Reservation v. rancheria debate

James May

Reservation v. rancheria debate

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A citizens’ group has sent a letter to the California
Fair Political Practices Committee asking for an investigation of state
Attorney General Bill Lockyer after he seemingly backed off plans to
challenge the legitimacy of a tribal casino in Sonoma County.

The Alexander Valley Association charges stem from an Associated Press
article that said Lockyer had received money from backers of the Dry Creek
Band of Pomo’s River Rock Casino and wanted an investigation as to whether
this had caused Lockyer to change his position.

The AP reported that Lockyer had received $25,000 from sources associated
with the River Rock Casino.

“He issued a statement in 2002 that said the River Rocks [Casino] was not
on trust land and then, just a few days later, issued another statement
that said more time was needed to study it,” said Karen Passalacqua, a
board member of the Alexander Valley Association. She added that the timing
was suspicious and her group just wanted to find out if Lockyer had changed
his mind based on political contributions.

A Justice Department spokesman called the charges “baseless” and said that
the attorney general just recognized that the tribe had signed a legal
compact and therefore have the right to conduct gaming.

At issue, said Passalacqua, is whether “rancheria” status equals
“reservation” status and therefore has the same trust status allowing it to
conduct gaming. Many California tribes reside on small parcels of land
called rancherias, and Passalacqua contended that it may be different from
a reservation. Rancherias are found only in California.

Though it is a question not easily answered, there appears to be little
difference between the two entities as far as the federal government is
concerned as grants and other federal monies are distributed by the tribe
regardless of whether they live on a rancheria or a reservation.

Since many tribal casinos are situated on rancherias, an interpretation
that distinguishes rancherias from reservations could have a major impact
on the many California tribes with gaming establishments.

Rancherias, like reservations, can have one or more tribes and are
designated lands for on which tribes may reside and maintain their
communities. Tribal Attorney Howard Dickstein said the difference was
purely historical and not legal, and was largely used to denote acreage.

Dickstein likened rancherias to “postage stamp-sized reservations” and said
rancherias dated from a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when
federal agents came out to California to identify homeless Indians and
subsequently purchased small parcels of land for them.

For example, several Wintun Indians living near the town of Rumsey were
identified by federal agents and given a small parcel of land – and became
the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians.

Dickstein said the Indian Reorganization Act made it very clear that there
was not a difference in legal status between rancherias and reservations.

Additionally, Dickstein said that there were some questions among staffers
in the attorney general’s office, but he said that they were “quashed”
fairly quickly because federal law was quite clear on this point.

Nathan Brankin, a spokesman for Lockyer, confirmed that the question had
been raised over the difference between rancherias and reservations. But he
said such questions were not limited to the attorney general’s office,
pointing out that the attorney general is essentially the governor’s lawyer
and hinted that there was therefore some question in then-Gov. Gray Davis’
office as well.

Barankin confirmed that Lockyer had backed off from that initial question,
but also said that the attorney general does not have a definitive position
on the differences between rancherias and reservations. The problem with
issuing such a definition, said Barankin, would be that it might tie the
hands of a future governor who wished to revisit the issue, since the
attorney general has to be the legal office of the governor.

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