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Casinos Lead to Tribal Sovereignty Woes

January 16, 2003

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ High on a hilltop overlooking miles of vineyards and the sparkling Russian River, two circus-like tents front a parking lot carved from the steep slope.

Inside, 269 slot machines clang and chime around the clock, the background music of the River Rock Casino _ a popular destination for northern California seniors that happens to be in violation of the local agricultural zoning code.

The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians refused to halt construction of the casino despite allegations of building, safety and environmental violations. And even the state’s top law enforcement official couldn’t stop it from opening last fall.

``The tribe just said ’Stuff it _ stuff it, governor, stuff it, attorney general,‴ said Alexander Valley Association President Karen Passalacqua, who has led local opposition.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Gov. Gray Davis were thwarted by tribal sovereignty, a wall of legal independence that has become familiar to state and local officials across the nation.

Tribal sovereignty is rooted in the principle that Indian tribes were sovereign nations assimilated by the United States. Tribes’ independence from most state oversight was established by the U.S. Supreme Court 170 years ago, and many tribes have treaties with the government recognizing special status and guaranteeing special rights.

But sovereignty began receiving new attention with the spread of casinos after Congress approved the National Indian Gaming Act in 1988.

``It exploded these sovereignty issues nationwide, and it exploded them in ways that people had never even thought of,″ said Guy Martin, whose Washington, D.C., law firm represents communities in tribal disputes in about 20 states. ``We’re coming upon a time when we could be forced to reconsider the entire issue of Indian sovereignty.″

A trio of Supreme Court decisions, two of them last year, narrowed tribes’ ability to restrict intrusion by states on law enforcement and tax issues.

``Indian Country recognized the U.S. Supreme Court was really on a rampage against tribal sovereignty,″ said Tracy Labin, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. ``Certainly tribal gaming is something that catches everyone’s attention, but very quietly the U.S. Supreme Court is just chipping away.″

Tribes have responded with a coordinated effort to fight for their rights in court. They’re also proposing national legislation to protect their sovereignty, a proposal opponents say would give tribes rights they’ve never had.

``The biggest sovereignty contest is between tribes and states, because the tribes are trying to set themselves up as equal to states,″ Martin said.

There are these examples:

_ The Skull Valley Goshutes plan to use part of their Utah reservation for a nuclear waste dump despite the state’s opposition. The impoverished tribe hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by storing 40,000 tons of waste for 40 years.

_ Connecticut lawmakers repealed a law permitting certain groups to open casinos, in an attempt to block additional ones from being built. Tribes vowed to challenge the move in court.

_ State and county officials in New York are negotiating with the Oneida Indians of New York, Wisconsin and Canada over a proposed $500 million settlement for a quarter-million acres of tribal land that New York state purchased in the 18th and 19th centuries.

_ Washington state’s Lummi and Suquamish tribes are claiming jurisdiction over former reservation land, leading to sovereignty disputes with non-Indian residents. Similar disputes are underway with Wisconsin’s Oneida and Mohican tribes.

_ The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians refuses to adhere to California campaign contribution reporting laws, prompting a lawsuit over where tribal sovereignty ends and the state’s rights begin.

In California, the debate has become heated now that state officials are attempting to renegotiate gambling compacts hastily drafted by the governor’s office in 1999. On Friday, Gov. Gray Davis said he wants tribes to approve new revenue sharing agreements worth $1.5 billion to help fill the state’s nearly $35 billion revenue hole, similar to agreements in New York and Connecticut.

In the case of the Dry Creek Band, the attorney general’s office concedes that the tribe followed its compact with the state to the letter. State officials concluded there was nothing they could do beyond requiring the tribe to sit down and talk about the alleged building, safety and environmental violations. Six months later, those talks are still ongoing, even after site improvements have eliminated many of the earlier problems.

``I guess that’s the question: Should public safety override tribal sovereignty in a case like this?″ Passalacqua said. ``I don’t think it was ever the intent that this little 75-acre rancheria, which was originally meant for homeless Indians, should be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week casino.″

Indian sovereignty, she argues, ``is an idea that got out of control.″

But Doug Searle, a consultant who has opened casinos for three tribes over the last 10 years, says the tribes are simply playing the hand they were dealt.

The Dry Creek Band was stuffed away on a hillside, literally out of sight and mind from residents in the fertile plain below. Before the casino, the land had little agricultural or commercial value, leaving the 704-member tribe desperately poor.

``The first time I came up here, I can tell you I honestly started crying,″ said Searle. ``You would not believe that we as Americans would let people live like that.″


On the Net:

Native American Rights Fund: http://www.narf.org/

National Congress of American Indians: http://www.ncai.org/

National Association of Attorneys General: http://www.naag.org/

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