartoon Indian clad in buckskins and yellow moccasins, sprinting with a gas pump in his hand. Three blocks away lies the tribe’s housing development: a subdivision of modern adobe homes shaded by juniper trees and mesquite, with a few scattered hornos, or beehive ovens, for baking Indian bread. The new tribal courthouse and police station, both spacious adobe buildings with pine floors and sweeping Western landscape paintings, sit across the street, and down the road lies the Tigua Cultural Center: a collection of souvenir shops arranged around a shaded courtyard where young tribe members don feathers and moccasins on weekends, performing the Fancy War Dance for white tourists who snap photographs and clap delightedly at the natives in their midst.
Muñoz’s carefully maintained sweep of black hair and magnanimous smile are signs of a new type of Tigua leadership—one that is sophisticated, media-savvy, and above all, outwardly welcoming of the white man’s world. Descended from one of the tribe’s great chiefs, Muñoz, like many of his contemporaries, speaks little Tiwa and is only one-eighth Tigua by birth. Though he has effortlessly transformed himself into a polished player of big-league politics, he still remembers a time in El Barrio de los Indios when he went barefoot to preserve his one pair of shoes for school. “We didn’t have shoes, we didn’t have clothes. Two pairs of pants were a luxury,” says Muñoz, wearing a tailored navy-blue suit and a diamond-studded gold ring, as he sits in his well-appointed office with a view of the casino. “We had no running water, no food. My mother worked in the cafeteria at the public schools, and it was a treat when she brought home something to eat. When I was very young, I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to live like this for the rest of my life.’” At the age of eleven Muñoz tried his hand at entrepreneurship, opening a makeshift snow cone stand next to a popular baseball diamond in the neighborhood; he shaved ice off a block and flavored it with fruit juice, selling cones for 10 cents apiece, and soon turned a profit. After a four-year stint in the Navy following high school, he returned to the reservation in 1974 and opened a cafe in the tribe’s new cultural center. It flourished, and in the mid-eighties, when he opened another successful restaurant, this one with a wine list and linen tablecloths, he quickly ascended to the top tier of tribal leadership.
By the early nineties, over the objections of some tribal elders, Muñoz argued that bringing a casino to the reservation would ensure self-sufficiency for the tribe. Congress had passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act a few years earlier, opening the door for tribes to negotiate gaming compacts with their respective states. In 1993 Ann Richards spurned the Tigua’s requests for a casino, but the tribe pressed forward anyway, opening a large bingo hall on the reservation later that year, and soon adding poker and blackjack, pull-tabs, and in November 1996, slot machines. Muñoz became the gaming commissioner of Speaking Rock Casino, and under his leadership the tribe would assume full control; Seven Circle Resorts, the Swedish company that loaned the Tigua start-up money and taught them the gaming business, was cut out of the management team following a disagreement over the tribe’s decision to add slot machines. Muñoz paid out the five-year, $8.2 million management contract in only six months. “They were shocked,” he recalls with evident pride, “because they realized that they had lost a very good investment.” Precisely how good of an investment Speaking Rock is remains a mystery, since there is no external oversight of the casino. Only Tigua are privy to the books, and when pressed for specific figures, tribal council members just smile obliquely. Most of its profits are reinvested or put into trust for the future; in the present, they provide salaries, subsidized housing, free health care, tuition for college, and an annual stipend for each Tigua that amounted to $15,000 last year—one reason Muñoz often refers to Speaking Rock as “the new buffalo.”
