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Off-reservation casinos spur action in California

An influential tribal leader added his voice on Thursday to the growing number of California Indians concerned about off-reservation gaming.

Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, said his tribe hasn't adopted a position on the controversial issue. But he was supportive of two other southern California tribes who are taking a stand against urban casinos.

"For a period of time, we have been quiet," Milanovich said at a panel discussion during the 10th annual Western Indian Gaming Conference in Palm Springs. State and national attention -- mostly negative -- is forcing the tribe to speak out, he said.

Although not on the agenda, off-reservation casinos sparked discussion several times at the conference, sponsored by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. The organization is likely to continue the debate at its members-only meeting today, said CNIGA chairman Anthony Miranda, an official of the Pechanga Band of Luiseo Indians.

Earlier this week, the Pechanga Band took an official stance against an off-reservation casino in the Bay Area in a letter to state lawmakers considering the proposal. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, already on record against the casino, is also working towards a national policy that could curtail a practice that is becoming more common among tribes in California and several other states.

The issues is a thorny one for Milanovich, who said he sympathized with tribes in remote areas who are seeking better opportunities in more populous areas. "I feel very hurt to try to stifle another tribe's effort" at economic development, he said.

But he said California voters overwhelmingly endorsed Indian gaming twice with the expectation that it would be restricted to remote reservations. That goodwill is threatened by tribes who want casinos hundreds of miles away from their existing reservations or aboriginal homelands, he argued.

At the same time, he urged caution as tribes move forward because any shift in federal policy could impact all of Indian Country negatively. Some members of Congress have already sought changes to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and other laws in hopes of barring "reservation shopping" tactics.

"We've very afraid of what's going to happen if that's reopened," Milanovich said.

Nationwide, a growing number of tribes are seeking to establish gaming hundreds of miles away from their existing reservations and even in other states. Proposals are pending in California, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Illinois, Colorado and North Dakota.

Federal officials have sent mixed messages when asked to weigh in. The Bureau of Indian Affairs says there is no basis to outright reject such casinos while the National Indian Gaming Commission has taken a more restrictive view.

So far, the courts have been receptive to California tribes in off-reservation cases. In one ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected opponents who said a northern California tribe wasn't entitled to open a casino on land that was not previously part of its reservation.

"Given the history of Indian tribes' confinement to reservations, it is not reasonable to suppose that Congress intended 'restoration' to be strictly limited to land constituting a tribe's reservation immediately before federal recognition was terminated," the court said in a unanimous November 2003 decision.

California poses special problems due to the large number of tribes in the state that were terminated and lost their reservations during the 1950s and 1960s. Many never had a significant land base in the first place because they were forced off their aboriginal territories.

Relevant Links:
California Nations Indian Gaming Association -