Whether or not it was his intention, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent
decision to embrace off-reservation gaming has quietly opened the door to
the much wider discussion of tribal monopoly over lucrative slot machines
and other casino gaming in California. The specter of off-reservation gaming
is a direct challenge to the principles of Proposition 1A, which allows for
casino-style gaming solely on “Indian lands.”
The Governor’s off-reservation gaming proposals blurs the line between
standard profit-driven commercial gaming and the more isolated gaming that
occurs on Indian reservations for the benefit of native peoples throughout
California. If successful, the proliferation of tribal off-reservation
gaming will undoubtedly change the state’s gaming landscape, as opposing
tribes and operators of race tracks and card clubs will be forced to respond
to new encroachments on territory and markets. Make no mistake, the push for
slot machines by all state gaming interests will be huge.
Voters, the ultimate arbitrators on these issues, will be left with a fairly
straightforward question: If a tribe can simply claim any unrelated piece of
property in California as reservation land for casino building, what is the
difference between tribal gaming and regular commercial gaming?
Off-reservation gaming may force the answer that there is not really much
difference at all.
And, with the state reaping a bigger share of gaming profits through direct
taxation of commercial gaming enterprises, off-reservation gaming might
cause voters to reconsider the benefits of having slots not just on Indian
lands, but throughout the state — at every convenience store and gas
station, or, better yet, converting state lottery terminals into slot-type
Already we have seen city leaders in Garden Grove encouraging Indian tribes
to build a casino there in the hope of using impact fees and shared revenues
to shore up the city’s finances. The City of Barstow, for its part, is
welcoming two off-reservation Indian casinos — claiming that it is the only
viable economic development option for the isolated rural town.
One of the three off-reservation compacts at issue includes the
Humboldt-based Big Lagoon Rancheria, which would have the tribe build and
operate a casino in Barstow, more than 700 miles from the tribe’s homeland
in Northern California. While the proposal is purportedly intended to
protect environmentally sensitive coastal reservation lands from casino
development, the deal also gives a green light to the rural San Diego
County-based Los Coyotes Band of Mission Indians to build an adjoining
casino in the city. Both compacts, along with an anticipated one with
Madera’s North Fork tribe, who seek to build a mega-casino along busy
Highway 99–40 miles away from their traditional reservation land in the
Sierra foothills — are the early trendsetters for a whole host of other
off-reservation compacts that the Legislature will face in the near future.
For those of us who believe that slot machines and gaming should remain on
traditional Indian lands and for the benefit of native peoples, we are not
alone. Interior Secretary Gale Norton last year put into effect a defacto
moratorium on off-reservation compacts by vowing not consider a compact for
a new casino unless the site is held in trust by the federal government–a
detailed and sometimes lengthy process.
Neither Big Lagoon, Los Coyotes nor North Fork’s proposed off-reservation
casino locations are on Indian federal trust lands. Yet, Schwarzenegger has
negotiated compacts with these tribes and has thus far sent two of them to
the Legislature for ratification. In response, I have introduced Senate
Resolution 20, which would require that all tribes seeking a compact with
the state to first have the proposed casino lands put into federal trust
before the compact is even considered for ratification. It is time we put
the land-issue-horse before the gaming-casino-cart.
Passing SR 20 in the Legislature is a sensible first step to keeping
Proposition 1A’s promise of limiting Indian gaming to Indian lands. The next
step would be to vote down all off-reservation gaming proposals–a fight that
I am prepared to lead. Anything less than a resounding “no” vote on the
Governor’s current proposed off-reservation compacts could mean the start of
a new gaming arms race, with the potential proliferation of slots into every
corner of our society, thus summarily destroying the dream of Native
American economic self-sufficiency.