Federal bill to reinstate Siskiyou-area tribe draws fire

Black Butte near Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou County. Photo: Pung, via Shutterstock)

A controversial bill to reinstate federal tribal recognition to a long defunct Siskiyou County American Indian rancheria is stalled in the House of Representatives amid questions about the group’s authenticity and motivations.

House Resolution 3535, sponsored by Congress Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, would reinstate federal recognition to Ruffey Rancheria, a home for “landless Indians” in Etna approved in 1907 and terminated by Congress some 50 years later. LaMalfa’s major political donors include numerous tribal and gambling interests.

“For us, restoration is not a political issue. It is not a partisan issue, it is a question of justice.” — Tahj Gomes

If approved, the bill would allow tribal members to claim 441 acres in Siskiyou County that they could use to potentially build a casino and claim water rights without regard to local land-use laws. Siskiyou County supports the bill.

But critics question why Ruffey Rancheria needs a special act of Congress for recognition and doesn’t go through the normal federal acknowledgement process conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They claim LaMalfa’s bill could open the door for other tribes to seek direct access for recognition through Congress without going through a thorough review of historical, political and genealogical records.

Tahj Gomes, a Chico attorney who is the chairman of Ruffey Rancheria, said the bill is intended to right a historical wrong. “For us, restoration is not a political issue,” he said when testifying for the congressional subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. “It is not a partisan issue, it is a question of justice.”

The rancheria was terminated by Congress in 1961 in response to the 1958 California Indian Rancheria Act, which called for the termination of 41 rancherias. According to the Ruffey Rancheria website, some of the original land associated with the rancheria is in trust while the rest is in private hands.

Because Congress terminated the tribe, only Congress can restore it, LaMalfa says.

In his testimony in Congress on the bill, LaMalfa said he has known and worked with the tribe for years and that the tribe has “deep roots in Siskiyou County that can be dated back generations.” He said Ruffey Rancheria is one of the last few remaining terminated California Indian rancherias that have not yet been restored to federally recognized status.

Because Congress terminated the tribe, only Congress can restore it, he said, adding that the language used in his bill is similar to that used to restore other terminated rancherias.

Critics wonder if this is a legitimate attempt to restore a tribe or a cynical move to get land for another casino.

Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, a gaming watchdog group in Penryn, said documents of the day indicated Ruffey Rancheria was terminated because it was deserted and no one lived there.

More than 70 tribes have raised concerns about the restoration of Ruffey Rancheria.

She said Gomes has not identified who will be the members of the restored tribe or the members of the tribal council. She believes the group is identifying tribal members from descendants from the group that was there around 1913 rather than the last members in the late 1950s.

She said that if Ruffey Rancheria is restored, it will set a bad precedent by opening the door for other tribes to skip the rigorous normal tribal review process. Every tribe approved means a loss of significant tax dollars in the state of California as all tribes then become sovereign nations, she said.

As of 2016, there were at least 109 tribes in California, according to the State Judicial Council. Casino-owning tribes earn about $8.3 billion in revenues, Schmit said.

More than 70 tribes have raised concerns about the restoration of Ruffey Rancheria. In a May 2 press release by the Karuk Tribe, Karuk chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery said LaMalfa has not adequately answered concerns about how the new tribe would impact other tribes’ resources. “Why the rush, and why so much secrecy?” he said in the release.

Fee to trust dates back to the 1930s and the Indian Reorganization Act, which allows tribes to recover traditional tribal lands.

LaMalfa is also the sponsor of another bill — H.R. 1491 — that affirms a federal decision to take a 1,400-acre parcel of land into trust in the Santa Ynez Valley for the Chumash tribe, an action called “fee to trust.” The move is supported by Santa Barbara County, but neighbors are opposed the decision because they say it will destroy the rural, bucolic character of the area, which was the setting for the movie Sideways. The bill is heading for a vote on the Senate floor.

Fee to trust dates back to the 1930s and the Indian Reorganization Act, which allows tribes to recover traditional tribal lands. The government would use its power of eminent domain to take lands into trust and give it to the American Indians. Opponents of H.R. 1491 argue that the law was intended to help poor American Indians and get back their land not to benefit wealthy tribes like the Chumash, which they say earns $300 million a year from a casino.

“This sets a terrible precedent,” said Richard Kline, spokesperson for the coalition. “If the Chumash tribe can do this, other tribes throughout the country will use fee-to-trust special-interest bills to force leapfrog developments on hapless communities,” he said. “This simply creates Congress arbitrarily becoming local land-use commissioners. It’s absolutely frightening and beyond all logic that Congress from thousands of miles away would insert themselves into a local land-use issue.”

The coalition questions why LaMalfa is the sponsor of these two bills. The group points to OpenSecrets research that shows 28 of LaMalfa’s top 100 donors come from gambling interests and tribes. LaMalfa did not respond to an email request for comment.

At a congressional hearing, Kenneth Kahn, Chumash tribal chairman, said the land is necessary to satisfy the tribe’s need for housing. He highlighted the tribe’s October agreement with Santa Barbara County on how to manage the land acquisition.

“Our agreement demonstrated to many in the community that good-faith negotiations between the county and the tribe are possible, and that they can be fruitful,” Kahn said in his testimony. “I also believe that our decision to work with the county even after our land was placed in trust is a big reason why we have such strong support for the bill.”

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