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Cabazons drop opposition to Torres-Martinez compensation bill

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MECCA, Calif. - The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians has agreed to drop opposition to a bill pending in the United States House of Representatives that seeks to compensate the neighboring Torres-Martinez Tribe for lands submerged by the Salton Sea.

The bill has passed the House Resources Committee and is scheduled to go before the full House in September.

The measure introduced by Congresswoman Mary Bono, R-Calif., and co-sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is nearly identical to one introduced by Bono's late husband, former congressman Sonny Bono, in 1996. The Torres-Martinez claim that bill was defeated in large part by opposition by the Cabazon Tribe.

The central issue goes back to the early 20th century when an aqueduct carrying irrigation water diverted from the Colorado River broke and flooded thousands of acres. The water was expected to recede and 11,000 flooded acres were given to the Torres-Martinez Tribe in 1911 with this understanding.

What transpired was that the local water district decided to use the Salton Sea for drainage from agricultural runoff which means it was significantly replenished so it would not dry up.

In 1982 the Torres-Martinez Tribe filed a federal lawsuit against the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District seeking compensation for submerged lands. This lawsuit could be revived if the compensation bill fails.

Eventually the issue caught the ear of Bono who turned it into the failed 1996 legislation.

Mary Bono says that after her husband died, the Torres-Martinez approached her about reviving the bill.

By cell phone from the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Bono said, "It was time to right a terrible wrong. This bill is different from Sonny?s because we have a settlement with the Cabazons."

"We were worried that this bill would create a Navajo- Hopi situation," says Brenda Soulliere, first vice chairwoman for the Cabazon Tribe. "They would have had land right up against our housing and we were worried that they would develop it into a casino, which we don't want right in our backyards."

Torres-Martinez Chairwoman Mary Belardo says that though her tribe is trying to get a casino of its own, it had no intention of building one on the 640-acre parcel. Belardo says several neighboring tribes and governmental entities had supported the bill.

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In an interesting side note, Congresswoman Bono suggested that if the two tribes built their casinos near each other it would "create an entertainment district like you have in Las Vegas."

Cabazon sources say the central problem was the band was not properly consulted about details of the bill. They claim the National Indian Gaming Association agrees with them on this matter.

Soulliere says Cabazon opposed the deal because it encroached on land that historically belonged to their tribe, including a tribal cemetery, sold off by individual allotment owners over the years. She says the Cabazon had been interested in re-acquiring some of these lands but as of yet the funds have not been available.

The main dispute was over a 640-acre tract adjacent to Cabazon lands. The remainder of the acquisition would be separate parcels, most likely closer to existing Torres-Martinez land, though individual parcels could still be purchased near Cabazon.

The compromise was reached when Torres-Martinez agreed to create a buffer zone keeping its acquisitions at least a mile and in some areas, including the 640-acre tract, two miles from Cabazon lands.

Each side has accused the other of being the Goliath to its David. Torres-Martinez says the Cabazons, who have a casino, have become rich enough to be able to block the original bill because of contributions to Democratic lawmakers.

"The opposition by Cabazon was a political one that had to do with money and influence," Belardo says.

For their part, the Cabazon band says its has only 1,500 acres of land base while Torres-Martinez has 13,200 acres on dry land. Cabazon claims it is not rich enough to acquire additional lands at this time and says its influence in Congress is minimal.

Both tribes sent representatives to Washington to talk to officials on the House Resources Committee who were handling the bill. Belardo says through a tribal business partner Gtech, a gaming firm based in Rhode Island, they were able to put pressure on Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., a committee member who did not vote in committee, to work toward a compromise.

Committee member Dale Kildee, D-Mich. stepped in and Belardo confirms that he took the lead in working out a settlement with the Cabazons.

Neither side can be described as ecstatic about the compromise. "None of us are real happy but at least it's settled," Belardo says.

"At this point at least we have an agreement and we're pretty much satisfied with where it's at right now," Soulliere says.