Atty. Gen. Janet Reno declined Wednesday to step in to mediate a dispute over gambling between Gov. Pete Wilson and most of California's Indian tribes, but encouraged tribal leaders to sue the state if negotiations continue to stagnate.
The largest group of tribal leaders to gather here in modern times exulted in the historic meeting with the nation's top law enforcer, finding hope between the lines of Reno's careful comments. Though Reno merely urged the Indians to go home and try again, they claimed she had given them permission to continue operating video gaming machines that Wilson claims are illegal. The tribes have taken Wilson to court over the issue.
"This is a new day for tribes," Mark Macarro of the Pechanga reservation outside Temecula said after the hourlong session, during which six tribal leaders sat at a U-shaped conference table headed by Reno, who diligently took notes. "We were encouraged by her response."
More than 100 other tribal representatives also attended the meeting.
But as the Indians and their new attorney--Lanny Davis, the former White House spokesman on allegations of campaign finance abuses--sought to put the best spin possible on Reno's comments, her aides and a spokesman for Wilson were quick to downplay their significance. Both described the attorney general's position as status quo, and noted that the federal government still has pending actions in court to turn off the disputed machines.
In the meeting, Reno repeatedly told the tribes that the law provides them with a "remedy"--federal lawsuits--if attempts to negotiate with Wilson falter.
"At this point, I think it is very important that both the tribes and the state sit down," she said. "There is a process here. I would like to see it pursued."
The meeting with Reno culminated a week of intense lobbying and public relations efforts by roughly 144 Indians representing at least 30 California tribes. The Indians are locked in a bitter dispute with Wilson over what kinds of games should be allowed on their reservations.
Though a 1988 federal law requires tribes to negotiate compacts with state governments in order to conduct gambling on Indian land, most tribes in California do not have such agreements.
Wilson earlier this year announced a compact with the Pala band of Mission Indians in northern San Diego County and encouraged other tribes to sign on. The tribes have refused because they dislike the substance of the agreement--it would ban some of the games currently in use and limit the number of machines on each reservation--and because they are angry at having been left out of the negotiations.
At the crux of the controversy is a provision in the California constitution that bans Nevada-style casinos. The tribes claim this relates only to whether prizes are paid by the house--as they are in Las Vegas--or from a pool funded by players, like a lottery. Wilson has said that even some player-pool machines are unacceptable.
Wilson has refused to negotiate with tribes until they stop the gambling he claims is illegal, saying they otherwise have no incentive to enter a compact. The tribes, for their part, call this an unfair precondition. They are afraid to turn off the machines that have helped lift them out of poverty. The Indian gaming industry is worth an estimated $500 million annually to California reservations.
The fight may become moot in November, if state voters pass an initiative sponsored by the tribes to legalize their casinos.
"This is a struggle for our very survival," said Dan Tucker, head of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn., who compared the gambling fight to the colonization of native American lands two centuries ago. "Our future and the future of our children is in jeopardy."
Alongside the tribal leaders sat Maria Figueroa, a single mother of two who is among the 13,000 non-Indians who work at reservation casinos in California. Figueroa said that her husband was killed in a gang fight and that her job as a video technician pays for glasses for her 7-year-old son, Arthur.
"If they take the machines out of the casino, people like me . . . will be the ones affected," Figueroa said in a speech punctuated by sobs that clearly captured Reno's attention. "Please help us. Please help the children."
Tribal leaders told stories about Indians living without electricity or indoor plumbing, with 90% unemployment and 50% high school dropout rates, before the advent of casinos.
"California tribes stand at the brink of economic and cultural extinction," said Marya Ann Andreas of the Morongo band in Banning. "This is not a fight about machines or gaming, but about our rights to make choices as a people."
Many of the Indians were thrilled to have a government-to-government-style session. Reno's statement that "the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship . . . is something that I prize" was a start, they said.
"She recognizes the fact that we're sovereign nations, which is basically why we came here," said Vernon Lockhart of the Sherwood Valley Rancheria tribe.
"Sure, we expected more from the attorney general, but we're happy with what she's given us and we can build from that," said Clarence Brown Jr. of the Viejas Band of Kumayaay Indians, located east of San Diego.
Others were less optimistic. Richard Milanovich of the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs said that Reno "evaded the issue" and that "the federal government should do more to protect our sovereignty."