American Indian Health & Services Asks: ‘Are You Native American Enough?’
by Martha SadlerPaul Wellman • Photographs by
A court case that began January 17 could determine once and for all the fate of American Indian Health & Services (AIHS), which is the third incarnation of a clinic first established in the 1970s to serve Native Americans in Santa Barbara. The case, brought by four former administrators who claim they were fired because they were not Native American, threatens the survival of the clinic, which provides medical care not only to Native Americans but to everybody from uninsured workers to Medi-Cal beneficiaries. Serious as it is, however, the lawsuit is merely one aspect of the upheaval the clinic has been undergoing for more than a year. By now, the board of directors accused of setting the policy to replace non-Native-American employees has itself been replaced for not being Native American enough.
Most of those former boardmembers are Coastal Band Chumash, a group whose claim to Chumash identity has been a topic of hot dispute. Not only the boardmembers but also the clinic’s Coastal Band Chumash patients — who number in the hundreds — were disqualified from receiving free care as Native Americans. From the Coastal Band’s point of view, one of the bitter ironies is that their members were named as intended beneficiaries when the applications were made to establish the original dental clinic on Milpas Street and both of its successors — Urban Indian Health on mid State Street and this one, AIHS, which has been operating since 1996 in a sprawling complex of offices in the Modoc Shopping Center. The Coastal Band played an active role in founding and perpetuating the Santa Barbara clinic, which is one of only eight in the state, two of which recently became referral services.
There is no question the clinic has had its share of problems, twice folding due to financial difficulties and recently going through a series of executive directors in rapid succession. When Al Granados, the current executive director, was hired two years ago, the clinic’s board of directors thought they had struck gold. Granados had retired to Santa Ynez a couple years previously and was beginning to get restless when he heard that AIHS badly needed an executive director. He had spend a quarter century serving as an administrative officer with Indian Health Services (IHS), which monitors Native American clinics and hospitals on and off reservations, and with that organization’s parent bureaucracy, the Department of Health and Human Services. His skill and knowledge outshone those of any of the former executive directors. He had even served hands-on at other clinics. A Vietnam War-era Air Force captain, he exuded competence and authority. And as the son of a Washoe mother whose experiences as a young domestic worker in Oakland illustrated the value of services catering to urban Native Americans, his commitment seemed heartfelt.
The lawsuit, filed by the terminated employees in 2005, claims that getting rid of all the non-Native-American employees had been a goal of AIHS since as far back as 2003. However, it was not until Granados came on board that it started happening. An all-Native-American board was elected three months after Granados was hired. The suit, however, zeros in specifically on Granados and Maria Cordero, who was the board chair. It accuses them of colluding in private to fire the plaintiffs — all highly paid administrative staffers — and replace them with Native Americans. One of the plaintiffs’ prize pieces of evidence is the undisputed fact that during one board meeting, Cordero asked a visiting IHS official, Urban Services Coordinator Arveda Nelson, whether non-Native-American employees could be terminated in order to clear the way for Native American hirees. The answer was a clear no — employees cannot be terminated just because they are not Native American, though Native Americans may be given preference during the hiring process. Cordero testified that when she asked the question about firing non-Native Americans, she already knew the answer; she merely wanted to emphasize the point to those boardmembers who were agitating for more Native American staff.
In sworn testimony, Granados also strongly countered the allegation that his termination of the administrative staff had anything to do with the board’s desire to see Native Americans in those positions. He said he fired them as part of his overall plan to improve the clinic’s efficiency. He replaced them with contract services and his own, more highly qualified team — none of whom is Native American. The plaintiffs asked for $2 million to settle this dispute out of court, which is the amount for which the clinic happens to be insured against personnel actions. The two sides failed to come to terms during a court-mandated settlement conference, so a trial was scheduled to begin January 17 in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge James Brown.
If Granados’s motives for firing the administrative staff are murky, the second prong in his scheme to reform the clinic hinged unambiguously on ethnicity. The board first got wind of it last August, when Granados announced that the clinic would have to check the documentation of Native Americans receiving free services to make sure they were entitled to them. Also, because the board was supposed to be at least 51 percent Native American, the boardmembers would have to provide federal documentation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that designated them to be Native Americans. This was followed up in September with letters demanding patients and boardmembers submit proof of their federal certification, a standard far more limiting than the state and local recognition that had previously been accepted.
Clients were instructed to verify their eligibility before their next visit. Two weeks later, each boardmember received notification that “your position has been vacated.” The only exception was Michael Young, a documented Blackfoot tribal member, whose initials appeared on the letter claiming that as the only federally qualified Native American boardmember, Young had the authority to dismiss the rest of the board and replace them with Native Americans. Cordero, a federally certified Chumash and a Coastal Band member, had already resigned. She could not be reached for comment for this article.
After the first set of letters went out, boardmembers said they tried to set up a meeting with Granados but found him unavailable to them. The day after they received the final letter, they arranged to meet at the clinic offices. The first to arrive were three elders — Darlene Hall, Vera Quiroga, and Rosie Uribe — who were told to leave the premises. When they refused, Sheriff’s deputies were called to escort them outside while clinic staff locked the doors. A few days later, the board met in emergency session and decided to fire Granados, figuring he served at their pleasure, not the other way around. They marched to the bank to remove his name from the signature cards for the clinic’s account and succeeded, briefly, but Granados managed to reverse the order and get their names removed. They called a locksmith to change the clinic locks, but found he had beat them to the punch.
