California Indian gaming issues and politics


Sacramento, Calif. ? A rift is growing between Northern and Southern California tribes over the revenue sharing fund set up under Proposition 1A.

The distribution of this fund, which is raised from post-Proposition 1A machine license fees, has become a political football in the halls of power in Sacramento and has been used as collateral for the funding of Governor Davis' Gambling Control Commission. Rightly or wrongly, the non-gaming tribes who are supposed to receive money from these fees have only seen a small portion of what they claimed to have been promised.

Others, like Yurok tribal chairwoman Susan Masten, think the requirement should be abolished altogether. Although many have questioned her motives, others see it as an olive branch to the Southern California tribes. This is not to say that Masten's position on this issue is by any means universally shared by the Southern California tribes. Most of them, at least officially, still support revenue sharing.

Masten said the issue is only a question of protecting tribal sovereignty and that no other individual government in the nation is required to share its revenue with any other.

Whatever Masten's motives, the idea of richer tribes helping poorer tribes was a central tenet of Proposition 1A. Although some call the revenue sharing window dressing for the voters, a public relations move to guarantee public support, others, like tribal gaming consultant Michael Lombardi, emphatically deny this cynicism. Lombardi says that the revenue sharing fund is here to stay and only the distribution method needs to be changed.

According to gaming proponents, one of the problems is that tribes are only allowed 2,000 machines. They feel this rule should be lifted in favor of "market forces," a term championed by California State Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert. The excess revenue generated from these additional machine license fees should go directly to non-gaming tribes and be distributed evenly, immediately and without prejudice, they say.

This is an important issue in California, where the tribes are often very small. Only on the northwest coast and the eastern desert fringes do the memberships of individual tribes even remotely compare to those in the Great Plains and Southwest. Though California has the greatest number of American Indians of any state, the majority is from out-of-state tribes such as the Navajo and Cherokee.

Typical California Indian tribes reside on small, scattered plots of land called rancherias, and often have less than a few hundred people. Some tribes with large-scale casinos have as few as 25 members. Gaming opponents are quick to point out that gaming then only benefits a small portion of the Indian population.

Meanwhile gaming proponents argue that revenue sharing was one of the remedies for this disparity. They also say all California Indians benefit from a more indirect effect, political power.

This heightened influence became visible in several historic meetings of the California Republican caucus, called the Republican/Tribal Leadership summits. One was held last August and another this January. Many California Indians felt that the Democratic Party was taking them for granted and, in the words of Victor Rocha, believed "that they needed to fire a warning shot to the Democrats across the bow to take our issues seriously."

The summits were largely display pageants for Indian issues. These meetings were largely put together by Battin and California Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who have large, wealthy gaming tribes within their districts. It should be noted that both men were largely supportive of Indian tribes before the arrival of large-scale casinos, though the creation of the summits is a post-casino phenomenon.

Some prominent Republican Indian leaders, like Agua Caliente chairman Richard Milanovich and CNIGA chairwoman Brenda Souillier of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, have said that there is a natural synthesis of tribal philosophy with Republican ideas of limited government and the free market.

Most of the tribal members at such gatherings, however, seem to feel that they are finally being noticed by the Republicans because of gaming money. Because of the state's increasingly non-white population, the Republicans must mend fences with minority groups to survive politically. However, most Indians are less concerned about political party identity and appreciate the power that gaming money has given them, an attitude shared even by the non-gaming tribes.

The tribes have also split with their traditional Democratic allies over the issue of labor unions. The state Democratic leadership has tried to insert union guarantees into compacting language. The casinos have largely resisted any attempts by their employees to unionize. Tribal leaders insist that outside influences, namely the Democratic Party, are unfairly forcing Indian casinos to unionize while large non-Indian corporations are allowed to step through large loopholes in labor laws.

Many tribes do offer substantial benefits to casino employees and feel that they exceed union standards in terms of wages and benefits. A few Northern California tribes are said to be ready to capitulate on this issue and allow unions into their business operations.

Indian gaming is not immune to the corporate bungling sometimes seen in the broader society. Last year the San Pasqual tribe was forced to back out of a $200 million resort and casino project. One of the tribe's partners, First Nation Gaming ? owned by several wealthy investors and Louisiana's Tunica Biloxi tribe ? was facing legal and financial difficulties. First Nation allegedly fell $63 million short of matching fund payments owed to two San Diego area developers who were working on the project.

Another investor in the San Pasqual deal, Sealaska ? an Alaska Indian owned investment company ? also faced financial difficulties at the time and ended up with $122 million in losses and the resignation of the company's president.

Thus far instances like these have been isolated. The San Pasqual did manage to recover from the bad deal although they have had to stay in their relatively more modest $45 million casino opened last year.

A more widespread problem is tribal disenrollment. While this problem is by no means universal, a host of tribal members throughout the state have been taken off their tribe's rolls since gaming arrived. Most of these purges have their origins in age-old family feuds, as is the case at the Berry Creek Rancheria in Northern California.

Another model for membership disenfranchisement is one in which tribal members who spent many lean years on the reservation are upset with the descendants of fellow tribal members who moved away in search of economic opportunity, as is the case with the Table Mountain Rancheria.

Many tribes suffered a diaspora of their members in the middle years of the 20th century when they were facing termination by the government. Many members at the time realized that it was impossible to survive and that they had to leave.

The state offers many examples of these disputes. Many of the disenrolled members have legitimate cases and are seeking legal remedies. However, the BIA is reluctant to get involved because they feel, correctly from a legal standpoint, that they do not have the authority to govern who gets on tribal rolls. Often it is up to the families or groups in power to decide.

Unfortunately, the tragedy has been compounded when people used to limited resources have turned against their own kin. Often the disenrolled people have relatives on the tribal council who are responsible. But the majority of the state's tribes have been welcoming to returning tribal members.

Few people speak of the future of Indian gaming in anything more than vague generalities. Perhaps tribes have learned hard lessons in the past two centuries where the future was perpetually dismal. Though the industry as a whole is suffering through some very public growing pains there are glimmers of hope on the horizon.

California Indian tribes can now afford the best modern technology has to offer in their schools. They hope that they will not have to leave their ancestral lands to make the most of their education. Their languages, among the most endangered on the planet, are being revived and taught by teachers paid from gaming revenue.

Adult Indians and other rural people are finding jobs in gaming and other tribal enterprises. Though they are mainly service industry jobs, with low wages and few benefits, they are jobs that pay enough to keep families at home on their own land.

Perhaps the general attitude is best summed up by an Indian attorney from Washington, D.C. in a remark overheard at a recent Indian gaming gathering: "Indian gaming may not be the best thing in the world, but it's the only thing that seems to work."