The casino is nevertheless a risky venture, given the state’s opposition; the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1994 that the law that granted the Tigua federal recognition explicitly prohibits any gambling on the Tigua reservation that is also prohibited in Texas and therefore takes precedence over other federal statutes that allow Indian gaming. But Muñoz has confidence in Tom Diamond’s interpretation of Indian gaming laws: Any state that allows a particular form of gambling cannot prohibit tribes from practicing the same form of gambling on their reservations. “The Texas lottery is a giant slot machine with ten thousand terminals around the state,” says Diamond. “People pay money to play, and a random number generator determines whether or not they’re winners. All we’re doing at Speaking Rock is mimicking what the state has been doing for years.” Thus far, the authorities have been reluctant to press their case. Last spring Governor Bush asked then—attorney general Dan Morales to shut down the casino—“You are in violation of our law,” Bush told the tribe through reporters—but he quickly fell silent on the subject when the Tigua sued him for slander. (The case was later dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.) Morales’ office declined to sue the Tigua, saying that the casino was under federal jurisdiction; meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Antonio declared that it was state, not federal, authorities who had the prerogative to pursue the case. Thus far, Attorney General John Cornyn has taken no action. It is a wildly lucky, if precarious, legal loophole for the tribe, which now operates a casino that is arguably illegal but which seems in no imminent danger of being shut down.
In the meantime, Muñoz has epic plans for the tribe’s future. The tribal council, which he directs, is currently weighing proposals for building a luxury hotel on Interstate 10, a wind-generated energy plant on the Sierra Viejo escarpment, and a cowboys-and-Indians-themed dude ranch in West Texas for European tourists. There is also a new Tigua-owned oil and gas trucking business, Big Bear Oil, and there are plans to open 25 Running Bear gas stations around El Paso with adjacent, tax-free smoke shops. The construction of a $40 million Tigua housing development, which will include luxury homes and an Olympic-size pool, is already under way, as is a public relations campaign to revamp the tribe’s image and highlight the $3 million it has given to local causes. Most significant, however, is the Tigua’s newfound sense of manifest destiny, which has resulted in nearly a dozen lawsuits over land and water rights, as well as the purchase of the Chilicote Ranch in Valentine: a 68,000-acre spread that sits atop El Paso’s contingency water supply. Because of Tigua lawsuits seeking control of the city’s irrigation ditches, which the tribe claims its ancestors dug, and of the city’s water reserves in New Mexico, some city officials believe that the tribe is positioning for control of the Rio Grande—and ultimately, for El Paso’s supply of drinking water. Muñoz denies such speculations, though his ambitions for the tribe have sparked controversy. El Paso’s mayor, Carlos Ramirez, took the Tigua to task during the mayoral election this spring; “El Paso,” stated one full-page newspaper ad criticizing the tribe’s prodigious campaign contributions, “Is Not for Sale.”
As the casino has exerted a greater hold on the tribe over the past several years, the Tigua’s aging chief, Santos Sanchez, has become a mere figurehead, and Muñoz has moved center stage. Although Sanchez is the tribe’s spiritual guide and its absolute authority until death, I rarely heard his name mentioned on the reservation, and I saw him only once, in passing. Muñoz, on the other hand, has ascended in political prominence as the casino has grown in economic power. Once an elected official who oversaw the tribe’s day-to-day operations and the council, the tribal governor now also directs the casino, and by extension the Tigua’s fortunes. “The governor,” says Marty Silvas, “now has more power than the chief himself.”
MARTY SILVAS LIVES ONLY A FEW paces from the reservation, next to the cemetery’s fallen crosses, in a modest home whose walls are lined with eagle feathers, ceremonial drums, and the remnants of a culture in which he is no longer welcome. He has a fierce gaze, the intensity of which is difficult to meet for long, and his deep brown skin, heavy features, and jet-black hair are unmistakably of Indian origin, though he too is only one-eighth Tigua. Tattooed across his chest is the tribe’s most revered icon, a pictograph from its sacred grounds at Hueco Tanks of an arrow pointing northward, encircled by the sun; it is also, much to Silvas’ displeasure, stamped on every brass coin that comes out of Speaking Rock’s slot machines. “It is not meant as decoration for coins or the tribal council’s fourteen-karat gold tie clips,” he says indignantly. “It is a sacred symbol.”
