Published on January 29, 2004

© 2004- The Press Democrat



Six NorthCoast tribes are trying to stretch the conventional boundaries for Indian gaming by seeking permission to open casinos in the Bay Area and in other locations outside their current tribal lands.

The tribes are among 23 statewide engaged in a movement critics call ``reservation shopping,'' pushing to buy land and to establish gaming halls as much as 140 miles from their reservations. ``Right now we have an explosion of tribes seeking off-reservation casinos,'' said Cheryl Schmit of Penryn, director of Stand Up For California, a gambling watchdog. Schmit said the attempts by NorthCoast tribes could set a precedent, and ``casinos could crop up anywhere.''

Among the North Coast tribes seeking off-reservation casinos are the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, which wants to convert a cardroom in the East Bay city of San Pablo into a Nevada-style gambling hall, and the Federated Indians of GratonRancheria, which was re-established as a tribe in 2000, is landless, and has proposed a casino at the western edge of Rohnert Park.

In addition, the Ukiah-based Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians and Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, based in Kelseyville, have tried and failed to secure land in Solano and Contra Costa counties, and the Upper Lake Band of Pomo Indians lost a legal bid for a casino in West Sacramento.

The Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians of Nice in LakeCounty plans a short move to the shore of ClearLake.Pushed aroundNormRonneberg Jr., a San Francisco attorney for the UpperLaketribe, said there is no legal requirement nor moral justification to narrowly define a tribe's rightful territory. ``If you look at history, the Indians were always being pushed from one place to another,'' he said.

Tony Cohen, a Santa Rosa attorney representing the LyttonPomos, objected to the term ``reservation shopping,'' calling it an insult to any poor tribe saddled with a remote rancheria and seeking property with ``commercial viability.''

Michael Derry, head of economic development for the GuidivillePomos, defended the tribe's unsuccessful bids for land in VallejoAntioch and Hercules. Tribal territory runs from Ukiah down the RussianRiver into SonomaCounty and over to the EastBay, he said. Landless since the 1940s, the 112-member tribe wants 150 to 2,000 acres to establish a reservation, with housing, schools and a medical clinic. A casino is the only way to finance such a $30 million project, Derry said.Rebuffed in the three cities, the GuidivillePomos still are looking for land, but Derry, mindful of the inevitable controversy, won't say where. ``It's a really hot political issue,'' he said. National concern

Despite the Indians' arguments, the issue has grabbed the attention of leaders in Washington. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and other Republican lawmakers are concerned about tribes seeking lucrative casino markets far from traditional native lands.

In a June 10 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, warned that ``reservation shopping'' threatens to upset the ``delicate balance between state and tribal interests'' that Congress intended to maintain in authorizing Indian gaming under limited conditions.

Hastert is wary of off-reservation casino proliferation in CaliforniaIllinois and across the nation, spokesman John Feehery said.

With 109 federally recognized tribesCalifornia has the potential to expand Indian gaming beyond the 52 tribes now operating 53 Nevada-style casinosSchmit said.

Although none has yet succeeded, the 23 tribes seeking off-reservation casinos could boost the total by about 50 percent.

Two SonomaCounty tribes -- the LyttonPomos andGratonrancheria -- have an edge over most other tribes because both won congressional approval in 2000 to obtain land for casinos.

Others must navigate a legal and political thicket that some Indian law experts say is virtually impenetrable, although critics fear the tribes and wealthy casino sponsors will find ways through the complex federal Indian gaming laws.

To put a casino on newly acquired land, tribes must obtain a federal court ruling, an act of Congress or approval by both the Interior secretary and the governor.

Tribal members and their advocates say concern over the spread of casinos is overblown.

Cohen said the door is essentially closed to most off-reservation gaming proposals. With the law and politics ``stacked against them,'' Cohen said few tribes are likely to succeed, other than the two in SonomaCounty that won congressional approval.

Some blame investors

Nelson Rose, a WhittierCollege law professor, brushed off concern that off-reservation casinos will flourish. ``It's not going to happen,'' said Rose, an expert on Indian gaming law.Rose and others said wealthy investors, not the tribes, are to blame for fostering off-reservation casino proposals. The deals may be long shots, but risk-taking entrepreneurs will take the odds in exchange for potentially huge payoffs if a casino wins approval.

``There's a lot of money out there,'' Rose said.

Critics call the off-reservation casino proposals the ``unintended consequences'' of Proposition 1A, the ballot measure approved by 65 percent of voters in 2000 allowing tribes to operate Nevada-style casinos.

Fred Jones, an Auburn attorney for a faith-based group, the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, attributed the proposition's passage to ``white guilt'' over the historic mistreatment of Indians.But neither voters nor lawmakers envisioned the current campaign to move casinos from rural reservations to cities and other strategic sites, Jones said.One of those who says it's premature to set limits on casino expansion is San Francisco attorney Daniel Kolkey, the lead negotiator in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's effort to get more money from gambling tribes.

``It would not be appropriate to draw a line in the sand,'' Kolkey told reporters three weeks ago.

Kolkey acknowledged the ``traditional justification'' for granting tribal gambling monopolies under federal law assumed the casinos would be on reservations, typically in a ``remote location.''

But each case, he said, would have to be judged on its own merits.

News researchers Michele Van Hoeck and Teresa Meikle contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or gkovner@pressdemocrat.com.



Off-reservation casino proposals include six North Bay tribes:

* Federated Indians of GratonRancheria -- Landless tribe restored by act of Congress in 2000. Proposed ``world-class'' casino, reservation near Sears Point last April, shifted site to western edge of Rohnert Park in August, prompting attempted recall of four City Council members.

Lytton Band of Pomo Indians -- Landless tribe restored in 1991, barred from settlement in AlexanderValley homeland. Owner-operator of card club in East Bay city of San Pablo, seeking state permission to add Nevada-style slot machines.

Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians -- Landless tribe based in Ukiah. Casino bids rejected by Vallejo,Antioch last year; land deal turned down by Hercules developer. Still looking for 500- to 2,000-acre site for casino, reservation.

* Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians -- Undertaking $7.5 million expansion of casino on rancheria in Nice in LakeCounty. Long-term plan to move to a lakeside site 2 miles away, develop destination resort.

ScottsValley Band of Pomo Indians -- Landless tribe based in Kelseyville, offered Richmond $10 million for waterfront hotel-casino site in 2002. City Council still considering proposal.

UpperLake Band of Pomo Indians -- LakeCountytribe appealing federal judge's ruling last year rejecting proposed $200 million casino on Interstate 80 corridor in West Sacramento.