The New Buffalo took its first shaky steps on February 25, 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court told California it could not shut down card games and high-stakes bingo on the reservations of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians (less than 1,000 citizens) and the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (less than 50 citizens).
California is a PL 280 state, meaning that Congress has given it the power to pass criminal laws binding on tribal land. However, gambling was legal in California at that time, just heavily regulated. The state allowed bingo with much smaller cash prizes than the Indians offered and even had a state lottery. The Supreme Court, consistent with prior decisions, held that state regulations held no force on Indian land.
California’s loss in that gambling case set off howls of outrage in the states with Indian trust land and any legal gambling, usually lotteries. State governments, particularly PL 280 governments, are unaccustomed to losing against Indians when anything big was at stake. Because the decision applied to gambling generally rather than just bingo and cards, the stakes were very high.
Congress rode to the rescue within a year with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. While it would have been inspiring to see members of Congress on white horses riding to the rescue of the poverty-stricken reservation Indians, the object of the prompt Congressional action was to rescue some regulatory authority for the states and afford them the opportunity to eat some of what they had not killed.
Wherever you see non-Indians organizing to stop this or that Indian casino, there will always be somebody denouncing Congress for gifting Indians with the right to run casinos in IGRA. They are misinformed. IGRA was not the source of Native gaming rights. The source was that part of tribal sovereignty not taken away by the U.S. IGRA was enacted to limit Indian gaming and give states a mechanism to profit from it.
IGRA did, however, regularize the procedure to open a casino, and the immediate result was like a gold rush… for non-Indians. Lawyers, construction companies and experienced casino management companies lined up to make deals with Indian tribes, and some tribes were able to cut fairer deals than others.
Besides enriching lots of non-Indians, the rush to construct casinos meant that many tribal citizens who had left the reservations to seek their fortunes now returned to the reservations to seek their fortunes. Some hoped for Indian-preference hiring in the new enterprises; others were after per capita distributions of casino profits.
However big the casino buffalo might be, there were not great numbers of surviving Indians available to demand some meat, particularly in California. The first sustained contact between California Indians and the colonists came in the forced conversions and forced labor imposed by Franciscan priest Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer, who lives in infamy among his victims as Fr. Serra – he is expected to be canonized when Pope Francis visits the U.S. this fall.
Destructive as Fr. Serra was to the cultures of California Indians, it was the discovery of gold in 1848 that led to one of the worst genocides in the Americas. Armed bands of marauding gold seekers sought to hunt down every Native soul not living in a mission. The killings proceeded without regard to age or sex and, by 1870, 80 percent of California Indians had been wiped out and many survived only because they were the descendants of Fr. Serra’s victims, living under the protection of the church.
Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government gathered survivors of the genocide into tiny reservations known in California as rancherías. Because of the genocide and because Congress had failed to ratify a series of treaties signed by California tribes, the former owners of the dirt on which the state was established had been left homeless.
Less than 50 years after most of the rancherías were established, federal Indian policy lurched into the “termination and relocation” period and many California Indians became homeless again. Of the 41 rancherías selected for termination, 38 were. Since Congress belatedly realized that termination and relocation forced Indians to trade rural poverty for urban poverty and it was a bad trade, 27 of the terminated rancherías have been restored.
This difficult and recent history explains why the surviving rancherías are tiny and many Indians have lost touch with their indigenous cultures. The good news, if it is good news, is that many of the rancherías are located near cities or major highways, and therefore are excellent locations for casinos.
Money falling into a dirt-poor reservation is like what some tribes call a male rain ending a drought. It’s good news but it can be destructive. Tribal leadership gets challenged in unforeseen ways and not all leaders rise to the challenge.
Kids fortunate enough to be raised on a small rez with a big casino and leadership with foresight are the envy of Indian country when the question in front of them is medical school or law school and neither will cost the parents a dime. Kids raised with lesser leaders may get accumulated per caps at age 18, high school done or not, and the question in front of them is Navigator or Escalade?
More critical for all tribes is the impact of large money and small leadership on what lawyer Gabe Galanda, a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, calls “the American Indian disenrollment epidemic.” This epidemic has disappeared literally thousands of Indians.
Within the Five Tribes, there have been periodic eruptions of disenrollment aimed at former slaves and driven by racism or electoral politics. In other tribes, disenrolling troublesome families or factions has happened sporadically since the U.S. backed away from termination from the outside in the late 60s.
Just as Mitt Romney in the last presidential election wanted to get rid of undocumented workers by “self-deportation,” the U.S. has been relieved of thousands of Indian “wards” by self-termination. The rise of the new buffalo – casino wealth – has put self-termination on a political fast track.
Those who are alarmed at the number of Indians having their tribal identities nullified point out that no indigenous language has been found yet with a word for “disenrollment.” While that may be so, it’s doubtful there’s a word for “enrollment” either. The historical beginning of keeping Indians on “rolls” was keeping track of individuals entitled to what compensation was offered by the U.S. government when Indians were separated from their property.
Carving up the new buffalo among historically starving people meant that some would overeat and some would get greedy. Sometimes control of tribal government offered an opportunity to settle old scores among feuding families and sometimes the real motive was simple greed, but disenrollment has become an epidemic, infecting over 60 tribal nations in over a dozen states since California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians slaughtered the first of the new buffalo in 1987.
The exact number and exact location of revoked tribal citizenships is not easily knowable. Any publicity comes from the Indians being terminated. Those doing the terminating have little reason to advertise their actions. The Bureau of Indian Affairs does not track the epidemic in public documents and does little to stop it. Following a different set of marching orders from Congress, the BIA is trying to insert some due process into disenrollment of Alaska Natives, where the issue is division of compensation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The reason the BIA gives for noninvolvement in the lower 48 is respect for tribal sovereignty as expounded in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez. The current top leadership in the BIA is as pro-Indian as any in memory, but in the broad sweep of history, a BIA with single-minded devotion to tribal sovereignty elicits coughing fits and a big WTF?
The BIA’s uncharacteristic solicitude for tribal prerogatives makes it hard not to notice that the interests of tribal government greed-heads converge nicely with the interests of the U.S. government in the disappearance of American Indians.