Arthur Welmas, 77; tribal leader paved way for Indian casinos

Times Staff Writer

Arthur James Welmas, who chaired the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians when the small tribe won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 that laid the foundation for the Indian gaming movement, has died. He was 77.

Welmas, who led the Riverside County tribe for a decade, died of kidney failure and complications from diabetes Dec. 17 at an Escondido hospital, his wife, Elma, said.

After the Cabazon Indians began offering high-stakes bingo on the reservation in 1983, local and state officials repeatedly went to court to stop them. The high court ruling said that states were not allowed to regulate gambling on reservations.

The decision led to the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which opened the door to modern Indian casinos.


“Had it gone the other way, the industry would have legally collapsed before it really got a toehold,” Howard Dickstein, an attorney who represents Indian gaming tribes across the state, told The Times on Tuesday. “You can’t overestimate the impact of that case on what we are seeing now. It led to the political powers of tribes.”

When Welmas took over as tribal chairman in 1978, the Cabazon Band had 23 members and 1,700 acres of barren land near Indio -- and little else.

“We didn’t have spit,” Welmas told The Times in 1982.

He set out to change that, partly because he wanted to help create jobs for members of the tribe, his wife told The Times on Tuesday.


The first business venture that Welmas oversaw was a tax-free cigarette and liquor shop that opened in 1979. But when the Supreme Court ruled that states had a right to collect tax on cigarettes sold to non-Indians on reservation land, the enterprise closed after a year.

Next the tribe turned to gambling, opening a room for poker and card games in 1980.

They invoked the same theory of “sovereign immunity” -- the idea that the reservation was beyond the reach of state and local government -- that they had used in establishing the cigarette and liquor shop, the 1982 Times story reported.

Legal troubles quickly began when the casino was raided by Indio police.


Even after the landmark 1987 Supreme Court decision, the tribe continued to tussle with state authorities over what kinds of gambling could be offered. That ended in 2000, when the state’s voters passed a proposition giving tribes the authority to operate casinos in California.

Two years ago, the Cabazon casino reopened as the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. The $200-million attraction features a 12-story hotel, a 4,000-seat events center and 2,000 slot machines.

Welmas was born Dec. 10, 1929, on the Los Coyotes Indian reservation in San Diego County and lived in nearby Rincon for most of his life.

In 1947, he joined the military, serving four years as a Marine and another four in the Air Force, including service in the Korean War.


By the 1970s, Welmas was active in Indian affairs. He worked in San Diego developing jobs for tribe members and helping the city coordinate and disseminate public information to Native American groups, according to “Return of the Buffalo: The Story Behind America’s Indian Gaming Explosion” (1995).

In addition to Elma, his wife of 21 years, Welmas is survived by a son, five daughters, a brother, 16 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.