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California and the Indian tribes: A 20-year journey

This year marks the anniversary of two events in the long and difficult story of California’s Indian tribes and their struggle for recognition and survival.

In 1987, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California’s Indian tribes had the right to operate bingo and poker facilities on their reservations. California argued that they had the right to enforce their gaming laws on the reservations.

The Court ruled that jurisdiction over tribal lands was the province of the federal government. In what has become known as the Cabazon-Morongo decision, the United States government for the first time recognized the sovereignty of the nation’s Indian tribes.

Once again in 1997, there were those who sought to deny us the rights we had won. In March of that year, thousands of Indians from all over California held the Jobs and Justice Protest rally on the steps of the United States Courthouse in Los Angeles. From many different tribes, we came together as one to take a stand against those who would try to take away what we had fought so hard for and won 10 years earlier.

Two years later in 1998, the people of California stood in solidarity with us and passed Proposition 1A which gave us back some of the ability to govern ourselves and operate the gaming facilities that have brought a measure of economic prosperity not only to the tribes but also to the communities that are our neighbors.

Now 20 years later we are here to stand in solidarity with the people of California as the state struggles with some of the most difficult fiscal problems it has ever faced.

We have come a long way in those 20 years but it seems a world away from the life I remember growing up on the reservation.

I had to make my way and find work in the outside world because there was no work on the reservation. At times our unemployment rate was as high as 70 percent. Our tribal members tried to scratch out a living and provide for their families in living conditions that had not changed much since the establishment of the reservation in the early 1900s.

Our young people had very low self-esteem and because of age-old prejudices that surrounded us, they often times hid their own heritage. We couldn’t get bank loans to start our own businesses or to build decent housing on the very land that our ancestors had lived for centuries.

And what of the nearby community that bordered the reservation?

In those days Banning and the area around it was economically depressed. It was a truck stop on the Interstate 10 Freeway between Los Angeles and points east. The Morongo and its neighbors shared almost the same fate–a dismal economic future and no prospects on the horizon. But much has changed and today we are both looking at a brighter future.

So that we can continue to provide jobs and economic growth to the community we live in and at the same time provide hope and opportunity to our people, we agreed to amend our original 1999 compacts to provide California with $500 million annually in new revenue, almost $200 million of which would come from Morongo, in exchange for the ability to expand our operations. This new revenue will help fund education and healthcare and reduce the deficit.

Much has happened over the last 20 years. California’s Indian tribes have gone from protest to progress. We have gone from relying on others to relying on ourselves. Our people stand tall and have pride because we have gone from being a disappearing footnote in the history of California to one of the engines for continued economic prosperity.

Once we were unequal adversaries. Today necessity brings us together in equal partnership. Continued economic growth for California and her Indian tribes and new revenue to help resolve California’s chronic budget problems is a win-win for both sides. It is that simple.


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