by Deron Marquez, Chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians
Casino developers representing the Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon Indian tribes, who are devising plans for off-reservation gaming in Barstow, continue to mislead the public about the basic facts.
A recent editorial in the Desert Dispatch, “Political maneuvers threaten casino delays” (January 24, 2006), states, “...despite the claims of historical ties to Barstow by some California Indian Nations, this conflict is about greed, not heritage.”
Indigenous peoples of America have strong and unique cultural connections to their lands. The ancestral lands of my people, the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, cover a vast area encompassing most of what is San Bernardino County today. Our lands cover an area that includes Barstow in the north to the San Bernardino Valley to the south; and from Los Angeles east to Twenty-nine Palms. It is the home of our Creator. We call ourselves Yuhaviatam, which means “People of the Pines.” San Manuel, a clan of the great Serrano Indian people, today resides on some 820 acres of our ancestral lands, a miniscule portion of what was once a vast territory.
Today, developers are exploiting the tribal status of three tribes, the Big Lagoon Rancheria, the Timbisha Shoshone and the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla, and seeking to move onto our ancestral lands in order to build casinos. In attempting to move these three tribes hundreds of miles away from their ancestral lands, these out-of-state casino developers are putting at risk the cultural heritage of those tribes and, in the process, undermining the sanctity of the ancestral lands of other tribes.
Contrary to the position stated in the Desert Dispatch editorial, we oppose the Timbisha Shoshone, Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon proposed land acquisitions because they involve encroachment on our ancestral lands by outside or “foreign” Indian tribes. Big Lagoon would move more than 750 miles from their Humboldt County reservation in faraway northern California near the Oregon border; the Shoshone would propose to move more than 100 miles from their existing reservation; and the Los Coyotes tribe would propose to move more than 150 miles from their existing reservation.
The land being targeted by Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon for their casino project is 15 miles from where a Serrano village once stood. Human remains found in the area were recently repatriated to San Manuel and carefully reburied at San Manuel under direct protection of the Tribe.
Protecting our Ancestral Lands
On November 10, 2005, Virgil Moorehead, chair of the Big Lagoon Rancheria, was quoted in an Indian Country Today column, supporting the principle of protecting the integrity of ancestral lands: “I am fortunate to be part of a culture that has a continuing and rich spiritual history. My people have a continuing and unshakable commitment to our ancestral lands. In our actions, we never think only of ourselves; we live with respect for all things, in balance.”
Given these words, Chairman Moorehead's actions are troubling. How is it that a tribal leader can so eloquently state what is the bedrock principle for all Indian nations to protect ancestral lands and, with the very next breath, dismiss the same by saying, “... it's just a business transaction.”
San Manuel strongly supports the rights of tribes to develop their ancestral lands as a basic and fundamental principle. To that end, we have made clear that we would not oppose a land acquisition by the Chemehuevi Tribe – even for gaming purposes – because the Chemehuevi also have ancestral ties to the Barstow area. However, we also very much support the basic and fundamental principle that an outside casino developer should not exploit a tribe's status and attempt to move that tribe hundreds of miles away to develop a casino on the ancestral land of another tribe.
Off-Reservation Gaming is Far-Reaching
It should be of paramount concern to all of Indian Country that developers are using tribes with established reservations in order to seek more favorable lands – in some cases far from their existing lands (oftentimes hundred of miles away and over existing state lines) just to build casinos. In California, the tribes made a promise to keep tribal gaming on Indian lands. Based on that promise, nearly 65 percent of the electorate voted in support of Indian gaming in Prop. 5 (1998) and Prop. 1A (2000).
In most instances, it is the unscrupulous developers who are in the driver's seat and the tribes are simply riding along under their control. Developers pour huge sums of money into these projects, including the participating tribes' elections and other activities, only to demand significant portions of tribal gaming revenues once the projects are realized through both management fees and consulting contracts.
These are major concerns in and of themselves. However, the most critical concern is that these off reservation gaming efforts are not just simply about building casinos on lands far from existing reservations and possibly encroaching on the ancestral lands of other tribes. The most troubling fact is the creation of new reservations on ancestral lands of other tribes, with all the rights and privileges, become a part of that new designation.
Federal Government Obligations to Protect Ancestral Lands
The history of this country is filled with crafty methods and policies by which the federal government took lands from Indian nations. Forced removals from aboriginal lands and moving tribes onto the established territories of other tribes were common methods so that prime lands would be opened up for the new settlers. We are all aware of the tremendous loss of lands that Indian tribes suffered under these policies.
The federal government needs to be reminded of its history. When the feds see that reservation shopping practices of tribes encroach on the ancestral lands of other tribes, they need to send a strong and direct message to the encroaching tribes that these proposals are not acceptable. This same message should be sent to state government officials who support - even propose - such off-reservation gaming projects. This is why we are hopeful that Senator John McCain, who has introduced legislation to reform the process and protect ancestral lands from unscrupulous developers, will be supported by others in Congress.
Encroachment on our ancestral lands is a matter of great concern to the history and culture of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians. It should be just as critical a concern to every Indian tribe in the country.
Deron Marquez is Chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians in Highland, California. He can be reached by calling (909) 864-8933.