Cecilio Blacktooth was the democratically-elected captain of Cupa (aka Kupa), an Indian village centered on the hot springs at the northern end of a valley that had become part of "Warner's Ranch", or Rancho José del Valle, a land grand given to Juan Jose Warner by the Mexican Government in 1844. Warner allowed the Cupeños to stay in their village, but eventually a new owner, former Governor of California John G. Downey, decided to evict them. The case, Barker v. Harvey, went all the way to the U. S. State Supreme Court, but the Cupeños lost in 1901. President Teddy Roosevelt sent a commission to find them a new place to live, and they talked to Captain Blacktooth in May of 1902, through an interpreter, a young Cupeño woman named Celsa Apapas.
"We thank you for coming here to talk to us in a way we can understand. It is the first time anyone has done so.The Commisioners explained that the Government would not be able to buy the land for them, and asked where else they would like to go.
You ask us to think what place we like next best to this place where we always live. You see that graveyard over there? There are our fathers and our grandfathers. You see that Eagle-Nest Mountain and that Rabbit-Hole Mountain? When God made them He gave us this place. It may be good, but it is not ours. We have always lived here. We would rather die here. Our fathers did. We cannot leave them. Our children born here--how can we go away? If you give us the best place in the world, it is not so good for us as this. My people cannot go anywhere else; they cannot live anywhere else. Here they always live; their people always live here. There is no other place. This is our home. We ask you to get it for us.
If Harvey Downey say he own this place, that is wrong. The Indians always here. We do not go on his land. These hot springs always Indian. We cannot live anywhere else. We were born here, and our fathers are buried here. We do not think of any place after this. We want this place, and not any other place."
"There is no other place for us. We do not want you to buy any other place. If you will not buy this place, we will go into the mountains like quail and die there, the old people and the women and the children. Let the Government be glad and proud. It can kill us. We do not fight. We do what it says. If we cannot live here, we want to go into those mountains and die. We do not want any other home."
After much wrangling, and further meetings, they were eventually forcibly removed in 1903. Several teams and wagons were brought to the village, their drivers deputized and armed. The Cupeños and their possessions were loaded onto the wagons, and made a three day journey down the valley of the San Luis Rey River, to land that had been purchased for them adjacent to an existing reservation at Pala.
Many tears, broken promises, and much frustration with their treatment, as well as a lot of hard work, followed. Eventually, they settled in with their new neighbors, the Pechanga band of Luiseño Indians...part of the Cahuilla tribe that were once their neighbors to the north of Cupa.
Decades later, they were allowed to operate a casino, as were most of the other tribes around Southern California, and the nation. Many tribes have plowed casino earnings back into their communities, improving housing, schools, and living conditions. The Cupeños (they now identify as Kupa, though are generally called "The Pala Band of Mission Indians" in newspaper reports) had a single-minded purpose for their earnings...get their home back!
In 2004, it looked like they had their chance. Warner's Ranch had evolved into a country club, centered on the hot springs, but also including a golf course and resort. Ownership was divided among more than a thousand members, but management was losing money, and looking for a way out. The Kupa offered them 20.4 million for the land and the resort. By 2010, they had convinced more than two thirds of the members to agree to the deal (as per their contracts), and it looked like the sale was going to go through. The Cupeños had no interest in running a casino in such a remote location, but had plans to renovate the hot springs and the resort, and had money set aside to do it. They would make their living from the resort, and live in their ancestral home.
Not so fast. Some members did not want to sell, and teamed up with creditors owed money from the resort, and tried to put a stop to the sale. Legal disputes were filed, and the ancient (and vague) boundaries of the original land grant were disputed. Accusations were made against the "Pala Band", and the sale ground to a halt in the courts. In January of 2012, the resort filed for bankruptcy (Chapter 11), and the sale was killed.
At this point the courts are in charge, and will decide to whom the resort will be sold, and probably the price. The Cupeños know all too well how that works, from their historical experience. The Supreme Court ruled, in 1901, that the facts of the case were irrelevant...it was a matter of law, not facts. Testimony from the oldest inhabitants of Cupa, as to how long the village had been occupied, were ruled as irrelevant, and dismissed. And now, an army of lawyers stand ready to argue points of law that favor their own clients, in spite of the facts. Will justice be done?