To Napa Valley winemakers, the idea of a giant casino or big-box store sprouting up amid their carefully manicured vineyards is almost too distressing to consider.
But an effort now underway to reform federal rules governing recognition of Native American tribes is forcing them to think about it.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is planning potentially far-reaching changes to what Native Americans and officials agree is an onerous process for gaining tribal status — and the self-governing powers that come with it.
That is giving hope to thousands of American Indians who have campaigned for years, in some cases decades, for recognition. But it has caused near panic in communities from Napa to the coast of Connecticut, prompting state and local officials to implore the administration to reconsider.
“You can’t even build a bed-and-breakfast in our agricultural preserve unless the whole community votes on it and approves it,” said Rex Stults, government relations director for Napa Valley Vintners. “Now you are going to drop a sovereign nation in the middle of it, and one that has been outspoken about wanting development?
“A Las Vegas-style casino is just the most obvious example of what tribes are doing. But they could put a Wal-Mart here,” Stults said. “Fireworks. Whatever.”
Opponents, including several cities in Los Angeles County, contend the plan would lead to some 20 new casinos in California — a prospect federal officials dispute.
The politics involved are complicated for President Obama, whose advocacy on behalf of Native Americans has earned him broad support on the reservations but who risks irritating longtime Democratic allies.
“The facts are the facts,” said Kevin K. Washburn, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. “If there is a legitimate group that has been an Indian tribe throughout time and they can meet our very rigorous criteria, they deserve to be recognized.”
Just how rigorous those criteria should be is at the heart of the current debate.
Under existing rules, a Native American group seeking recognition as a tribe must prove continuous, close social and political interaction going back to 1789. The bureau is proposing that its genealogists look back only to 1934.
The changes also would allow native groups to build a case using historical documents — including school records — that they currently are prohibited from citing. Previously rejected groups would be permitted to reapply.
Among those hoping to benefit are the Mishewal Wappo, who have lived in the Napa region for centuries.
The Wappo were a recognized tribe until 1959, when the two families that were living full time on its reservation agreed to terminate federal status in return for the deed to the land.
The current tribal chairman, Scott Gabaldon, argues that the deal was illegitimate — negotiated by the abusive husband of a tribe member, who was not himself Wappo, at a time when other residents of the reservation had decamped for seasonal jobs on orchards far from home.
“When the others came back in the winter, they said, ‘What do you mean this is no longer our land?’ ” Gabaldon said. “The older ones who were around then said, ‘We did not get notified of anything. We would not have agreed to do that.’ ”
In 1997, a congressional task force recommended immediate restoration of tribal status.
That never happened.
The new rules could allow the Wappo to regain their tribal designation. If they succeed, land they once owned, and possibly new acquisitions, would become tribal territory, exempt from state laws. The public comment period on the plan ended in September. Federal officials are reviewing the comments but do not have a specific deadline for issuing final rules.
The prospect of the Wappo being able to establish tribal territory in Napa is what has many non-Indian residents worried.
They’re concerned that a Wappo reservation would become home to a casino, much like the 340,000-square-foot complex the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria opened in Sonoma County after they won federal recognition. Before they received recognition, the Graton Rancheria had told backers in Washington, D.C., that they would not build a casino.
“After what they did, it turned off all the politicians in this area to helping us,” Gabaldon said.
“I hate talking about a casino,” he said. “That is not what this fight is about. A casino is not important to us. Housing is what is important. Healthcare is what is important. Education is what is important.”
But he makes no promises.
“Does it mean in the future we won’t do a casino?” he said. “I don’t know.”
That uncertainty doesn’t sit well with California officials.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has warned the Obama administration not to give the Wappo sovereignty unless the recognition comes with unprecedented restrictions on development.
According to Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat from Napa, the current effort to change the recognition process is illegal. Only Congress can alter the rules, he said in an email — a position the administration has rejected.
The bureau also has heard from convenience-store and tobacco-shop owners who worry that tribes can sell gasoline and cigarettes on reservations without charging state and local taxes, giving them an unfair advantage.
Some established tribes with lucrative casinos also are fighting the administration proposal. Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in Temecula, urged the bureau in writing last month not to change the current rules, saying the effort would benefit groups with “marginal claims.”
The arguments are all familiar to Rudy Ortega, vice president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, a 413-member group based in San Fernando that has been seeking tribal recognition for years, investing some $700,000 in the process.
Like the Wappo, the Tataviam might succeed under the bureau proposal. Ortega stressed that the tribe was motivated by hopes of regaining its identity and becoming eligible for the many government services provided exclusively to Native Americans.
But he also said that once the tribe was recognized, the first major Indian casino in Los Angeles County may not be far behind.
The prospect is disturbing to city officials in places such as Commerce, Bell Gardens and Hawaiian Gardens, who fear the prosperous card clubs on which they lean for tax revenue will lose business.
“They pay for law enforcement. They pay for the Fire Department,” Compton City Manager G. Harold Duffey said of the revenues. “We are very concerned.”