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California Assembly supports tribal sovereignty

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - On the closing day of its session, the California Legislature passed a resolution supporting American Indian sovereignty.

Though the resolution passed unanimously, there were reports of political haggling over which party was to sponsor the measure.

The resolution affirmed government-to-government status between tribes and the state of California and marks the first time a state legislative body has taken such a step. Since it is only a resolution and it contains no legislative language, the resolution is seen as generally symbolic.

Tribal officials are greeting the resolution with cautious optimism.

Duane Sherman, chairman of the Hoopa Valley tribe feels the resolution is a "step in the right direction" but is more symbolic than substantive. He feels that many legislators have "gotten on the Indian bandwagon" because of perceived Indian gaming money and the potential political revenue that it implies. Sherman says it remains to be seen whether something tangible will come out of the resolution.

"If you look at history, Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, set up the first 'Indian desk' in the state government but that didn't mean it advanced the status of Indian tribes," Sherman says.

Brenda Soulliere, the first vice chairwoman for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, is a little more optimistic but says she, too, feels the resolution is more symbol than substance.

"We're very pleased that this (tribal sovereignty has finally been mentioned publicly. The state has been moving this way for some time but the Battin resolution finally states that," Soulliere says.

Told of Sherman's more cautious comments, Soulliere responds, "Well we feel that way, too."

Assemblyman Jim Battin, R-La Jolla, who sponsored the resolution says he felt a clear statement needed to be made by the state Legislature that showed support for tribal sovereignty. He acknowledges the resolution is largely symbolic but feels it lays the groundwork for other important issues affecting California Indian tribes, such as transportation, health care and repatriation of American Indian remains to tribes.

"It is important to define the government-to-government relationship between the tribes and the state to alleviate confusion of the each government's role," Battin says.

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Battin, a Republican, feels this resolution is a good response to the Washington state Republican party who passed an anti-sovereignty resolution on their state platform during their convention last June. He feels this is not typical of the Republican party as a whole. He points out the national Republican party and GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush have rejected the Washington state platform.

"Remember it was Ronald Reagan who signed IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) and President Bush signed the repatriation bill. It's just that the Republican Party has not gotten our message out effectively. Hopefully this resolution should help to begin to change things," Battin says.

He added he will introduce a platform at the California state Republican convention later this month in Palm Springs that affirms tribal sovereignty.

Questioned as to whether the new-found gaming wealth of tribes had anything to do with the popularity of the resolution, Battin says gaming is not the central issue.

"This is much larger than gaming though gaming has put tribes into an economic position to do things they couldn't before and it's been good for some tribes. This resolution is about recognizing government-to-government relations, not gaming."

Battin alleges there was some haggling over the bill. Not that anyone in the Legislature disagreed with anything in the resolution, but Battin says there was a disagreement over who should sponsor it. He feels the Democrats wanted the resolution for themselves.

Battin says he resurrected the resolution on the last day of the Assembly session. It was not even scheduled to got to committee. That was when he approached Sheila Kuehl D-Santa Monica.

He says that Keuhl previously reviewed the legislation and pretended to have no knowledge of it when Battin approached her on the last day. Battin says he then told Assembly Democrats he would tell voters throughout the state they had tried to derail the resolution.

"After I did that, it went to through the Legislature with jets on," Battin says. "It just irritates the Democrats to see me sponsoring this resolution."

Kuehl says this is not true. She feels it "strange" of Battin to turn this into a political issue and further states that the Democrats did not try to take this bill away from the Republicans.

"I can't quite understand why he's (Battin) turning this into a political issue. I mean he should be happy that this got overwhelming support. If the Democrats wanted to steal this resolution from him we would have done it. That's our proof right there."