Losing our way, off the reservation

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Indigenous peoples of America have a strong connection with the land. My
people, members of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, come
from the high country of California's San Bernardino Valley, the home of
our Creator. We call ourselves Yuhaviatam, which in the Serrano language
means "pine trees."

Since the European settlement of this country, American Indians have
struggled to retain our cultures and traditions. We have lost most of our
ancestral lands, many of our languages and much of our way of life. It was
only in the last 30 years -- largely due to the federal government's policy
of tribal self-determination, which encouraged Indian tribes to take
control and management of their own affairs -- that tribes were able to
focus on improving their governments. Then, with the advent of tribal
government gaming, tribes were able to make some progress in developing
economies, strengthening our governments and rebuilding our nations, a
process which includes language and cultural revitalization.

The San Manuel Mission Indians live today on some 800 acres of our
ancestral lands, a miniscule portion of what was once a vast homeland,
extending from as far north as Barstow south to the San Bernardino Valley;
and from the Los Angeles area east to Twenty-Nine Palms. We will never
leave, because if we move away from our homeland, we lose our identity. We
cease being Yuhaviatam.

Our legitimacy as a sovereign, Indian nation -- our claim to the legal and
moral right to govern our own affairs -- is directly tied to the fact we
live on a homeland that has been ours since time immemorial. Thanks to
government gaming, we are building a strong diversified economy, preserving
our culture and our way of life. Our community is strong and our people are
healthy once again.

Indian government gaming works best when tribes use it as part of an
overall plan to improve life on the reservation. It was the intent of the
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, that gaming was to be conducted on
"Indian lands."

Unfortunately, this country has strayed from the intent of IGRA. Indian
gaming has become a tool for non-Indian development companies and casino
corporations seeking profits, and state officials seeking to tax tribal
government revenues.

Some tribal leaders have compounded the situation by allowing themselves to
fall prey to non-Indian interests. They are offering up their sovereignty
for the almighty dollar.

The result is a proliferation of off-reservation gaming commonly known as
"reservation shopping" -- a trend that is generating a great deal of
negative publicity and congressional scrutiny toward Indian nations.

The concern being generated by the potential proliferation of tribal gaming
has seriously eroded the political good will toward American Indians. It
also has generated divisiveness among American Indian tribes.

Many tribes are establishing or seeking casinos hundreds of miles from
their existing reservations, some in other states. In some instances, these
off-reservation casino projects are encroaching on the ancestral lands of
other tribes.

Congressional hearings into IGRA, federal recognition of tribes, land into
trust procedures and other issues are threatening the very status of tribes
as sovereign nations.

Just as we have entered an era of renewed social, political and economic
growth in Indian country, we are threatened with losing all we have won ...
and more.

IGRA provides a federal prohibition against gaming on lands acquired after
Oct. 17, 1988. But the act includes exemptions for landless, newly
acknowledged and restored tribes.

Another of the exemptions is Sec. 20, which calls for a two-part
determination:

1) That the secretary of the Interior Department determines that gaming on
such lands would be beneficial to the tribe; and

2) That the gaming activity would not be "detrimental to the surrounding
community."

The governor of the state must concur in the secretary's determination.

Since IGRA was enacted into law, 28 tribes have established casinos on
newly acquired lands under the various exemptions allowed under law. Three
tribes with reservations have acquired off-reservation lands for gaming.
Fourteen tribes with restored federal recognition after passage of IGRA
have established gaming on their initial reservation lands. One tribe
acquired land for gaming through a lands settlement claim. And 10 tribes
have made non-controversial "contiguous" land acquisitions for gaming.

There currently are about 36 applications with BIA to acquire trust lands
for gaming. Tribes in at least 12 states are seeking to move across state
lines to take advantage of more lucrative gaming markets.

George Skibine, Interior's acting deputy assistant secretary in charge of
Indian affairs, says the proliferation of tribal gaming has not yet
occurred but may, however, "be a concern for the future."

"It's the sheer number of proposed projects that we hear about in places
where there really is no Indian presence right now," Skibine said.

Many of these proposals are backed by non-Indian developers or state
officials whose goal is to get an unreasonable percentage of revenues from
tribal gaming operations. No one is concerned about issues of sovereignty.
The projects have nothing to do with the congressional intent of IGRA to
build tribal economies and strengthen tribal governments.

San Manuel is not opposed to tribes seeking and acquiring rightful and
much-needed lands to rebuild their homelands. We respect each tribe's
sovereign right to conduct government gaming on their reservation. But the
abuse of the two-part determination process is hurting all land
acquisitions. Efforts to acquire lands far from existing reservations for
gaming purposes has generated undue scrutiny from Congress and the public,
hindering and delaying tribal land acquisitions for housing, schools,
health care facilities and other governmental purposes.

Moreover, off-reservation gaming projects often encroach on the ancestral
land claims of other tribes.

Last year, when I appeared before the House Resources Committee on the
issue, I testified that two tribes -- the Timbisha Shoshone and the Los
Coyotes Band -- sought to acquire San Manuel ancestral lands near Hesperia
and Barstow for gaming purposes. Both are backed by non-Indian casino
developers.

Today, three tribes seek our ancestral lands: the Shoshone, Los Coyotes and
Big Lagoon Rancheria. One of their casino proposals is near an ancient
Serrano village.

Congress needs to act immediately to limit reservation shopping and
preserve the integrity and ancestral homelands of all American Indian
peoples.

Meanwhile, tribes must not allow themselves to be a party to questionable
off-reservation casino projects.

Sovereignty is a sacred responsibility. Our ancestors fought and died and
suffered for our inherent right to practice self-determination. Sovereignty
is a responsibility. It is not a commodity. It is not a toy.

Deron Marquez is chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.