Claudia Gonzales: Off-reservation gaming fuels attacks on tribes

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians owns and operates the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, California. Photo from Facebook

The following is the opinion of Claudia Gonzales, the chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, in regard to her tribe's support of H.R.5079, the California Compact Protection Act. If enacted, the bill would prevent the Bureau of Indian Affairs from approving or otherwise allowing Class III gaming on the trust lands of the Enterprise Rancheria and the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians.

By now, you have probably heard that the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians is supporting the California Compact Protection Act, H.R. 5079. This is true. Because we are very aware that the North Fork and Enterprise Bands are circulating rumors that Picayune only supports this legislation out of a fear of competition, we felt it necessary to write to explain our position.

The North Fork and Enterprise Bands are proposing highly controversial off-reservation casinos well outside their existing tribal areas, in the aboriginal territory of other tribes. These projects are not only opposed by the surrounding tribes, they were also rejected by 61% of California’s voters. So, while Picayune will not pretend that it is not concerned about the economic impact that the North Fork off-reservation project will definitely have on our on-reservation casino, we are equally concerned about the anti IGRA backlash that has already been generated in California, and that will begin to be generated elsewhere, if North Fork’s off-reservation casino is forced on our State’s voters.

The federal court’s decision in North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians v. State of California, No. 15-cv-00419 (E.D. Cal.) represents the first time that a federal court has found a state to be acting in “bad faith” for refusing to sign an off-reservation gaming compact under a two-part determination on a site specifically rejected by a statewide referendum. It also represents the first time that a federal court has appointed a mediator who has requested the Secretary of the Interior to impose procedures allowing off-reservation Class III gaming on a site acquired in this manner. Allowing federal courts to authorize two-part determination off-reservation gaming sites over a state’s express objection presents a very real danger to IGRA, to on-reservation gaming operations, and to the delicate balance that many tribes have struck with their state neighbors.

The North Fork Band’s efforts to force the approval of an off-reservation casino site has already fueled anti-gaming sentiments in California and in Congress, and it would be unwise to ignore the risks of this decision being left unchecked. State officials across the U.S. are not going to sit quietly by and let off-reservation gaming proliferate. When this project was first advanced, it was the voters of California, not just its elected officials, who demanded a statewide referendum and vetoed the North Fork Madera site by a vote of 61% to 39%. This said something to us, and it should to you as well.

The proposals of the North Fork and Enterprise Bands also have put a proposed Carcieri fix in jeopardy. Specifically, certain members of Congress have already suggested that North Fork’s and Enterprise’s efforts justify their demands for adding additional limitations in any Carcieri fix that is proposed by any Member of Congress. Others have suggested that a Carcieri fix is no longer necessary due to these proposals. Other opponents of the project are using this decision to push for an expanded state and local government role in the review and approval of all future fee-to-trust applications. The House Natural Resources Committee has already taken testimony from the California State Association of Counties, which was already calling for a county government role in the approval of all new fee-to-trust acquisitions before the North Fork decision was handed down. Many members of the House Resources Committee, who ignored this organization’s request at the time of that hearing, may well take a difference stance if the North Fork proposal continues to advance. That will hurt every tribe in the country.

Given the increasing anti off-reservation-Indian gaming sentiments resulting from the federal court’s decision in the North Fork case, and from the aggressive demands for off-reservation gaming by Enterprise, federal legislation certainly was going to be introduced in Congress. With this reality in mind, Picayune recognized the importance of working with federal legislators at the outset to keep the legislation as narrow as possible. Due in large part to our efforts, H.R. 5079 deals only with Class III off-reservation gaming in California; deals exclusively with land thought eligible for gaming through a two-part determination over the objection of the state or its voting public; and does not add any new compact approval conditions to the California Class III gaming process. Picayune is determined to continue working with Congressional leaders to keep H.R. 5079 limited to the specific problems posed by these two-part determination projects in California.

