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Distant Tribes Gamble on Barstow's Location

Morris Newman on
Aug 1, 2006

I don’t agree with the saying that laws are made to be broken. That is the attitude of criminals. I believe, rather, that laws are elastic. Like the fan belts in cars, they are made be stretched until they snap. (You know the sound: Snap! Whaff, whaff, whaff….)

One law currently being stretched out of recognition is the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. If we were looking for a spot where the federal statute is wearing thin, one place we could find it would be Barstow, a city in San Bernardino County best known for being a pit stop on the way to Las Vegas. The cause of the stress is the questionable practice known as reservation shopping.

Two tribes proposing side-by-side casinos in Barstow are not local. One tribe, the Los Coyotes Band of Mission Indians, hails from San Diego County, 150 miles to the south. The other, the Big Lagoon Rancheria, lives near the coastal redwoods of Humboldt County, 700 miles to the north. (“Better think about replacing that fan belt,” says a gas station attendant in my imagination. “I can smell burning rubber.”)

The proposed Barstow casinos are an example of reservation shopping. This practice consists of an Indian tribe attempting to build a casino on land that is not on the tribe’s reservation, and to which the tribe has tenuous or no ancestral ties. In some cases, tribes (and their well-heeled, non-Indian business partners) are shopping for choice casino sites across state lines, or near major cities and freeways.

The federal statute restricts Indian casinos to tribal lands with few exceptions. In addition, California voters approved both Proposition 5 in 1998 and Proposition 1A in 2000 partly on the assurance of tribal leaders that casinos would be built on tribal lands only. “The people of California did not intend for tribes to establish casinos hundreds of miles from their ancestral lands or off their existing reservation lands,” wrote Leslie Lohse, a member of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians in a July 18 op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Barstow case, though, is vexing because both tribes have compelling reasons for wanting to build casinos outside their ancestral lands. The San Diego County tribe occupies an arid, mountainous area that is difficult to reach. The Humboldt County tribe, which consists of only 22 people, is currently suing the State of California to allow the tribe to build a gambling hall amid the near-pristine coastal wilderness, even though the coastal redwood forest is no place for a casino.

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s office last year negotiated a deal with both tribes permitting each to build a casino in Barstow as a compromise. A Detroit outfit known as BarWest Gaming, which is linked to the family that owns the Little Caesar pizza chain, is the investor behind both proposals. Barstow is particularly attractive to some gambling promoters because the city is a milestone on Interstate 15, the route to Las Vegas from Southern California. The rationale seems to be that if you can peel gamblers off the road just across the state line, you should be able to snag a few in Barstow, too. The City Council, which has worked out its own agreements with the tribes, is all for it.

The origins of this deal seemed reasonable enough. Earlier in the decade, BarWest cut a casino deal with the Chemehuevis band, which is native to San Bernardino County. For some reason, however, Gov. Schwarzenegger did not accede to the tribe’s request for a state compact that would allow the casino to go forward.

Seeking to discourage the practice of reservation shopping in Barstow, former mayor Manuel “Gil” Gurule drafted a ballot initiative for the June 2006 municipal election. The measure would have given preference to the Chemehuevis and other local tribes in local approval of casino construction. In addition, the initiative would have created a 600-acre casino district outside of downtown Barstow as a means to limit gambling to one area of town.

Barstow voters rejected an Indian card hall in 1992, but they voted down Gurule’s Measure H by a 4-to-1 ratio. BarWest and its allies, including a number of casino-owning Indian tribes in Southern California, spent heavily to defeat the measure. Gurule said he wonders whether local voters actually understood the measure. Many voters, he contended, rejected his initiative because they believed it promoted Indian casinos, whereas his aim was to protect the interests of the Chemehuevis.

Beating the initiative, however, does not seem to have given much momentum to the BarWest proposal. Early in July, the Assembly Government Operations Committee, which oversees Indian gambling, voted 7-2 to reject the pact worked out by the governor. A number of Indian tribes testified against the proposal, saying that the agreement, which includes requirements of union hiring and generous revenue cuts for the state of $190 million over 20 years, would set a ruinous precedent. Committee members seemed troubled that the reservation-shopping deal would violate the terms of Proposition 1A. (At this point, I can hear my wife saying, “Honey, don’t you think we should replace that belt? The man at the gas station said it was about to break.”)

Skeptics, including the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, think the real issue for tribal leaders is competition. (One of the tribal leaders who testified against the Barstow casino was Richard Milano, leader of the Cahuilla Band of Agua Caliente Indians in Palm Springs. He recently apologized to fellow Indians for contributing $10 million to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Washington lobbyist who had a talent for siphoning money from tribes grown affluent from gaming.)

Hopefully, state lawmakers will be able to hold off BarWest long enough for Arizona Sen. John McCain to introduce amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that would outlaw off-reservation gambling. The idea of a casino near Humboldt Bay is so repellent, however, that finding another compromise site is the probably a better idea. That said, the federal statue is clearly having negative impacts on California, which has at least 61 Indian casinos existing or on the way, far more than any other state. If every Indian tribe has the right to build a casino, must every tribe, indeed, build one? It’s time (snap! Whaff! Whaff! Whaff!) to repair the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act.

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