Coin: Militancy and nation building in California

California Gov. Gray Davis continues to demand a greater share of tribal government gaming revenues to alleviate a ballooning budget deficit, following the lead of other governors seeking Indian money to bail out cash-starved states.

Residential and commercial sprawl is reaching the borders of once remote, pastoral Indian reservations and rancherias. And state, county and municipal governments are seeking some measure of jurisdiction over tribal lands, claiming it is Indian economic development that is creating environmental problems.

At least two tribal groups are seeking state and federal permission to develop casinos in San Francisco and Sacramento, fueling public concerns over urban gaming.

The state is suing two tribal governments for alleged violations of state campaign disclosure laws.

At least three California tribes have signed agreements with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, intensifying the legal class war between organized labor and tribal sovereignty.

And tribes are locked in a confrontation with the California Gambling Control Commission, contending the agency is exceeding its regulatory reach in violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. IGRA gives tribes primacy for the regulation of gaming, not the state or federal governments.

“California is a laboratory for all the significant issues involving tribal gaming in America,” says Tom Rodgers, head of Carlyle Consultants of Alexandria, Va.

Brenda Soulliere, chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, puts it another way. “The winds of change are blowing across Indian country,” she says. “And California is in the eye of the storm.”

The dynamics of tribal government gaming in California are, indeed, intense and far-reaching. And the political and legal consequences threaten to reverberate throughout Indian country, from balmy California to the reservations of the East Coast to the pueblos of New Mexico.

There are two trends, however, that bode well for those concerned that California’s exploding gaming industry will somehow spell the erosion of sovereignty and self-reliance in Indian country.

The first is the fact that most tribes in the Golden State – particularly members of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association – are taking a hard line when it comes to protecting sovereignty and self-governance.

In addition, Indian nations in California are beginning to plant the seeds of what will be the most formidable and long-term insurance against the erosion of sovereignty in Indian country: nation building.

Militancy in Indian country

It was during a recent editorial board meeting with the Sacramento Bee newspaper that a Bee editor asked if CNIGA’s position on tribal sovereignty could be described as “militant.”

I was a bit stunned at the remark. “No,” I replied. But, in retrospect, perhaps I was a bit defensive.

“How can CNIGA be described as militant when it advocates nothing more than the basic precepts of tribal sovereignty and the right to self-determination?” CNIGA Vice Chair Mary Ann Martin Andreas told Global Gaming Business magazine. “No more than this country’s founding fathers could be described as militant. No more than Martin Luther King when he said, ‘I have a dream.'”

“CNIGA will not let the important message of tribal self-reliance be forgotten,” Soulliere says. “CNIGA will always serve as a reminder that our sovereign right to govern ourselves, and care for the social and economic welfare of our people, is not for sale. It will not be bargained away.

“If taking a hard line on protecting tribal sovereignty and the right of tribal governments to game is militant, then, by God, we’re militant.”

Nation building

We are well into the third decade of the federal policy of Indian self-determination. Reservation development for most tribes is moving increasingly into the hands of Native Americans. But many tribes are still without the economic resources to provide for the welfare of tribal members and their tribal nations. Too many Indians still lack the education, skills and self-confidence needed to make a difference in their tribal communities.

The IGRA is succeeding in its mandate to help promote strong tribal governments and tribal economies, here in California and throughout the country. But most gaming tribes have been focused on what university researchers call a “jobs and income” approach to economic development. There is a danger that this will result in only a short-term solution to tribal economic, social and political progress.

The creation of tribal institutions under the “jobs and income” model rarely extends beyond the establishment of a casino to generate tribal government revenues; a gaming commission to protect those revenues; and a tribal development corporation to invest the income.

Many tribal governments, in California and throughout the country, are now turning their attention to nation building, a process of creating institutions that will assure the strength and continuity of their tribal governments and cultural ways for generations to come. This involves separating politics from business matters, but at the same time creating laws and institutions that in the long term will assure economic progress.

Indian leaders are rewriting tribal constitutions, crafting governmental systems that will remain strong as leadership changes. They are creating law enforcement agencies and tribal courts, judicial systems that guarantee fair dealings and assure tribal and non-tribal businesses an opportunity to flourish in a predictable and stable tribal environment.

“The best way to preserve sovereignty is to practice it,” Stephen Cornell, director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona, told CNIGA.

“Those tribes that build governing institutions capable of the effective exercise of sovereignty are the ones that are most likely to achieve long-term, self-determined tribal prosperity,” Cornell wrote in a recent paper for the Udall Center. “They are the ones who will most effectively shape their own futures, instead of having those futures shaped by others.”

Jacob L. Coin is executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, an association of more than 50 Indian nations in the state. Among his responsibilities and duties are organizational development, policy and legislative advocacy, education on tribal governmental gaming, tribal sovereignty and political development. Prior to his current work at CNIGA, Coin was executive director of the National Indian gaming Association (NIGA) in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Hopi Indian Tribe, Tobacco Clan, from the Village of Kykotmovi in Arizona.


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Coin: Militancy and nation building in California