Class III compacting did not come easy in California. It took years of work and millions of dollars. Anyone familiar with the history of Indian gaming compacts in California knows that the positive relationship that our casinos now enjoy with the State only came about when the California Tribes came together and agreed to keep Indian gaming on or contiguous to their existing Rancherias and Reservations. In fact, history reflects that anti-IGRA legislation only stopped being introduced in Congress when the California Tribes stopped threatening to place casinos in off-reservation urban areas of our state.

Claudia Gonzales. Photo courtesy Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians

Every tribal leader knows the benefits of maintaining a good state/tribal relationship, especially when that relationship can, and is, based upon the State’s recognition of, and respect for, tribal rights (including tribal gaming rights) and tribal jurisdiction. Every tribal leader also knows how costly it can become when that state/tribal relationship deteriorates. We all pick and choose our battles carefully, and we think long and hard about the long term consequences of our actions. The California Tribes did this when we all agreed to avoid off-reservation gaming under two-part determinations over a decade ago. We also did this when we all agreed to respect and adhere to the compact approval process our State requested. In fact, collectively, the California Tribes spent millions of dollars amending the California State Constitution to incorporate a Class III compact approval process that we could all live with. Thus, it should be as clear to you, as it is to us that by proposing these controversial projects, the North Fork and Enterprise Bands are only thinking about the benefits to themselves and leaving the long-term consequences to the rest of Indian country to solve.

When we actively supported the State Constitutional amendments that established the compact approval process in California, the gaming tribes in California were all seeking a way of making compact approvals and compact renewals as simple and as non-controversial as possible. This approval process has, for the most part, worked well for both the State and the Tribes, until the North Fork Band upset the balance. Picayune thinks it is important to restore that balance and avoid fueling further attacks on Indian gaming in California.

It is no secret that North Fork’s off-reservation proposal will have serious impacts on Picayune and the other on-reservation casinos in the area as it puts an off-reservation casino between our on-reservation casino and our primary customer base. From the very beginning, North Fork has been aware that the benefits it will generate from this project would come only from harming surrounding Tribes, including Picayune. Picayune raised these concerns with Interior but was all but ignored. We are not hiding our own interests in stopping North Fork’s off-reservation proposal because it could literally bankrupt our on-reservation enterprise and our Tribe. We are merely suggesting to other Tribes that if this is not stopped, this could happen to you next.

Picayune, like you, developed its on-reservation casino customers based on the local population and it did so with the understanding that Indian Gaming would be only allowed on Indian lands. Additionally we, like you, financed our developments. This new North Fork off-reservation development will siphon away up to 33% of Picayune’s revenues. Thus, it will not only bankrupt our on-reservation casino, it may bankrupt our Tribe as well. So we ask you, would your tribe sit quietly by and let this happen to you? Do you want this precedent hanging over year head if some other tribe wants to develop a new off-reservation facility in your aboriginal territory, between you and your existing customers?

We want to make it abundantly clear that Picayune is not opposing North Fork’s right to game. We just want North Fork to follow the same rules as the other tribes in our State. This means that that they should not be allowed to use a federal court decision to impose off-reservation gaming on a site rejected by the state’s voters and the surrounding tribes and they should not be allowed to develop on an off-reservation site which threatens the continued existence of on-reservation gaming enterprises.

North Fork should respect its neighboring Tribes and our livelihoods, as well as the risks to Indian gaming in general caused by its off-reservation proposal as outlined above. For this reason, Picayune calls on North Fork to abandon its harmful off-reservation proposal at the Madera Site. Picayune is aware that North Fork has invested time and effort into its project. However, Picayune also is aware that the capital invested into the project was expended by North Fork’s investor, Station Casinos, not the North Fork Band. Station Casinos has no vested interest in Indian country. We are hopeful North Fork will put the interests of Indian country over itself and its investors, and we are hopeful that other Indian tribes will not support North Fork’s efforts to bankrupt its neighboring Tribes for its own benefit and cause serious anti-Indian gaming sentiment to raise its ugly head in the Congress and in our State.

Please allow the California gaming tribes to solve a local California problem in a local state specific way and do not oppose the passage of H.R. 5079.

Another Opinion:
Maryann McGovran: Don't be fooled by efforts of wealthy tribes (5/13)

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