As a boy growing up in El Barrio de los Indios, he learned from the elders how to play the juanchido, or sacred drum, practicing by thumping on hollow oil cans; in 1990, when he was only 27 years old, he became the war captain, or the safekeeper of the drum, an honor that had never been bestowed on a tribe member so young. The juanchido, or “one who speaks with great thunder,” is the tribe’s most sacred relic, brought by the Tigua to El Paso del Norte in 1680. Believed to be a living entity, it is fed dried corn and tobacco through a small hole on its side; it is also consulted on weighty matters, since it is thought to be a means of communication with the tribe’s ancestors. But for the past five years, Silvas had hidden the drum—the “soul of the pueblo,” in the words of Vince Muñoz—despite the tribal council’s pleas for its return and a reward that eventually reached $1 million.
The feud between Silvas and the tribal council began soon after the Tigua opened their bingo hall in 1993, when tribal leaders began jockeying for control of the money flowing into the tribe’s coffers. During a heated argument over whether Marty Silvas’ brother Manny—then the tribe’s lieutenant governor, who was accused of misappropriating $70,000 in tribal funds—should be allowed to run for re-election the following year, Enrique Paiz, who was then chief of the tribe, stood behind Silvas. (The charges against Manny Silvas had not been proven, argued Paiz.) The tribal council promptly stripped Paiz of his office. “The chief is the ultimate authority, and everyone must respect his authority,” says Marty Silvas. “No one had ever thrown a chief out, ever. It was unthinkable.” Outraged, Silvas demanded that the tribal council step down; the juanchido, he said, would remain hidden until they resigned. They refused, and the following June, when the tribe massed in front of the mission church to celebrate its most sacred holiday, the Feast of Saint Anthony, the drum was absent; Silvas, along with the ousted chief and a large group of their supporters, had taken it to the tribe’s sacred grounds in Hueco Tanks to perform an alternate ceremony. This infuriated the tribal council, which pronounced the event a “sacrilege,” and in May 1996, when Silvas again refused to participate in the preparations for the Feast of Saint Anthony, he was taken off the tribal rolls and thrown off the reservation.
“The tribal police came to my house with guns drawn,” he recalls. “They threw my eagle feathers and my ceremonial clothes on the floor, and they pointed their guns at me and demanded that I tell them where the drum was. I refused, and they put me in the back seat of a police car and drove me to Socorro Road. They said, ‘You’re no longer part of these people. You don’t belong here anymore.’”
The tribe’s loyalties were soon split between those who supported Marty Silvas and those who stood by the tribal council; the divide was so deep that at Ysleta High School, teenagers whose families fell on opposite sides of the rift refused to speak to each another. Soon after Silvas was kicked off the reservation, the council—now led by Vince Muñoz, who was voted in as governor on New Year’s Eve, 1995—held a reservation-wide meeting, where it was announced that tribe members’ blood quantums would be rechecked for accuracy. The tribe voted in favor of the measure, but Silvas’ supporters felt uneasy; they worried that the tribal council, enraged over their perceived disloyalty, had devised an elaborate ruse to expel them from the tribe.
Of the hundreds of tribe members whose heritage would be questioned, 46-year-old Grace Vela was an unlikely candidate; she had lived on the reservation for eighteen years and had worked there since 1977, directing many of the tribe’s social service programs. Her mother, 68-year-old Natalia Lopez, was the godchild of the revered Tigua chief Mariano Colmenero and had grown up in a small adobe house shaded by pomegranate trees in a part of east El Paso that later became reservation land. Vela was included in the tribal rolls when they were first compiled in 1967; twenty years later, when the Tigua received federal recognition, she was again listed in the tribal rolls—a register that the Texas Indian Commission had spent seven years researching and described as “the most thorough, exhaustive, and complete determination of who is and who can legitimately be considered a Tigua.” Yet in 1997 Vela, her mother, and their extended family received certified letters stating that the tribal council’s census department had determined that they lacked Indian blood. “After so many years with the tribe,” Vela’s mother told me, “I was sick.”