The legitimacy of Coastal Band members’ claims to Chumash identity has been a topic of controversy ever since the band’s official formation in 1969. A paper published last year by anthropologists Brian Haley and Larry Wilcoxon refers to the Coastal Band as “neo-Chumash,” offering them as a prime example of ethnicity as a political, emotional, and even imaginative construct. The core members of the Coastal Band are documented descendants of the original colonizers and settlers from Mexico in the 1700s, Haley and Wilcoxon assert. They have always been a tightly knit clan, according to the anthropologists. Depending on the era and the individual’s social status, clan members have been variously referred to in the historical record as Mexican, Indian, Mestizo, Mulatto, Spanish, White, Mexican American, Chumash, and now, neo-Chumash.
The group includes numerous lines descended from a soldier born in Baja California named Mariano Cordero, the paper continues. While some of the Cordero descendents married Chumash and had children, others didn’t. According to Haley and Wilcoxon’s study, the Coastal Band indiscriminately includes both, as well as Santa Ynez Band descendants and others who happen to have been living in the area when the Coastal Band gave itself that name and started distributing membership cards. Its beginnings may have had some economic motivation, and some emotional motivations because in the late 1960s being Native American carried social status.
Ernestine De Soto has long been regarded by anthropologists as the ideal Chumash descendant because she has certain ancient Chumash mitochondrial DNA passed down through the maternal line and because her mother was a documented native speaker. A devout Catholic, De Soto has often taken positions in opposition to the Coastal Band Chumash, especially regarding their practice of reconstructed Chumash traditional religious ceremonies and their claims to Chumash remains from anthropological digs. Even she, however, concedes that her family grew up in the same neighborhood with the other old families who now call themselves Chumash. While she persuaded her older sister to tear up her Coastal Band membership card, De Soto recounted with considerable amusement, her nephew refuses to do so.
Until now, the clinic had always used very inclusive guidelines for providing free service to Native Americans. Declining to take a stringent anthropological stance, the Indian Health Service Manual published on the IHS Web site defines beneficiaries of urban Native American health clinics so broadly as to include any “Indian of Canadian or Mexican origin recognized by any Indian tribe or group as a member of an Indian community entitled to care within the local service area,” and further defines them as someone who “actively participates in tribal affairs,” someone “regarded by the community in which he lives as an Indian,” or “any other reasonable factor indicative of Indian descent.”
It is clear where Granados comes down on the question of the Coastal Band’s Chumash identity. As far as he is concerned, he said, everybody should be entitled to free healthcare, but the reality is that such resources are limited and the Coastal Band is using resources that should go to certifiable Native Americans. Santa Barbara is also the only urban clinic in the state that still offers its services for free to Native Americans regardless of their ability to pay. He said he wants to institute a sliding fee scale for all patients — even for Native Americans. One of his purposes, he said, is to ensure that urban services are available to descendants of the Santa Ynez Band, which is a federally recognized tribe.
In addition, many Native Americans from other tribes live in Santa Barbara. Granados said he would love to expand to Ventura where many needs go unmet, and that he would like to fill the board with high-powered executives and public officials in order to increase its private fundraising capacity. While all of this sounds quite crisp and professional, the long-term fate of the clinic is problematic, if only because a Native American’s descendants are entitled to the federal funding that supports urban clinics for only two generations after he or she leaves the reservation. And as for that federal funding, President George W. Bush’s 2007 budget cut all funding for urban Native American clinics, but Congress later restored it.
“It would be very easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, oh my God, it all lines up,’ ” said former boardmember Martha Jaimes. “This guy was sent in to destroy the clinic. But do we want to do that, or do we want to stay focused on what to do with our own people?” She and others in the community particularly regretted the loss of services to Coastal Band elders, including van service to bring them to the clinic and monthly get togethers.
Some of the Coastal Band Chumash have been traveling over the hill to receive medical care at the Santa Ynez Chumash Reservation, which operates on a sliding scale, takes insurance if clients have it, and also provides all of its Native-American-oriented extra services for free to Coastal Band Chumash, according to the receptionist. “What is at stake is our Indian-ness,” said one Coastal Band member. “What helps is that our cousins recognize us.”
Last December, about 60 Coastal Band members gathered at Las Positas Park for an annual Winter Solstice/Christmas gathering. Organized by former boardmember Rosie Uribe, it was a sedate dinner during which children, parents, and grandparents from several families celebrated their heritage with Chumash prayer and song. Children ceremoniously conferred handmade Chumash gifts to elders. Santa Claus did not make an appearance, as he had in previous years, because Uribe said she was trying to make the event more solstice-oriented, but the children received Christmas stockings. The crowd included people whose mitochondrial DNA marked them as genuine genetic Chumash descendants, others with no such markers but whose children and great-grandchildren were raised to observe Chumash traditions, and still others who are simply Santa Ynez Band descendants. The extended family included college professors, environmental activists, daycare providers, and a young man named Black Bear whose face was adorned with Polynesian-style markings including a stylized whale’s tails on his forehead. Like their island brethren, he explained, Chumash are people of the Pacific Ocean. It would seem that the Coastal Band Chumash’s sense of ethnic identity transcends — fortunately for them — the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ definition of an Indian.