Copyrighted material

Indians Become A Political Force

by Jacqueline Keeler

First time American Indians have won a referendum in any state
(Pacific News Service) On November 3, American Indian tribes won a stunning victory. Proposition 5, an initiative sponsored by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) passed with 62.5 percent of the vote. The passage makes Native American nations a new political force to be reckoned with.

"The victory marks the first time American Indians have ever gotten a referendum approved in any state," says Kevin Gover, head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Adds Ken Ramirez, campaign chairman and tribal vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians, "The campaign coalition itself counted over 230,000 Californians who recognized that Indian gaming has broken the cycle of poverty at many reservations and must be defended."

Gover sees the win as an overall victory for tribal sovereignty, but cautions that many obstacles remain on the road to self-sufficiency.

Support for the proposition cut across party lines, ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status. It even garnered 55% of the conservative vote according to a CNN exit poll, despite opposition from California governor Pete Wilson. The Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO also opposed the Proposition, but the same CNN poll found that 70% of environmentalists and union members voted for it.

"The goal of Indian self-reliance touched a chord with Californians from all walks of life," says Ramirez.

This unprecedented voter support came with a heavy price tag. Nearly $96 million was spent by both sides, making Proposition 5 the most expensive in California's history. Television commercials supporting Indian gaming gave a new image of American Indians as business people in suits and bolo ties and portrayed tribal leaders pursuing an economic policy that could stem the ravages of poverty in their communities.

"This campaign brought the plight of the Indian people into the living rooms of every home and the people listened," says Morongo Band of Mission Indians tribal chairwoman Mary Ann Martin Andreas.

The No on 5 campaign, financed almost exclusively by Nevada casinos, spent $30 million to depict the American Indian tribes as opportunists who could not be trusted to protect the environment or support labor unions. Californians account for 28 percent of the business of these casinos, and voters apparently dismissed the TV ads as self-serving. Opponents arguing that gaming was immoral were unwilling to align themselves with casino owners and thus lacked the funds to mount a significant campaign of their own.

Indians must still deal with a federal law, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which requires individual tribes to negotiate compacts with state governments in order to "legalize" their casino operations. This is in spite of the fact that American Indian tribes are technically sovereign nations, and therefore should be negotiating with federal, not state, government. California Indian nations negotiated with Governor Pete Wilson for almost eight years before turning to the initiative process.

American Indian governments have sued state governments in federal court for not negotiating in good faith as required by the 1988 law. They have been stopped cold, however, by the Supreme Court. Moreover, California tribes face continued opposition from the Nevada casinos which plan to challenge the initiative in court on grounds that it violates the 1984 Lottery Act. This act added a clause to the state's constitution banning "casinos of the type currently operating in Nevada and New Jersey."

As gaming money continues to drive political campaigns, American Indian nations will continue using the political process to push for greater recognition of their sovereignty. The goal is to give concrete meaning to their constitutional status as "Domestic Dependent Nations." Meanwhile, a Senate committee is devising stricter rules in response to complaints from states and competitors that the Indian casinos have unfair advantages and rob them of revenues.

Comments Vine Deloria, Jr., American Indian author and scholar, "It is good that people recognize and support Indian rights when so many others are trying to take those rights away."

Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux is a Bay Area writer

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 16, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.