At first, Vela thought she could persuade the census department that it had made a terrible mistake. She began an exhaustive search into her family’s background, and after months of combing through documents in El Paso and Juárez, she found what she believes is conclusive proof of her family’s Tigua ancestry, most compelling a 1873 Tigua land survey headed “We the Indians” that was signed by her great-great-grandfather and a 1895 tribal compact signed by her great-great-grandmother’s brother. The tribal census department, however, rejected her claims, arguing that such paperwork did not establish ancestors’ blood quantums, or for that matter, Indianness all, since Mexicans may have also signed them. “These documents are the very same documents that other tribe members have used to confirm their Tigua lineage,” Vela fumes. “Our ancestors’ names are written right next to their ancestors’ names on the page. I am still recognized as an Indian by the federal government, but not by my own tribe.” She began to suspect that the real issue was not one of bloodlines, but of a blood feud: Her family had opposed the tribal council in past elections, and her brother was a friend of Marty Silvas’. They stood in the way, Vela contends, of the tribal council’s desire for absolute power and wealth. “If there are fewer tribal members,” she says, “everyone gets a bigger piece of the pie.”
Muñoz vigorously denies that the tribal council checked tribal rolls to consolidate power or for financial gain. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, he explains, had pressured the tribe to do so, warning that otherwise it might risk losing federal funding. (When I inquired, a BIA representative would say only, “It is an internal tribal matter, and we have no comment.”) “We have given these people every opportunity to prove their Tigua heritage,” Muñoz says firmly, “but they have not been able to show us any evidence that they have a one-eighth blood quantum, which the federal government requires. So who is being greedy? The tribal council, or those who are pretending to be Tigua for federal and tribal benefits?”
Last fall Marty Silvas was tried in state court on first-degree felony charges for stealing the drum; if convicted, he faced a possible life sentence. Vela’s younger brother, Sammy, was ready to testify as a character witness on his behalf, if needed, and her sister Rosemary sat behind Silvas throughout the trial in a show of support. On November 5 the jury found him not guilty, accepting the defense’s argument that Silvas, in his life-time position as the war captain, was the drum’s rightful owner and therefore could not have stolen it. But if his supporters felt any sense of vindication, it was short-lived. The following day, dozens of them—including Vela, her sister, her brother-in-law, and several cousins—were abruptly fired from their jobs on the reservation. Four days later they were informed by certified letter that they were banished from the tribe and had thirty days to move off of tribal land. They lacked Tigua blood, they were told, and were no longer welcome. Many of the banished tribe members, weary of the tribal in-fighting, packed up their belongings and collected small monetary settlements from the tribe in exchange for their homes, but Vela’s family and seven others held their ground. “I decided that if they wanted me to leave,” she explains, “they were going to have to carry me out.”
The stalemate soon turned into a siege. “We became prisoners in our own homes,” says Vela. Tribal police officers erected chain-link fences around the reservation’s housing complex in late December, blockading streets and posting officers at its entrance; any banished tribe members trying to enter were turned back, and those who ventured out to take their children to school or to head to work were forced to scale the chain-link fences under cover of darkness to get back inside. Vela kept her blinds drawn and her lights out, subsisting on food that her sister threw over the barricades. Christmas and New Year’s Day were grim affairs spent locked inside her home, and the weeks that followed were little better. “I would sit in the room where my son was born, I would walk through the other rooms in the house, and I would thank them for giving me good memories,” she remembers. “I knew that sooner or later they would force us out.” In January tribal police officers began driving by her home in the evenings, shining floodlights into her windows; by February a tribal maintenance crew had turned her water off. Her neighbors offered few protests. “People are afraid to oppose the tribal council because so many of them now work at the casino,” asserts Marty Silvas. “The council members run the casino, and the council members sign their paychecks. Anyone who challenges them pays for it.”
