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Tribal rift puts state in position of referee

Casinos pit large-but-poor against small-but-powerful


September 3, 2005

SACRAMENTO Most of the sprawling Yurok reservation in extreme Northern California doesn't have electricity. Many of the tribe's nearly 5,000 members also don't have telephone service.

"Not only are we the largest tribe in California, we're also one of the poorest," said Troy Fletcher, Yurok's executive director.

On Wednesday, Fletcher had to scratch up air fare to fly to Sacramento to defend his tribe's bid for a small casino against high-powered opposition from some of the state's wealthiest gaming tribes.

"We're very disappointed that people could not pick up the phone and find out where we were at before they took this drastic step," Fletcher lamented. "We expect that type of behavior from non-Indian groups, not from other tribes."

A new gambling agreement for the Quechan tribe of Imperial County also has become entangled in what has quickly become a bare-knuckled brawl over the concessions and tighter regulations the Schwarzenegger administration is securing in new compacts.

The struggle has left lawmakers to referee a clash of tribal sovereignty, pitting Indian nations that have invoked that hallowed status loud and often in the past against those who now say they have the same right to decide what is best for their people.

Quechan already has gambling, but wants to open a larger casino with up to 1,100 slot machines along Interstate 8. Yurok wants to build its first casino, a modest operation with no more than 350 slots, near the Oregon border.

The administration released the two compacts in June, but they have yet to be ratified by the Legislature, which has yet to hold a hearing on either.

With this year's legislative session set to adjourn on Friday, a 13-member tribal alliance weighed in against the compacts this week. The group includes Pechanga of Temecula, Morongo of east Riverside County, Agua Caliente of Palm Springs and San Manuel of San Bernardino County. The four are among the nation's most successful gaming tribes and the state's largest political contributors.

The tribes raised numerous objections but said they are primarily concerned that the Yurok and Quechan compacts contain conditions such as labor concessions and revenue-sharing levels that have become part of a broader "template" the state will attempt to impose on all tribes eventually.

Most, if not all, of the controversial provisions were included in earlier Schwarzenegger-negotiated compacts that were approved without tribal opposition. One provision, linking the percentage of revenue Quechan and Yurok will pay the state to each tribe's membership, drew searing criticism.

"Given the numerous attempts in history to exterminate Indian tribes and people, we find it wholly inappropriate to set tribal enrollment as a basis for payments to the state," San Manuel Chairman Deron Marquez said in a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Marquez went on to call the policy "a painful reminder of a period in the 1850s when California appropriated state funds to pay bounties on the lives of Indian people just so the state and non-Indians could take land and gold for their own profit."

In an angry response, Schwarzenegger called the analogy "insulting and irresponsible."

The state agreed to reduce its revenue request for Quechan and Yurok because they are two of the state's largest tribes and the administration wanted to encourage them to maintain and expand their populations, Schwarzenegger wrote to Marquez. Both would pay more if their membership declined.

"Tribes, like San Manuel, with relatively small memberships, but good locations, have benefited enormously" from the exclusive right to conduct casino gambling in California, Schwarzenegger noted.

"It is disturbing," the governor said, "that you would act in such crass self-interest to object to compacts in order to prevent tribes with large enrollments and greater needs from engaging in gaming."

The state's dominant tribal lobby, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, has discussed the compacts privately, but so far has stayed out of the fray. Yurok belongs to the 67-member organization; Quechan does not.

Morongo Chairman Maurice Lyons said it was a difficult decision to take on another tribe.

"But there are things in those compacts that are going to hurt all tribes," Lyons said.

The sniping between tribes has become pointed and personal. After Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro publicly dismissed the pending compacts as "horrible" deals, Quechan President Mike Jackson took a swipe at Macarro in a letter that recently began circulating at the Capitol.

"I am one who has been a leader before casinos and compacts . . . so I know the hardships, the pain and suffering my people have gone through," Jackson wrote. "I'm not a casino-created tribal leader."

The rift could force lawmakers to choose sides. One, Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, represents tribes in both camps.

"We've tried in the past to be clear, at least from the Legislature's perspective, that we view (compacts) individually," said Ducheny, who represents Quechen. "I think Quechan supports that, too. So I don't think it's irreconcilable."

One of Yurok's political allies suggested his fellow lawmakers should take a careful look at what is in play.

"You've got little tribes that own big casinos opposing a large tribe that happens to be physically isolated and wants a small casino," said Sen. Wes Chesbro, an Arcata Democrat who represents Yurok. "In terms of providing economic opportunity, these are very significant proposals that will affect a larger number of Indians than the other casinos."




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