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The Byrne Report

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The white man made us many promises, but he only kept one. He promised to take our land, and he took it. --Mahpiya Luta, Ogala Lakota leader, 1882

IN AUGUST, Redwood Equities sold $100 million worth of wetlands to Station Casinos of Las Vegas, Nev., for their use in developing a casino-hotel-shopping complex at the headwaters of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. The gambling corporation decided not to build on the portion of the wetland that is undergoing environmental review by the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC). That review is two years behind schedule, but it does not take a genius to see that paving a field that is under water all winter is silly. Station proposes to use the undeveloped flood plain to mitigate the destruction of a less wet wetlands abutting Rohnert Park. Regulatory delay has proven to be a boon for local investors who got more than top dollar for 270 acres of marshland originally stolen from Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians long ago.

Station Casino's interests in Sonoma County are fronted by Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The Las Vegas company supplies the cash and business expertise; Sarris supplies his tribe's ability to create a Las Vegas–style casino (a privilege prohibited to non-Indians). Tribal "sovereignty" trumps most local and state regulations. Without it, the casino could not be built. With it, employees get the shaft.

The prevailing theory of sovereignty holds that Indian tribes are legally immune from complying with state and federal regulations that protect the civil rights of casino employees. California's tribal compacts, however, require tribal governments to institute employee protections that are "no less stringent" than state and federal laws. But in Placer County, Station Casinos and the United Auburn Indian Community are being credibly sued for failing to protect Thunder Valley Casino employees from sexual harassment, discrimination and civil rights violations. The Thunder Valley principals have ducked under the umbrella of sovereign immunity, claiming that aggrieved employees cannot sue the casino because, unlike every other worker in California, they gave up this fundamental right when they took a job with a "domestic dependent nation."

In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that enables the creation of Las Vegas-Indian partnerships. But the doctrine of sovereignty that underpins the act is subjective, partial and politically malleable. For example, criminal courts and local police have jurisdiction inside Indian country. Tribal casinos must comply with state and federal financial regulations. Federal courts can force tribes to disgorge taxes. Congress can break its grant of partial sovereignty--just like it has broken most Indian treaties--by repealing the act. State legislatures are free to outlaw all gambling, which would euthanize Las Vegas-Indian deals. The act was not designed to recompense a million surviving Indians for the genocide of their ancestors; it was designed to mint money, mostly for such non-Indians as Station Casinos, and if a few tribal leaders get a piece, so be it.

Sarris promotes sovereignty as an inviolable right. Why, then, on April 22, 2003, did he sign a contract between the Graton Rancheria and Station Casinos that includes an irrevocable waiver of sovereign immunity in favor of the Las Vegas corporation? Should the tribe fail to pay off the hundreds of millions of dollars, plus interest, that it is borrowing from Station, or otherwise annoy it, even involuntarily, Station is granted the right to sue the tribe in state or federal court. The doctrine of sovereign immunity generally does not allow casino patrons, employees, vendors or neighbors this recourse. But Station can sue the tribe, because it has purchased the tribe's only business asset: the use of its sovereign status. Sarris says the waiver was a condition of doing business.

The partially redacted contract, which I obtained from the NIGC, places the tribe in a position of perpetual subordination to the corporation, renewable every seven years. The tribe has little or no meaningful control over the operation of the casino it "owns." In return for fronting Station, the tribe will receive an undisclosed percentage of gamblers' losses. But Station does not want tribal officials anywhere near the cash. The contract states that the casino's bank account "shall be under the sole dominion of and control of the Company [Station Casinos], but shall be maintained by the Bank in the name of the Tribe."

Sarris says if the casino is not built, the tribe will not have to repay the $123 million or so it has borrowed to date. Station disagrees. Its spokesperson e-mailed me, "Based on the contract, if the [casino] project doesn't come to fruition . . . then the Tribe is responsible for paying us back through revenue earned from future projects."

If the casino tanks, the 1,085 members of the Graton tribe will owe one heck of a mortgage on a swamp.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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