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Wanamaker: "Let the Games Begin"

To the chagrin of some of California's established gaming tribes, a pair of San Diego County tribes, the La Posta and the Santa Ysabel Bands of Digue?o Mission Indians, recently signed gaming compacts that contain several unique features.

The new compacts require the two tribes, before building their casinos, to agree with the county on how to handle potential off-reservation impacts the casinos might have and to submit to binding arbitration if agreements are not reached.

The tribes also agreed to waive sovereign immunity from insurance lawsuits by patrons and workers injured at tribal casinos and are the first in California to agree to pay 5 percent of their net profits directly into the state's general fund. Other tribes pay into funds to mitigate off-reservation impacts and to benefit non-gaming tribes.

"Every sovereign tribe has the right to negotiate a deal on its own behalf," said Jacob Coin, president of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which takes no official position on individual compacts.

Local officials and consumer groups, according to a recent report in the Sacramento Bee, praised the tribes for responding to their concerns. Since the advent of Indian gaming in California, many injured casino patrons have lacked formal recourse to claim compensation, while residents in some areas surrounding casinos have complained loudly and often fruitlessly regarding traffic and noise.

Governor Gray Davis has attempted to encourage a re-negotiation of the state's current gaming compact, signed by 61 tribes since 1999. Because Davis seeks more money and other concessions from gaming tribes, many are upset over the sovereignty concessions in the La Posta/Santa Ysabel compact.

The Bee reported that Daniel Tucker and Deron Marquez, chairmen of the Sycuan Band of Digue?o Mission Indians and the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, respectively, object to the new compacts. They believe it will now be "difficult, if not impossible" to renegotiate the 1999 compact if Davis attempts to apply the sovereignty and arbitration concessions to them as well. Marquez added that the new compacts "give counties major influence and control over tribal lands," which he called "another broken treaty."

For their part, Santa Ysabel and La Posta officials defend the concessions as necessary to expedite economic improvement for their impoverished members, noting astronomical unemployment and significant numbers of reservation homes without running water or electricity.

Johnny Hernandez, Santa Ysabel tribal chairman, told the Bee that the binding arbitration provision does not sacrifice sovereignty, noting that he'd rather deal directly with the county than go to Federal court to resolve disputes. Regarding the sovereign immunity waiver, he told the Bee, "That's what we have insurance for - that's the way claims should be handled."

Sacramento attorney Rob Rosette, negotiator for the La Posta, said that the new compact represents a perfect use of tribal sovereignty.

"It doesn't make sense to ride roughshod over local government," he told the Bee on Sept. 20. "Working with local authorities to find ways to provide essential services to members such as health care, education and housing - that is a true exercise of sovereignty."

Coin pointed out that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act mandates a balance between federal, state and tribal interests. The fact that tribes in California and elsewhere face greater pressure to contribute a portion of gaming proceeds to states has upset that balance.

"It appears now that somehow the tribes' interests are no longer in balance with the states' interest in this case," Coin told Indian Country Today. "For every dollar that a tribe is persuaded to send to the state, that's a dollar they can't spend locally to build better schools, to address health issues, to care for their elders and do the kinds of things that tribal governments were supposed to do with gaming revenue."

"It's unfortunate that the state apparently has the kind of leverage over Indian tribes over these compacts," Coin added. "It's still a governmental right to game ? [tribes] should be allowed to pursue the best possible compact."

The concerns of the established gaming tribes are not unreasonable. Given California's vicious historical treatment of Indians, protecting gaming operations and revenue from undue interference by local and state officials is an important responsibility.

Likewise, the actions of the La Posta and Santa Ysabel are understandable as well. These tribes, entering an already crowded gaming market, are attempting to establish a positive relationship with local authorities. Given the animosity that has sometimes developed between tribes and their neighbors in other parts of the country, such efforts are commendable.

It remains to be seen, however, whether or not binding arbitration will be conducted fairly and whether the tribes will be subject to frivolous lawsuits, or whether future compacts will contain similar provisions. Time will tell if the La Posta/Santa Ysabel compacts strike an acceptable balance between protection of sovereignty and working with the local community.

Navajo gaming

Despite long-standing cultural opposition to gambling, the Navajo Nation could soon enter the gaming arena. On Sept. 19, Navajo President Joe Shirley signed a gaming compact with the State of New Mexico to allow a casino to be built at To'hajiilee, a Navajo community just west of Albuquerque.

Tribal members twice voted, in 1994 and 1997, against gaming anywhere on Navajo land; in both ballots, however, To'hajiilee votes approved gaming. In August, the tribal council approved a resolution to allow gaming only at the To'hajiilee enclave, which is located not far from casinos operated by the Laguna and Acoma pueblos.

Navajo oral tradition speaks of a character called the Gambler who swindled great wealth from the tribe in ancient times. Significant anti-gambling sentiment lingers within Navajo ranks; gaming at To'hajiilee is considered an "experiment" for now.

Terms of the compact call for the Navajos to pay the state 8 percent of their slot revenues, plus a flat annual fee of $100,000 to cover state regulatory costs. The Associated Press reported that Governor Bill Richardson promised a timely signing of the compact. Currently, New Mexico has a dozen tribes operating under a uniform compact.

Territory tolls?

In response to New York state's latest attempts to force Indian businesses to collect state taxes, the Onondaga Nation threatened to collect tolls on Interstate 81. The highway runs along the eastern edge of the Onondaga Territory just south of Syracuse; exit 16 empties Interstate traffic onto U.S. Route 11, on reservation land just south of the Onondaga sports arena.

Chief Virgil Thomas was recently quoted in both the Syracuse Post-Standard and in AP reports as saying that the Onondagas would build a toll booth on the Interstate and charge motorists a fee for traversing the Territory if the state insists on the tobacco and fuel taxes.

Officials from both the Onondaga and Oneida nations have publicly indicated willingness to discuss and negotiate tax concerns with Albany; none of the state's tribes were apparently consulted regarding the state tax department's recently announced coupon system, to be implemented on Dec. 1 at the behest of the state Legislature.

While Governor George Pataki understands the value of government-to-government relations (as evident by his compact negotiations last year with the Seneca Nation), the legislature doesn't get it. But then again, what can we expect from a body that for 19 years has not been able to negotiate within itself to produce a timely state budget? Keep an eye on New York.