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Tribal leaders share views on threats to sovereignty
Tuesday, January 20, 2004

From the state's new governor to the U.S. Supreme Court, tribal leaders in California say they are seeing a number of threats to their sovereignty.

At the 9th annual Western Indian Gaming Conference, held in Palm Springs last week, protection of the state's $4 billion tribal casino industry was high on the agenda. But attendees went further and said gaming helps tribes address other problems they encounter.

"We are in modern warfare. Don't make a mistake about that," said Anthony Pico, chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. "Gaming to me is a factory that fashions the bows and arrows that will create a place for our people seven generations from now."

On the gaming front, some tribal leaders were quick to cite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Earlier this month, he proposed to take $500 million in revenues from tribal casinos, and he has appointed an attorney to renegotiate existing agreements. Tribes that already operate casinos are under no obligation to reopen their compacts but attendees were nevertheless alarmed.

"That's a threat to our sovereignty," said Ken Gilbert, a council member for the Concow Maidu Tribe of the Mooretown Rancheria. "We have a big job to continue to try to educate everybody that is opposed to the things we are doing. A lot of [the opposition] is because of not knowing."

Gilbert's comments underscored a familiar theme heard throughout the conference, which was sponsored by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. Tribal leaders said the state's citizens, particularly voters, need to be informed about Indian history and tribal rights.

"Are we a special interest group?" asked Tracy Edwards, chairwoman of the Redding Rancheria. "That's not what we are."

Edwards said it was important to reach out to local communities. She said the tribe held a "State of the Tribe" address that was crucial in changing people's minds.

"It was dispelling the myths of what the tribe was going to do," she said. "Here's our plans. There's no secret there."

Pico also cited lack of education as a major problem. But he said the effort needs start at home with a tribe's own membership. "It becomes institutionalized," he said. "No matter what tribal leadership is in, that education component will continue."

Marc Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, called the Supreme Court "hands down" the single biggest threat, pointing to recent decisions, including some that originated in the state, that have chipped away at tribal sovereignty. "Don't get fooled by battles over initiatives, over your land or over anything else," he warned.

"None of it matters if the Supreme Court keeps going the way it is going," he continued. "It will all be over."

Leslie Lohse, council member for the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, brought up "complacency" by tribes. In the past five years, tribes were successful in winning over state voters, who overwhelmingly approved two initiatives supporting Indian gaming. But more recently, she said tribes have allowed themselves "to be defined by what we do instead of who we are."

"We need to get that message out as to who we are," Lohse told conference attendees. "That's our biggest threat to tribal sovereignty ... it's complacency on our part."

Pico relayed a similar concern when he said Indian people are in danger of becoming too materialistic. Tribes are more interested in the pursuit of material items rather than understanding and implementing long-term goals.

"Our own passion is paramount," he said. "Exercising our sovereignty depends a lot on our passion."

Relevant Links:
California Nations Indian Gaming Association - http://www.cniga.com
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - http://www.governor.ca.gov/state/govsite/gov_homepage.jsp

Related Stories:
Calif. tribes meet challenges to gaming rights (1/15)
Calif. tribes welcome pick for compact negotiator (01/08)
Schwarzenegger seeks revenues from gaming tribes (01/07)
Commentary: Gaming tribes must serve public (11/25)
Calif. tribes put aside rhetoric of recall election (11/10)
Schwarzenegger picks card club adviser for post (11/06)
Commentary: 'Promiscuous' spending by Calif. tribes (11/04)
Opinion: Calif. tribes on 'defensive' after recall (10/21)
Column: Schwarzenegger groped Indians in Calif. (10/20)
Harjo: Schwarzenegger needs education on Indians (10/20)
Commentary: Schwarzenegger wrong on Indian gaming (10/16)
WSJ Column: Tribes should pay their fair share (10/14)

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