California AG creates Native American Affairs Office

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Fulfilling a 1998 campaign promise, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer opened an Office of Native American Affairs within the Department of Justice on March 1.

Department sources say this is the first time a state has opened such a specialized office for Indian people.

California's Native American governments are important partners in our state. The Office of Native American Affairs will help foster respectful government-to-government relationships with California's sovereign Indian Nations, "he wrote in an official release publicizing the opening.

Olin Jones from Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma has been appointed director of the new division. He is quick to point out that in addition to the California-based sovereign Indian Nations mentioned by Attorney General Lockyer, his office will also service all Californians of Native American heritage. This is an important distinction because the majority of the estimated 300,000 Native People in California are from tribes from other states.

Jones, a graduate of the University of North Dakota, has worked with the Attorney Generals Office since 1996. He spent most of the last decade working with Indian tribes on crime prevention issues though he envisions the office handling a much wider range of issues.

Crime prevention is important, but I see that as part of a larger issue. The first thing that we want to is make sure that the tribes create law enforcement capabilities to police their own reservations and enterprises", says Jones.

This, believes Jones, is a concrete gesture that the office can make on behalf of tribal sovereignty. Sovereignty itself is what the newly created office wants to guarantee.

Sovereignty is in the United States Constitution and this office will to the best of its capabilities make sure that we are there to make that happen."

On the thornier issue of federal tribal recognition, Jones is a more reluctant to speak. California Indian tribes were dissolved as official entities in the earlier part of the 20th century. In the last few decades there has been a legal free-for-all in the scramble for tribal recognition. Jones says California does not have the power to recognize tribes on the state level, as do several other states.

Right now, I'm not quite sure what this office can do. Its a federal issue as far as we can tell right now. I'm reluctant to say anything because I don't want to get a flood of calls from people wanting this help. Its a complex situation. If we can do anything, it would probably be in mediation".

Jones sees mediation in Native legal issues as the primary tool. We don't want to interfere in local issues. Mostly what we'd do is act as an intermediary between the entities in dispute and see if we couldn't find a way to resolve the problem".

Keith Taylor, director of the Northern California Indian Development Council, a non-profit organization based in Eureka, sees the creation of the new Native American Affairs Office as a major asset.

My job is to bring tribes together with government and business entities. This is the first time that we will have a state government office in the legal affairs department that can help expedite things through all the legal channels. Though its always been there in the constitution, many tribes are just now carving out a government-to-government relationship with state entities and are unsure as how to do this. This new office will help."

Taylor goes on to point out that gaming has allowed many tribes a greater degree of economic prosperity, which translates into increased political muscle. According to Taylor this means that there is a greater need to define the laws that directly effect Indian economics.

Jones agrees. With the advent and passage of Propositions 5 and 1A (state ballot issues legalizing Indian gaming) there was a greater need for the tribes to develop their own goals of sovereignty. Attorney General Lockyer recognized this necessity in the creation of this office".

He added that although his office will be involved in the legal issues regarding gaming, it will not be the primary concern. The California Department of Justice already has a Division of Gambling Control. They'll handle most of the issues. We will be advocates to facilitate only a few specific legal issues. We will be loosely involved.

Jones summed up office goals saying, My assistant director, Marcia Hoaglen (a member of the Round Valley Tribe of Mendocino County) wants to be ombudsmen. We want to facilitate a variety of issues ranging from law enforcement to access to health care and other services. We're trying to lay the groundwork and set a precedent to facilitate an open relationship between state and tribal governments. Most of all we want to serve Indian people."