A proposed end run around longstanding federal regulations could weaken decades of federal oversight over tribes seeking formal recognition, and open the floodgates for dozens of new tribes across California.
The legislation being pushed by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, is a dangerous attempt to thwart federal regulations, legal precedents and transparency.
HR 3535 – set to be debated as soon as Tuesday by the House committee with oversight of Native American issues – would allow a group of individuals to claim rights to the Ruffey Rancheria and skip the usual federal recognition process. It would also entitle the new Rancheria to claim 441 acres in Siskiyou County, a brazen attempt to exempt an unknown group from federal scrutiny in a rush to bring new gaming to Northern California.
But the implications of this political deal could be far more sweeping and potentially damaging than just allowing more casinos. Private landowners could find their water rights diminished, or that a new neighbor is now a sovereign nation with immunity from county ordinances, environmental regulations and land-use plans.
Those who are rightful heirs of legitimate tribal governments should be given the full rights and privileges to which they are entitled. But for the last 40 years, there have been strict rules about how a tribe can be restored. This bill would gut those standards, and waive requirements for this unknown group to show an actual claim and connection to the terminated Rancheria.
The congressional record shows that the group does not consist of the lineal descendants of the last members. Instead its membership count is unknown, its tribal council is concealed and its leader merely claims to be a “qualifying member” of the original Rancheria.
The process of tribal recognition and restoration is intricate and complex. In 2015, California had 81 letters of intent to petition. Currently, all applications undergo a thorough review of historical, political and genealogical records. It is the same process that other tribes have gone through in their efforts to reclaim historic tribal lands.
HR 3535 would upend that process and leave these sensitive issues in the hands of elected politicians, with no guarantee or requirement that they take the same care to review the legitimacy of tribal claims. It would open the floodgates for dozens of other groups to secure land where they can operate without regard for local regulations, rendering local citizens powerless.
These are not decisions that should be made lightly, or by one-off bills that set a dangerous national precedent. HR 3535 proponents should go through the normal federal recognition process instead of looking for political favors from Congress.
Cheryl A. Schmit is director of Stand Up For California, a gaming watchdog group in Penryn. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.