The Sacramento Bee by Todd Milbourn -- Bee
Staff Writer June 11, 2006
Tribes Look Far Afield For Casino
Bills in Congress could block the
trend and rewrite gaming rules.
Indian tribe rooted in Lake County is pushing a Las
Vegas-style casino in the
Tribes from Humboldt and San Diego counties are
vying to open casinos along busy
Interstate 15 in Barstow.
And a tribe from Oklahoma is searching beyond its
reservation -- even across
state lines -- to build a casino near Denver.
Across the country, Indian tribes, often backed by
wealthy investors, are
aspiring to build casinos in lucrative markets --
even if those spots bear
little or no historic connection to the tribe.
The trend is often assailed as "reservation
shopping." It's stoking a national
debate that might reshape the $20 billion-a-year
Indian gaming industry.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., are leading the
charge to corral the practice. Both argue that some
tribes and their non-Indian
backers are simply trying to get rich off a law
intended to alleviate tribal
"This is not what the public thought they were
getting when they approved Indian
gaming," said Alison Harvey, executive director of
the California Tribal
Business Alliance, a Sacramento-based tribal
gambling association that generally
opposes off-reservation gaming. "It's coming to a
California already is the nation's largest Indian
gambling state, home to 55
casinos that generate $13 billion a year, according
to the state attorney
Across the state, at least 40 tribes are proposing
according to Stand Up for California, a Penryn-based
gambling watchdog group.
Almost all of those proposals face long odds -- even
under current law. Even so,
opponents of casino expansion are paying close
attention, recalling that tribal
gambling interests have proved adept at finding
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act generally restricts
casinos to tribal lands
established before the act took effect on Oct. 17,
1988. Only a handful of
tribes have successfully navigated a labyrinth of
federal and state rules to
obtain permission to build casinos beyond their
The difficulty of the approval process, coupled with
opposition to off-reservation gambling, has spurred
some observers to argue that
fears of an off-reservation casino boom are
"The law as written makes it very, very tough," said
Anthony Miranda, chairman
of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association,
a coalition of gaming and
non-gaming tribes that does not take an official
stance on off-reservation
Only three U.S. tribes ever have secured state and
federal approval required for
an off-reservation casino, Miranda said. Another two
dozen have been authorized
using legal exceptions, which include provisions for
tribes rendered landless in
the past and tribes whose federal recognition was
restored after the deadline.
The Bay Area's Casino San Pablo emerged thanks to
Rep. George Miller,
D-Martinez, who tacked its approval onto an omnibus
Indian bill in 2000.
Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney who
represents the region's largest
gambling tribes, said most of the current proposals
are merely investor-fueled
He noted that both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and
the federal Department of the
Interior have taken tougher stances on
off-reservation casinos in recent years.
Some local communities have grown leery, too. For
instance, Amador County
residents overwhelmingly said "no" to more casinos
in a non-binding advisory
vote in 2005.
"Most of these are pie in the sky," Dickstein said
of the proposals. "If
anything, the climate in this country on gaming is
going the other direction --
they want to take away what's already out there.
"It's not like it was 15 years ago when most tribes
had reservation land and
simply built casinos on it," Dickstein continued.
"Now you have to deal with a
very skeptical federal and state government and
newly empowered local
governments that are focused on mitigating impacts."
Yet tribes like the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo
Indians continue to roll the
Backed by Florida investors, the tribe is pushing
for a Vegas-style casino with
2,000 slot machines in Richmond. The tribe's
ancestral land is more than 100
miles away in rural Lake County.
Tribal chairman Don Arnold insists the tribe has
historic ties to the Bay Area,
pointing to a never-ratified 1851 treaty that ceded
Indian lands that once
reached into the North Bay.
His pitch often draws on the tragic history of
California Indians: His
201-member tribe was terminated in the late 1950s
and restored, without land, in
"The tribes that are trying to set up casinos
without a reservation are the ones
who were treated the worst; they were the ones who
were raped, starved and
terminated," said Arnold. "The most important thing
here is that Indian gaming
was created for benefit of Native Americans in this
country, not for cities,
counties or other people involved."
Some Bay Area residents object to the Scotts Valley
and other proposals, saying
a proliferation of urban casinos would harm the
economy, attract crime and
further depress poor areas.
"What you have here is a blatant land grab," said
Conor Lee of the East Bay
Coalition Against Urban Casinos, a citizens group.
"It's investors from outside
of California coming in and finding a small tribe,
giving the tribe backing,
bringing in some hired guns who know how to work the
system and basically trying
to make millions and millions of dollars."
McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee, says he's trying to
avoid those scenarios. His bill essentially would
gambling for tribes with their own reservation land,
with exceptions for some
tribes that already have applied.
The bill still would allow landless or newly
recognized tribes to build casinos
on land to which they have historical, geographical
and other ties. But it would
tighten restrictions and require more public input.
Pombo, who is pushing his own restrictive proposal,
declined requests for an
On the state level, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock,
D-Berkeley, is pushing to give
communities more say over casinos.
She said the East Bay has become the nation's
"poster child" for urban,
"They do produce some jobs," Hancock said of urban
casinos. "But if you have a
$100 million profit at a casino, most of that is
coming out of the pockets of
local people. About 35 percent of it is going to
investors in Las Vegas or
Florida, and the rest is not being distributed in
The city of Barstow sees it differently.
City leaders there are seeking out distant tribes to
build casinos. They say
gambling would provide an economic boost for the
city, a Mojave Desert way
station along Interstate 15 that has struggled with
Despite his stated aversion to off-reservation
gambling, Schwarzenegger is
supporting the effort of the Big Lagoon Rancheria of
Humboldt County to get a
Barstow casino. By offering a Barstow casino, the
thinking goes, the tribe won't
build a casino in the environmentally sensitive Big
Lagoon area, a pristine
swath of coastal Humboldt County that's home to bald
eagles and peregrine
The Los Coyotes Band of San Diego County also is
vying for a Barstow casino.
The Barstow projects still face hurdles, though,
including approval from the
Critics contend the deal could spark a host of
"environmentally sensitive" land
claims. Others see it as an example of the state
exercising more control over
"If you're going to have gambling, you've got to
take the bull by the horns,"
said Cheryl Schmit, founder and executive director
of Stand Up For California.
"If you don't, the casinos will just run us over as
they have in the past."
California voters gave Indian tribes a monopoly on
Vegas-style gaming by passing
Proposition 1A in 2000. Six years later, gambling
has grown into one of the
state's largest industries.
Casinos have paid for health clinics and schools.
They've also enriched
non-Indian investors and turned tribes into
political powerhouses that lavish
millions on state and national candidates.
Pombo has received $165,947 from casino and gambling
interests so far in the
2005-2006 election cycle, more than any other member
of Congress, according to
the Center for Responsive Politics. Pombo is a point
person on Indian gaming as
chairman of the House Resources Committee.
Dickstein, the tribal attorney, acknowledged that
further expansion carries
risks. If tribes push too far, he said, the state
could move toward approving
commercial gambling statewide.
"It's unwise for tribes to float proposals
willy-nilly," he said. "Ultimately,
it's a short-term view that risks the future of the
About the writer:
The Bee's Todd Milbourn can be reached at (916)