Counties, Lawmakers Oppose Tribe's Federal Recognition for Fear of Napa Valley Casino


In an effort to privatize California's smaller Indian reservations, Congress stripped the Mishewal Wappos and 40 other tribes of their tribal status in the late 1950s.

Since then, many tribes have waged lawsuits and successfully regained federal recognition. Finally, the Wappos are making headway on reclaiming their rights as a tribal nation. The tribe has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior in a bid to reclaim their federal recognition. An unnamed partner is financing their legal battle, reported the Under the agreement, the investor would receive a portion of profits from future tribal enterprises.

Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon said in late February that the tribe and the federal government have been negotiating a settlement to end the lawsuit. But discussions thus far have only centered around recognition—not monetary compensation or land rewards, reported

Still, achieving federal recognition would be a move in the right direction to gaining federal trust lands—necessary to open a casino. However, Gabaldon, the tribe's chairman since 2007, has stressed the tribe does not intend to open a casino.

Nonetheless, the potential for an Indian casino near Napa and Sonoma Valleys has the two counties and a number of key lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), on the defensive.

Sen. Feinstein sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on February 7 expressing her “firm opposition” to an Indian casino within the Napa County Agricultural Preserve—the state's wine country, reported Global Gaming Business magazine.

“While I support the department’s efforts to restore sovereignty to de-recognized tribes, it is deeply concerning to me that the re-recognition process has become so closely intertwined with the development of new casinos in California,” Feinstein wrote. “Napa Valley is a unique and cherished landmark for the people of California and wine-lovers worldwide. To protect these valuable resources, Napa County residents approved the Napa Valley Agriculture Preserve in 1968. Under the terms of the ordinance, all non-agricultural development is strictly forbidden unless approved by popular vote.”

Feinstein's letter stipulates that if the Interior recognizes the Wappos, and the tribe pursues a gaming enterprise, the department should require the county’s electorate to vote in favor of the proposed casino. Gabaldon asserts such a requirement infringes on the tribe’s sovereignty.

Last spring, U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) wrote a letter to Salazar opposing the tribe’s lawsuit, and three northern California counties—Napa, Sonoma and Lake—joined the lawsuit as intervenor defendants. The tribe later reached an agreement with Lake County, which withdrew from the lawsuit, reported the

Despite continual resistance, Gabaldon said the Wappos' 357 enrolled members remain determined to reclaim their rights as a tribal nation and as the original residents of Alexander Valley in Sonoma County.

“I don’t know of any tribe that has opposition from three counties, a congressman and a senator,” Gabaldon said. “One of these days people are going to say, ‘Stop picking on these Indians.’”