Casino gaming has pulled thousands of people onto Indian lands–and drawn
California’s Indian tribes deep into the state’s political process. Not
surprisingly, fault lines have quickly appeared.
Nowhere are these more clear than around attorney Howard Dickstein, legal
counsel for the California Tribal Business Alliance. A non-Indian, some
credit Dickstein with being a pioneer in gaining gaming rights for tribes.
But others say he has sold out the very concept of tribal sovereignty in his
negotiations. For his part, Dickstein said that he and his organization are
using sovereignty to help tribes protect their own interests.
Among Dickstein’s most vocal critics are two tribal leaders, Michael
Lombardi, chairman of the gaming commission of the Augustine tribe, near
Santa Barbara, and Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano
Mission Indians. At their core these disagreements with Dickstein center on
differing concepts of sovereignty, the idea that tribes are independent
governments in their own right. Both Lombardi and Marquez say that Dickstein
has sought to use tribal sovereignty as a bargaining chip, trading away
tribal rights in the gaming compacts his tribes have signed with the state
“He views sovereignty as a commodity,” Marquez said. “He uses it to create a
larger cash flow for his clients. But he added, “If you lose sovereignty, if
you sell it off, as Mr. Dickstein intends to do, you can’t get it back.”
Both men cited agreements made by Dickstein for tribes to abide by
environmental laws, deal with unions and allow various law enforcement
rights to outside governments on Indian lands. These concessions began with
the gaming compact the Pala tribe signed with the state in early 1998,
Months later, voters passed Proposition 5 to allow tribal gaming. When this
was thrown out by the courts, tribal interests passed Proposition 1A in
April 2000 with 65 percent of the vote. Soon, tribes were negotiating
compacts under far more favorable terms, Lombardi said.
“Not even the Pala tribe operates under the Pala compact,” he said.
Lombardi said that Dickstein then turned around and started negotiating away
rights for his six tribes all over again. This had two effects other tribes,
Lombardi claims: having state and local governments expecting non-Business
Alliance tribes to make the same concessions, and setting a precedent for
each new governor to renegotiate compacts.
“It is part of this canard that Mr. Dickstein has engaged in that he is the
gatekeeper for Indian politics,” Lombardi said. “Do you know why tribal
sovereignty keeps changing? It’s because white people keep breaking deals.”
Dickstein tells a far different story. He has a background in sovereignty,
having graduated in the subject from Cambridge University and taught it in
law schools, including the University of California at Davis and the
University of Malaya. The agreements, he said, are like the treaties that
different state and national governments sign with each other.
“What I’m describing is just what nations and governments all over the world
have been doing for decades,” Dickstein said. “[Sovereignty] is never
bargained away. It’s used to achieve objectives