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Tribal survival in an evolving world

There is great diversity among the indigenous peoples of this continent.
Nevertheless, there are key and heartfelt beliefs that continue to underlie
the existence and identity of peoples who would identify themselves as what
is known in the contemporary vernacular of the Untied States as Indian
tribal nations.

My people descend from the Yurok and Tolowa tribes. I am fortunate to be
part of a culture that has a continuing and rich spiritual history. In
northern California we have practiced our traditions and ceremonies from
time immemorial. We actively engage around the value-based issues of
maintaining and strengthening tribal identity.

Prior to non-Indian contact, this land was peopled by distinct communities,
each with traditions that tell of their creation as integral parts of the
lands they occupy. Traditionally, we are land-based people. In the first
instance, we are placed by our creator on our ancestral lands, of which we
are stewards and must maintain through a system of respect, reciprocity and
reverence.

My people have a continuing and unshakable commitment to our ancestral
lands. In our actions, we never think only of ourselves; we live with
respect for all things, in balance. This is a "holistic" concept. We can
only understand balance in context -- relative to definable systems that
operate in optimal ways -- with integrity and in good health.

A holistic approach to modern tribal life requires that we acknowledge the
harsh realities of our historic interactions with the Western world. As the
targets of a genocidal onslaught who have been confronted with unrelenting
efforts to exterminate us through war and acculturation, we have suffered
to the brink of extinction. Still we persevere. We do this though
adaptation, guided by adherence to traditional value systems.

Some tribal leaders, comfortable overseeing vast gaming empires, are quick
to assert that our legitimacy as sovereigns is directly tied to the fact
that tribes live on the homelands they have occupied since time immemorial,
or that leaving one's homeland causes a loss of identity and the end of
tribal existence. Such claims are, to a significant extent, fact-based, but
they are also gross oversimplifications.

Ties to ancestral lands are always significant. But there are exceptional
circumstances that have required tribes to create ties to areas beyond
their traditional borders. This does not and will not mean the end to
tribal existence when tribes remain true to their value-based identity. On
behalf of California tribal leaders who toss about such rash statements, I
extend an apology to the Cherokee and countless other tribes who survive,
despite being "relocated" and forced to forge new relationships with land
areas due to events of history.

A holistic approach to modern tribal life requires that we acknowledge the
changing and interconnected nature of our contemporary world. Tribes have
governing authority, or jurisdiction, within Indian country (reservations
and trust lands). This authority is a responsibility that must always be
exercised with the utmost care. Tribes may also have an array of interests
in areas beyond reservation boundaries -- for example, cultural resource
and historic areas (generally aboriginal territory); service areas; state
boundaries; and federal agency regional divisions.

Further, the action of a single tribe may impact all tribes due to the
overriding power of Congress and federal courts. Essentially, modern tribes
operate in many overlapping concentric circles of territories and
boundaries of various sorts. When we consider our actions in context, it
quickly becomes evident how a tiny tribe in the far north of California has
"interests" throughout the state. The designation of California as a region
by most federal agencies frequently brings us to the table with tribes
throughout the state. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 requires
tribes negotiate compacts with the state.

As Native peoples confront the complexities of contemporary life --
including economic developments that thrust tribes into the forefront of
the American economy, environmental degradation that threatens survival,
and social ills that are epidemic in Indian country -- we are challenged to
create balanced and healthy communities. We need to use traditional and
contemporary methods and strategies in the development of new approaches.
We believe this can be effective when firmly grounded in traditional values
as a framework for our efforts. This allows us to move forward on many
fronts simultaneously, without losing our essential identity.

The Big Lagoon Rancheria has signed a gaming compact with the state of
California that calls for the development of an off-reservation facility at
the opposite end of the state. It also contains provisions that some have
mischaracterized as concessions in sovereign rights. This follows years of
protracted litigation and occurred only after careful balancing of all
circumstances.

Our preference has always been development at home. We envisioned something
of a "Lake Tahoe" of the far north, with a destination development on the
lagoon complimented by a growing eco-tourism industry. However, we are in
fact located on one of the few remaining naturally functioning coastal
lagoons in California. The only reason this is "off-reservation" is because
the state of California, through both the governor's office and the
attorney general, entered into a binding settlement agreement obligating
the state to find an appropriate site outside of Big Lagoon Rancheria in
order to protect important state environmental interests.

We believe that the compact provided an opportunity to maintain this
resource for all, while still meeting the needs of our people. Our
exceptional circumstances warranted exceptional measures, including certain
concessions or sacrifices on our part. We appreciate that the compact
departs from other gaming developments, but to the fullest extent possible
it reflects and respects the established framework of laws, policies and
programs impacting Indian affairs. To the extent it does not, it meets
standards governing "exceptions" under existing law and policy. Exceptions
exist to address exceptional circumstances such as ours. This does not open
the floodgate, nor toll the ruin of Indian country by eroding good will or
generating divisiveness.

Much has been made of "reservation shopping," a process by which landless
tribes seek to acquire choice land-in-trust status in order to establish
gaming. Whether this is true or not, it is of little relevance to our
situation. Big Lagoon has a site for development. Exceptional circumstances
render us willing to forego that development and allow us to meet, at the
state and federal level, law and policy allowing off-reservation
development.

Rather than create a backlash by attempting to squelch competition, gaming
tribes would be well-served to support efforts like ours that are
consistent with the very law and policy that allows them to prosper.

Virgil Moorehead is chairman of the Big Lagoon Rancheria.