Soon after dusk fell on February 18, Vela received a panicked call from her cousin, who lived down the street. “I picked up the phone and heard yelling and screaming. My brother-in-law said, ‘They have guns, Gracie,’” she recalls. “I looked out the window, and about nine men were crossing my yard, carrying shotguns and revolvers.” Vela sat in her living room and watched as officers kicked in her door; she offered no resistance when they handcuffed her and led her to the edge of the housing development, which was awash in the revolving red-and-white lights of tribal police cars. “Everyone was standing on their front lawn—my neighbors, my co-workers, my son’s friends—and they were all quiet,” remembers Vela. “When I went by, they turned their heads, they lowered their eyes. No one said a word.”
ON A HOT, CLOUDLESS MORNING IN JUNE, when the banishments had begun to fade from memory, the tribe gathered in the courtyard of the white adobe mission church to celebrate the Feast of Saint Anthony. Pistoleros in ceremonial dress fired their shotguns in the air, scattering pigeons perched on the bell tower and raining cardboard-shell debris onto the well-wishers below, signaling the beginning of the Tigua’s holiest day of the year. Behind them, four Tigua men with eagle feathers in their hair held aloft a statue of Saint Anthony draped in pink bunting; they were followed by a long procession of tribe members, their cheeks stained with red ceremonial paint, who walked along Old Pueblo Road in traditional attire: the men in moccasins and fringed, earth-colored tunics, the women in turquoise jewelry and embroidered calico dresses trimmed with lace, their hair festooned with colored ribbons. The penitents lined up in front of the mission church, where the tribe’s leaders stood holding varas: thick, green willow branches from the banks of the Rio Grande that are used in the holiday’s ritual scourging. According to tradition, the whipping is meted out only by the chief and his assistants, but in recent years, the governor and several members of the tribal council have taken part in the rite, as they did that June morning. The Tigua kneeled in the stone courtyard before the men with varas, receiving a series of stinging lashes as they gave penance to Saint Anthony.
The pistoleros fired their shotguns again, and amid the cries of the Tigua dancers who lined up on either side of the courtyard, the low rumble of the juanchido could be heard for the first time in five years. Saint Anthony, the finder of lost things, had answered the tribe’s prayers in March, when the sacred drum was quietly returned for a $1 million reward. The deal was brokered by El Paso attorney Roy Brandys, who has thus far refused to disclose the identity of the person who was in possession of the drum or to grant an interview; he has, however, previously represented both Marty Silvas and his brother Manny in civil litigation. Vince Muñoz believes that the person who returned the drum was none other than Marty Silvas, whom he says stole the juanchido as a means of extortion. Silvas bristled at the charge, explaining that he was a victim of familial betrayal. “I was backstabbed by my own brother,” he told me, his voice filled with emotion. “He became greedy, just like the tribe.” According to Silvas, the drum was returned by his now estranged brother Manny—the former lieutenant governor of the tribe—who knew where it was hidden. “When I heard the drum had been returned, I thought it must be a fake,” Silvas said. “But then I saw it on television. I know every little crack on that drum. I know where the paint is worn away and where the surface is smooth, and I knew it was the juanchido.”
Under the hot morning sun, the Tigua had started to dance. The women waved corn husks over the ground as if planting seeds; the men shook bright red rattles, which sounded like rain. I strained to see the juanchido—which sat in the shade of a juniper tree, surrounded by men who sang traditional songs—but I was not able to catch a glimpse of it. Vince Muñoz stood proudly outside the mission church, watching the Tigua dancers, and I marveled, as he must have, at how far the tribe had come in only a few years. But while this was a day for rejoicing, there was something inexpressibly sad about the festivities, from which so many of the banished tribe members were absent. Even the return of the drum was bittersweet, since no one—not even Marty Silvas, who had staked his life on the juanchido—had escaped suspicion for having compromised tradition for a $1 million bounty.
As I looked at the mission church and the neighboring casino, these peculiar bookends to the Tigua’s history, I wondered at the tribe’s three-hundred-year journey from the sacred to the profane. That morning, as the rhythms of the drum resounded in the church courtyard, it was clear that though the tribe had at last attained the most American of ideals—money and power—they had come at a very high price indeed.