An Open Letter to Tribal Leaders: Tribes Fighting Tribes Hurts All Indians

The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California recently became only the sixth tribe in the past 25 years to successfully navigate the Secretarial “two-part” process for acquiring new land for tribal-government gaming.

Our Tribe, with over 1,950 tribal citizens, engaged in this rigorous and lengthy federal process because, like other Indian people nation-wide, we had been denied a land base or “functional” reservation from which to conduct economic development for the betterment of our people due to numerous historical injustices.

For over a decade we worked in a collaborative and transparent manner with local, state and federal officials to reclaim a small fraction of our historical land base. Our project was assessed and approved by two gubernatorial administrations, two federal administra­tions, four Interior Secretaries, nine Assistant Secretaries, and multiple local jurisdictions.

We now have 305 acres of tribal land in Madera County in trust and our goal with this land is similar to the goals of other California tribes with trust land eligible for gaming. We seek to build a tribal-government gaming facility on sovereign land to provide economic self-sufficiency for our Tribe and citizens and generate business opportunities and investment in Madera County.

Our project, which is overwhelmingly supported by our local community, carries the added, and perhaps most important, benefit of being able to immediately generate thousands of local jobs in one of the most economically depressed regions of the state and nation.

The final remaining administrative step in this process is the State Legislature’s ratification of our State-Tribal Gaming Compact, which we negotiated with Governor Jerry Brown. Similar to other recently ratified gaming compacts, our compact provides substantial payments to mitigate local impacts and funding for non-gaming tribes across the state while lessening local and state fiscal obligations. Paired with the Wiyot Tribe’s compact, our compact also avoids large-scale economic development in ecologically sensitive regions near the Sierra National Forest/Yosemite (North Fork) and Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Wiyot).

Native American tribes – especially those, like us, without a functional land base -- face many obstacles in overcoming decades of poverty, political disenfranchisement, and loss of historical lands. Perhaps the most surprising barrier we face comes from tribes with established gaming facilities using their financial and political power to crush the social and economic aspirations of newcomer tribes like ours in order to protect their own self-interests.

Some of these tribes say they don’t want competition—or even the potential for as yet unforeseen competition. Others appear to be seeking political advantage for future negotiations with the state or other parties. Whatever the motivation, some tribes today seek to interfere with or derail other legitimate tribal gaming projects.

Claims by some tribal leaders that seek to restrict other tribes to the tiny, arbitrary, contemporary “reservation” lands that do not accurately reflect actual historical lands are especially disheartening and disappoining. The final determination to approve or reject a tribal gaming enterprise should be based on the facts and merits of each case and not on the fear of future potential competition or misrepresentations of a tribe’s process in pursuing opportunity for its people.

The North Fork Rancheria supports all tribes in their endeavors to restore and rebuild tribal legitimacy, cultures, resources, and lands. Through the years we have supported many tribes acquiring new land for gaming -- including some who now oppose us.

The destructive pattern of Tribe vs. Tribe, Indians fighting Indians must stop before it undermines all tribes, tribal citizens, tribal gaming, and tribal-sovereignty.

By fighting one another, we risk losing our Native ways and dignity -- our understanding and practice of true indigenous values, cultures, and principles. If we are not careful, we risk losing the one opportunity that has promised and delivered so much to Indian Country.

Native American tribal leaders today stand at an important crossroads: They can choose the path of tribal infighting and “divide and conquer” tactics that have historically devastated Indian Country. Or they can call upon the traditional values of Native people – respect, caring, and sharing – to ensure that the newfound gains from tribal gaming are enhanced and protected for generations of Native peoples.

Tribal leaders cannot trumpet “tribal sovereignty” publicly while betraying it in private conduct towards fellow tribes. We must resolve differences by engaging in respectful, professional tribal government-to-government consultation prior to taking public positions that undermine other sovereign nations.

It’s time for tribes to unite behind tribal sovereignty and solidarity. The proceeds from tribal gaming can do great good for all tribes if we stop fighting and start sharing.

North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians Elaine Bethel-Fink is Chairperson of the 1,950-tribal-citizen North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California. She has served in that position for most of the past decade.


North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California - Milestones

162-year Effort to Regain Tribal Lands

  • 1851: Senate fails to ratify 18 signed treaties reserving certain lands for California Indian tribes, including the Northfork Mono, rendering the Tribe landless
  • 1916: Federal government purchases an 80-acre Rancheria for the “Northfork band of landless Indians.”
  • 1958: Congress authorizes federal agents to terminate federal trusteeship and recognition of 41 California tribes, including North Fork Rancheria
  • 1983: Federal government settles class action lawsuit by restoring federal recognition to 17 tribes, including North Fork Rancheria
  • 1987: Courts restore former Rancheria boundaries as Indian Country, but the Rancheria lands are placed in trust for a few individual tribal members, and not collectively for the Tribe. Tribe remains landless.
  • 2002: BIA takes 61 acres of land purchased with HUD funds in trust for the Tribe for tribal housing and community center. Land is ineligible for gaming.

14-year Effort to Build Tribal Casino

  • 1999: Tribe considers developing a casino for economic development.
  • 2004: Tribe announces selection of a developer and site within its historical area to build a gaming resort north of the City of Madera.
  • 2004: Tribe enters into MOU with Madera County to mitigate project impacts following two public meetings. BIA conducts public scoping hearing to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS).
  • 2005: Tribe submits trust application to BIA.
  • 2006: Tribe negotiates MOU with City of Madera.
  • 2008: Draft EIS published.
  • 2010: Final EIS published.
  • 2011: Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs issues favorable “Two-Part” decision under Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
  • 2012: Governor Brown concurs in the Two-Part decision and negotiates Tribal-State Gaming Compact. Assistant Secretary announces decision to take land into trust.
  • 2013: Land placed in trust for Tribe for gaming purposes.