By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Why do these established tribes need more than one casino?” asks Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California and now a paid consultant to the coalition to overturn the compacts. “This is the largest expansion of gambling the nation has ever seen,” she says. “It’s an intensive cash industry with no effective regulation, opening the door to fraud, corruption and money laundering.”
Political analysts are predicting a battle royal around the casino initiatives in these closing campaign weeks, in addition to uncertain results, as polls show deep ambivalence on the part of California voters. The tribes, including the Pechanga, could attempt to tip the scale in their favor by spending literally tens of millions in last-minute political ads. The governor might also make a last-minute, full-court press to approve the deals. He’s been arguing that the state stands to make billions of dollars from increased tribal gaming revenue, while the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says the governor’s predictions are markedly overstated. On the other side, the expansion opponents recently picked up the support of the deep-pocketed California Federation of Teachers.
The tribes are making “false promises” of more money going to the schools, says CFT leader Marty Hittleman, “when, in fact, not one penny is guaranteed to the state’s education budget.” Hittleman calls the coming ballot vote a rare chance to “correct a legislative mistake.”
Out of his painful disenrollment experience, John Gomez Jr. has emerged as one of the most significant national leaders in fighting tribal expulsions, and wound up recently signing the California ballot arguments against the compact ratification. A year ago he formed the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO), which has brought together disenrollees from across the country and wants to reframe the national debate on Indian gaming. Tribes won their gaming rights by making a compelling civil rights argument; after centuries of oppression they had earned the right to self-reliance and compensation. Gomez is now attempting some political jujitsu by emphasizing the civil rights aspect of disenrollment. Citing what he calls an “increase in the number of human and civil rights violations, especially within tribes that have gaming operations,” Gomez and his allies are working to reform the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act.
“It was originally passed to protect Indians against others,” he says. “That’s fine. But now it must be amended to protect Indians against other Indians.”
AIRRO has spent much of this year intensely lobbying within the California Democratic Party, trying also to gain the attention of the state’s federal legislators. With the support of former congressional candidate and Fresno-area party activist Steve Haze, the Native American Caucus of the CDP passed a resolution earlier this year to support reform legislation proposed by AIRRO. A few weeks ago Gomez and his allies brought the same issue before the statewide convention of the entire state Democratic Party. So far, results have been modest, but local U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson has stepped forward as a loud advocate of the disenrolled. She has authored a measure that would cut ties between the Cherokee tribe and the U.S. government, choking off any federal funding. And Watson has been quick to link the Cherokee case with that of the Pechanga — one of the few legislators at any level to show any public sympathy for the disenrolled.
“These guys are up against a wall of casino money,” says one veteran Democratic consultant about the disenrollees and their political chances. “And both parties have benefited from tribal largess. The Democrats aren’t going to do much on this until after the February vote. If the compacts hold up, so will the love affair with the Indians. Only if the voters turn their backs on the tribes could you expect any real change in the legislative atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, the Madariaga family remains on the cutting edge of the legal challenge to unhampered tribal sovereignty. Until now the Supreme Court has refused to deal with the question of whether or not the California courts are empowered to hear civil disputes that arise within sovereign Indian tribes. But attorneys for the Madariaga family are hoping to take their plight through the federal courts precisely on charges of civil rights violations, a novel and innovative strategy that could potentially reduce the power of tribal councils.
“We have to be able to use that Indian Civil Rights Act,” says Michael Madariaga. “You can’t go into the courts unless the federal government gets behind enforcing things. We’re not there yet.”
For his part, clan elder Lawrence Madariaga says he is content to spend the rest of his days on the reservation working in his yard, nurturing his garden with water he helped bring to Indian land and keeping up the house he hammered together with his own sweat. As for his longtime ties with the tribe that disowned him, to hell with them.
“I got pissed off, you know?” he says as he walks me out the door. “I threw away all the goodies they gave me when I won the Silver Feather award; the jacket, the buffet card, everything. Only my wife made me keep the plaque. But I said to myself: ‘How can people be the way they are?’ Whether it’s greed or jealousy, I just don’t understand it. All I know is that it really hurts a person to live through it.”