The multibillion-dollar casino gambling monopoly that Indian tribes enjoy is one of California’s most remarkable cultural and political sagas – and it’s not over yet.
When Spanish explorers first set foot in California in 1542, they encountered a few Indians, and for centuries thereafter, natives were subjugated, massacred and enslaved.
“The Indian was not kept in formal slavery, but he was exterminated at the wish and the expense of the Legislature, and for years in the southern part of the state, under the guise of penal labor, Indians were hawked from the auction-block,” historian Kevin Starr has written of 19th-century California.
Even after overt mistreatment stopped, Indians were relegated to abject poverty on reservations deemed to have no economic value – a condition still evident in the last decades of the 20th century.
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Then the worm turned.
A few tribes opened bingo parlors, claiming sovereignty. And in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a suit by Southern California’s Cabazon Band, invalidated local and state restrictions on tribal gambling.
Within a few years, a few rudimentary casinos had popped up, Congress had passed a law to clarify their legal status and tribes had begun spending heavily on lobbyists, campaign contributions and ballot measures, buying clout in the Capitol and other arenas.
Some state officials and Nevada gambling interests fought back, contending that what the tribes were doing was illegal. Two ballot measures, however, locked in the tribes’ monopoly. Since then, a number have constructed elaborate casino resorts rivaling those on the Las Vegas Strip.
As tribal gambling morphed into a multibillion-dollar industry, though, some rifts emerged – rivalries between tribes and conflicts within casino-owning tribes, both of which are now on graphic display.
When the North Fork Mono Indians gained federal and state permission to build a new casino along Highway 99 near Madera, tribal casinos in the nearby Sierra foothills fought back with a referendum, Proposition 48 on the Nov. 4 ballot, to overturn state approval.
There’s heavy spending by both the North Fork tribe, including its bankers, and rivals, with opponents claiming approval would set a bad precedent of off-reservation casinos.
Meanwhile, as California’s voters ponder North Fork’s casino, one of its regional rivals, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, is embroiled in an internal confrontation that literally threatened to become a shootout.
As the guns came out, authorities stepped in to shut down the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino until the power struggle is resolved. It’s just the most spectacular example of what’s happened in a number of casino-owning tribes as rival factions joust for control, sometimes throwing losers off tribal rolls.
Thus the saga continues.