– A bill authored by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) would
give local governments and nearby tribes more decision-making power
over Native American tribes wanting to build casinos outside their
ancestral land, a tactic critics call
Hollister – A bill authored by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) would give local governments and nearby tribes more decision-making power over Native American tribes wanting to build casinos outside their ancestral land, a tactic critics call “reservation shopping.”
Currently, only the federal Department of the Interior and the governor can give tribes like the California Valley Miwok, which is proposing to build a casino near the Hollister airport, the final stamp of approval. But if Pombo’s bill passes, local government would decide whether or not to approve the proposal, possibly changing the dynamic in the struggle over the local proposal. The Miwoks have not yet proved their ties to the land, which would be a requirement under the new legislation.
On Thursday, a draft of the bill will be heard by the House Resources Committee, which controls all Indian-related legislation in the House of Representatives and is chaired by Pombo. Although no timeline has been set, the proposed bill is an attempt to prevent tribes with no historic ties in a region from purchasing land there and setting up a casino.
“Reservation shopping has become a real problem for communities throughout the country,” said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo’s office, whose district includes Gilroy and Morgan Hill. “What the bill would do is protect tribal sovereignty without restricting their opportunities.”
But Phillip Thompson, an attorney for the tribe, said that the Miwoks have enough information to prove their ancestral ties to San Benito County.
“We believe we’ll have a nexus to the area and since we don’t have a reservation, we are not reservation shopping, we’re looking for a location,” said Thompson.
The San Benito County Board of Supervisors and San Juan Bautista City Council have opposed the proposed casino, which is similar in size to Cache Creek Casino in Yolo County, with 2,200 slot machines and measuring over 70,000 square feet. But the Hollister City Council has not reached consensus, although it has formed a committee to discuss its impact on the area.
Council members are meeting with the Miwoks this Wednesday to get more information from the tribe, including whether they can establish ancestral claim to the land, said Councilman Brad Pike.
“I am hoping that in the next couple of weeks we’ll have a good idea of what’s coming,” he said, adding that he was not too familiar with Congressman Pombo’s bill.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he will not approve gaming compacts outside of tribes’ indigenous areas without overwhelming support from the local community.
“Right now there is a real feeling among these targeted communities that when a non-indigenous tribe comes in, such as the California Valley Miwoks, they don’t have the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ say,” said Steve Merrell, spokesperson for Casinos Represent A Poor Solution, a group that is fighting the Miwok casino in San Benito County which favors Pombo’s legislation. “They are victimized in the whole process and that’s wrong.”
As an alternative, Pombo’s bill would create “opportunity zones” around the state on both Indian and non-Indian land where tribes could apply to open a casino. Under the legislation, the areas would serve as “mini-Las Vegases” where numerous casinos could be set up. That’s where the Miwoks could move their casino, if they are prevented from setting up shop in San Benito County, said Gary Ramos, project manager for the tribe.
“We feel right now that it (the bill) is not going to have a big impact on us,” said Ramos. “Regardless what the bill does, we still have a right to purchase land.”
Val Lopez, chairman of the San Juan Bautista-based Amah-Mutsun tribe, says that any attempt by the Miwoks to build a casino in San Benito County would be an invasion of their territory and thus, a violation of Indian law.
“Their (Miwok) tribal land is in Calaveras County and that’s where they should do all of their economic development; build their casino and what not,” said Lopez. “These are our sacred lands.”
Councilman Robert Scattini, said while he personally supports Pombo’s bill, he also has an obligation to listen to his constituents in District 2, who overwhelmingly support the casino.
“I am up against the wall,” he said. “These are the people who voted me into office, so I feel like we can’t go against them.”
Instead, Scattini favors letting voters decide the fate of the casino.
Currently, any federally-recognized American Indian tribe can look for land outside their own reservation, to find property that is closer to urban centers and freeways to drum up business.
It has already happened in a dozen of places around the state, including San Pablo, where the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians built a casino in 1995 and is currently trying to expand its facility to include two floors and 2,500 slot machines. The tribe’s reservation is in the Santa Rosa area.