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Two years after California's proposition 1A, Indian gaming still faces controversy

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? March 7 marked the two-year anniversary of the absolute legality of Indian gaming in California. The industry has come a long way from its humble inception in small-time bingo halls with government-surplus tables and folding chairs.

Tribes are now developing large-scale casinos rivaling some of the grand palaces of Nevada. Debates rage over the finer points of the Indian gaming laws. To most tribes, gaming is seen as an economic savior ? the only thing that has worked to better the lives of Indian people since Columbus sighted Hispanola.

Politicians are getting into the fray. The Nevada gaming industry has felt the effects from people not wanting to drive over mountains or through the desert just to play a slot machine; Nevada casinos reportedly lost revenue last year. In response, Sen. Harry Reid, D?Nev., who receives campaign funds from the Nevada gaming industry, has sponsored a bill that seeks to curb Indian gaming. This issue is just one of many pressures that California Indians are facing in their largely successful battle to keep gaming alive.

California Governor Gray Davis, an early proponent of Indian gaming, fears a backlash as the industry grows. He has issued a freeze on gaming compacts.

If anything, the issues and controversies surrounding Indian gaming have their roots in historical tides. The story of Indian gaming in California is essentially a story of the tribes and their struggles.

In mid-January Sue Masten, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and current chairwoman of the Yurok tribe, told the state Republican caucus that she did not believe that gaming tribes should be forced to share their revenues with non-gaming tribes.

Masten argued that tribes, as sovereign entities, should not be subject to any state laws. The problem was that this was a central tenet of Proposition 1A, which created an amendment to the California constitution allowing Indian tribes to offer full Nevada-style gaming on their properties.

Now, two years after Proposition 1A passed with a roughly two-thirds majority, some are wondering whether American Indian gaming is all that its proponents touted.

Various property rights and citizens groups across the state point to a number of proposed urban area casinos on properties often non-contiguous with and distant from rural tribal homelands as evidence that the voters of the Golden State were duped by tribes and gaming interests.

However, the black and white picture of American Indian gaming in California is simplistic; perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the alarmist non-Indian citizen groups and their conservative media allies and the rosy-hued picture presented by the wealthy gaming tribes' public relations machines.

California tribes presented a nearly united front during the battles to legalize Indian gaming during the campaigns for Propositions 5 in 1998 and 1A in 2000 and were certainly buoyed by the solid public support that they received. It was perhaps the first time that California tribes had experienced such widespread support. Most significantly, the tribes were also aware of what could be accomplished by presenting such a united front to the public.

It is reasonable to expect some fracturing of alliances after a victory. This has happened time and again in history and is particularly understandable when the coalition in question is as potentially fragile as this one was.

California is the traditional home of perhaps a more diverse group of Indians than any other state. Tribes range from the Algonquian Yurok people of the north coast with linguistic and blood ties to eastern woodland Indians to the Uto-Aztecan groups who dominate the lower half of the state with distant ties to the Great Basin and Mexico, and dozens of groups not falling into any widespread categories.

Most of the tribes look upon themselves as unique entities, their separation fostered by California's rugged and diverse landscape. Unlike the relative monotony and geographic accessibility of the Great Plains, California tribes remained isolated and small, seldom united by a common tongue.

The idea of forming a united front was foreign to most tribes and, over the years, representatives of the Spanish, Mexican and American governments ruthlessly exploited tribal differences, often utilizing ancient animosities for their own purposes.

"It's almost impossible to get California tribes to unite or agree about anything. What you have had here in California is nothing short of very good political leadership," said Michael Lombardi, a tribal gaming consultant.

As such, the tribes often found themselves alone in the face of heavy white oppression that continued long after the initial contact. This isolation perhaps had some of its most lasting effects in the post World War II era when acts by the federal and state governments deprived tribes of their sovereign status and land holdings.

California tribes are nothing if not resilient; it was inevitable that the simultaneous events of improved communications of the modern era and adoption of the common English language amongst the tribes would begin to break down old barriers, at least partially.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, larger, more inclusive inter-tribal meetings were held in which common stories of oppression could finally be told. Mainstream American attitudes started shifting in regard to treatment of the Indians. From this beginning, tribes found that through unity they could exploit public support to gain a foothold in modern American life.

Utilizing constitutional guarantees that each tribe is a domestic dependent nation, the tribes reasoned they had power at least on par with individual states. The time seemed right to make a united move. Though Indian gaming has its roots in pre-Columbian societies, tribes came to the realization that they, like the state of Nevada for instance, could run legal gaming establishments on tribal lands.

(Part two next week.)