And so, here we are again, confronting yet another significant moment in the
history of the United States of America and the varied tribes–First Nations,
as the some refer to them–who once inhabited this continent and from whom it
As in times past, this moment involves economic interests. A number of
tribes have discovered gold thanks to one of those “unintended consequences”
that sprout like weeds in the soil of an initiative; in this case, Prop. 37,
which created the State Lottery in 1984. “Consequences” developed because
federal law allows tribes to engage in activity on their own land if that
activity is sanctioned by the state. Court rulings and subsequent
initiatives (Prop. 5 in 1998 and Prop. 1A in 2000) used the Lottery’s
keno-style games to crowbar slot machines and other Nevada-style games of
chance into tribal casinos.
Now tribes and the state are squabbling over the growth and future of tribal
At the moment, the rhetoric of that debate is clouded by references to
“sovereignty”–the ability of tribes to govern their lands as independent
entities not beholden to the laws of California. But sovereignty itself
isn’t the real issue; it’s merely code for an ageless conflict over spoils.
Had tribes not blown the door off legalized gambling in California and not
accumulated enormous wealth and political power, no one would be the least
concerned with their sovereignty. The tribes themselves would be
ignored–until such time as their rights, lands and culture got in the way of
an economic interest coveted by someone else.
It is the way it has always been, and it is worth noting the historical
context that surrounds the current dilemma over sovereignty. It isn’t simply
a matter of making tribes report campaign contributions, or adhere to local
zoning laws, or pay for roads and fire stations, or stick to technicalities
dictated by federal gaming laws. No, there is history to deal with, and the
history–for white America–is shameful and has been since John Smith roamed
In centuries past, whites met the challenge posed by First Nations, and
engaged in the dispute over sovereignty, with the business end of a
Winchester and by writing promises, treaties and guarantees with invisible
ink. The U.S. quickly abandoned its word the moment a tribe was found to
occupy an inconvenient space–namely, anywhere whites wanted to farm, mine or
hunt. The geography of America does not contain one square inch that was
not, at some time, taken away from one tribe or another at gunpoint because
tribal sovereignty had collided with an economic interest hungered after by
whites. Under the rubric of “manifest destiny,” whites appropriated the
Everglades, Midwest prairies, Black Hills, Oklahoma Territory, Wallowa
Mountains, Mississippi Valley and California Gold Country–to name but a few
locales. Whites displaced the Seminole, Iroquois, Sauk, Cherokee, Lakota,
Nez Perce, Miwok, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Navajo, Chumash and dozens of other
tribes now lost to history.
Until, perhaps, now.
Congress has the power to tamper with sovereignty, to strip it away and give
states the authority to regulate all activity on tribal land. That would put
an end to economically powerful and independent nation-states operating
I have never been conflicted on this point, however, even though it seems
absurd to allow chunks of the state to be governed without regard to local
ordinances or state laws. California is difficult enough to administer
without having to deal with the consequences of tribal sovereignty. Yet the
United States is stained by its dishonorable treatment of Native Americans
because it has forever reneged on its word whenever some treaty fosters a
situation it did not foresee.
This again is one of those moments. If we were blind to the full
implications of the Lottery, and are dumb enough to gamble our wealth away
in tribal casinos, then forget about compacts and slot machines and even
urban casinos. Let the vaunted “marketplace” determine tribal success.
Some might consider this politically incorrect, but tribal gaming has become
“Sitting Bull’s revenge” on America.
So be it.