Battle over Wappo tribe’s future
By STEVE HART / The Press Democrat
The Mishewal Wappo Indians of Alexander Valley could be called Sonoma County’s lost tribe.
They lost their land and their tribal status in 1959, along with 40 other tribes, under an act of Congress aimed at privatizing California’s small Indian reservations.
While other tribes have regained their rights through lawsuits or congressional action, the Wappos struggled in vain for federal recognition.
Now they’re close to achieving that goal. There’s much at stake, including the potential for an Indian casino.
But the Wappos face some tough opposition. Sonoma County, Napa County and powerful politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein are lined up against them.
The Wappos aren’t backing down, said Scott Gabaldon, a 42-year-old contractor from Lake County who has been the tribe’s chairman since 2007.”
My focus since day one has been getting my tribe restored, so we can reclaim the benefits we lost over 50 years ago,” he said. “You’re not going to get anything unless you fight for it.”
The tribe has an unnamed partner who is financing its legal fight, and the investor would share any profits from future tribal enterprises.
The two counties are worried the Wappos will open a casino, in defiance of local land-use regulations.
“I’m very troubled that this recognition is directly linked to future gaming in the county,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district includes Alexander Valley. “We’re committed to protecting our local environment and agricultural heritage.”
Gabaldon denied critics’ contention that the Wappos’ real interest is casino development. Still, he won’t rule out a casino in the tribe’s future. The tribe isn’t making any plans until it gets recognition, he said.
“Right now, that’s not my fight,” he said.
Under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, federally recognized tribes can acquire land for casino operations. More than half of California’s 109 tribes now have gaming.
But it’s unclear where the Wappo tribe might locate.
The struggle is playing out in federal court in San Jose, where the Wappos sued U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar nearly three years ago.
They say the federal government acted unlawfully when it disbanded the tribe in 1959. The former Alexander Valley Rancheria, their 54-acre reservation on a bend of the Russian River northeast of Healdsburg, now is in private hands.
Two years ago, Sonoma and Napa intervened in the Wappos’ suit, arguing the tribe shouldn’t be allowed to remove land from their jurisdictions without local approval.
They asked the federal court to dismiss the Wappos’ claim, alleging the group waited too long to file their complaint. The counties also questioned the group’s legitimacy, saying the Wappos don’t qualify as a tribe under federal rules.
Gabaldon bristles at the claim the Wappos aren’t a real tribe.
“I know that’s not true,” he said. “We were not lost. We never ceased to exist as a people.”
But it’s taken years for the tribe to reorganize and make its case for recognition.
The tribe now claims 357 enrolled members, all lineal descendants of 10 families who lived on the reservation in 1935.
The Wappos are asking the government to restore their tribal status, benefits and historic land rights.
They won a key victory earlier this month when U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila denied Sonoma and Napa’s efforts to dismiss their case.
The tribe now is in settlement talks with the Interior Department, but the counties still could appeal a judgment in the case.
The tribe’s identity has emerged as a central issue in the court case. The counties argue there’s no connection between today’s Wappo leaders and the Indians who once lived on Alexander Valley Rancheria.
Attorneys for the tribe call that argument insulting, and accuse the two counties of “polluting the stream of history.”
Both sides have called on historians to bolster their claims.
The counties hired Stephen Beckham, a history professor from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, to examine the Wappos’ past. In a 114-page report submitted to the court, he said Alexander Valley Rancheria wasn’t a real Indian reservation and the Wappos never met the federal definition of a tribe.
“The courts cannot restore what never existed,” Beckham concluded. “The rancheria was never a reservation and could not qualify as one under federal law.
“The Wappo never displayed any measure of tribal government of any kind at the rancheria. There was no recognition of a Wappo tribe by the United States, only the sometime residence of landless Indians of Wappo, Pomo and other tribes (and some non-Indians) on the rancheria.”
Federal records show the Indians abandoned the land by 1951, Beckham said. The present-day Wappo tribe can’t show any link to Indians who once lived on Alexander Valley Rancheria, he said.
But Edward Castillo, director of the Native American Studies program at Sonoma State University, said Beckham “cherry-picked” the federal archives and ignored most of the Wappos’ history.
The tribe points to a 1935 election where rancheria residents unanimously voted for self-government under the federal Indian Reorganization Act.
A tribe’s identity isn’t based only on land or a formal government, Castillo said.
“The United States has never developed a standard for declaring a tribe extinct based solely on residence and tribal government,” he said. “The fact is that very few California tribes had a formal government.”
Beckham’s conclusion that the modern Wappos have no connection to the historic tribe “is absolutely incorrect,” Castillo said. “It is based on his fictional genealogy, despite the fact that Dr. Beckham acknowledges he doesn’t have the tribe’s membership records.”
Most tribe members live in Sonoma County, and they work in a variety of fields including construction, auto repair, manufacturing, education and business, Gabaldon said.
The tribe’s government meets each month and there’s a general membership meeting several times a year, he said.
The Wappos are recognized by other tribes and state agencies including Caltrans and the Native American Heritage Commission, he said. They take part in Indian cultural events including dances and celebrations, Gabaldon said.
Federal recognition is important because tribe members get education benefits, including college scholarships, Gabaldon said.
“There’s a lot of kids who need help,” he said.
If it can acquire land, the tribe could start a retail, light industrial or other business, Gabaldon said. But he acknowledges the speculation that the Wappos are more interested in gaming.
“A lot of people think we’re a modern tribe who just want a casino,” he said. But the Wappos were fighting for recognition before gaming became an issue, Gabaldon said.
Sonoma and Napa counties aren’t the only ones alarmed by the prospect of tribal gaming. Four Napa County cities also oppose a potential Wappo casino.
Last year, Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Mike Thompson came out against Wappo recognition through the court system, saying a casino in Sonoma or Napa counties would endanger world-class vineyards.
“I believe that before federal recognition of the Wappo tribe moves ahead, the proper process must be followed every step of the way,” Thompson said in a statement Friday. “In Napa and Sonoma counties, developments such as a casino would hurt our agriculture industry. This is too important not to have all local stakeholders at the table.”
Only Congress has power to restore a tribe after it has been terminated, Woolsey and Thompson said in a letter to Interior Secretary Salazar.
“The stakes in this matter not only raise constitutional issues, but serve to threaten the fundamental basis of the region’s economy,” they said.
The letter also was signed by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who heads the House subcommittee on Indian affairs.
“We believe it is inappropriate for the department to execute this kind of settlement agreement,” the House members said.
Earlier this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the Interior Department shouldn’t recognize the Wappos without restrictions on tribal development in Napa Valley’s agricultural preserve.
“Such a restriction is the only way to ensure that the character of the region is maintained,” Feinstein said. Her letter doesn’t mention Sonoma County.
The Wappos are willing to negotiate with the counties, Gabaldon said, but they won’t give up their rights.
“We didn’t go looking for wars,” he said. “But we didn’t run away from them.”