“It is time to get rid of this racist law against Indians in San Diego.” – Bo Mazzetti, Chair, Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians (photo, left)
By Miriam Raftery
May 6, 2021 (San Diego) – San Diego County Supervisors voted 4-1 yesterday to repeal a 1994 board resolution which required blanket opposition to all tribal requests to add land to their reservations under the federal fee-to-trust process.
San Diego is home to 19 Native American reservations and 18 tribal governments, more than any other county in the U.S. Representatives from five of those tribes gave impassioned testimony at the virtual hearing, all urging Supervisors to repeal the measure.
“It’s been 170 years since our lands were taken,” said Bo Mazzetti, chair of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians. “What we’re asking is just a fair opportunity to buy back our own land,” adding that very few tribes have the economic means to do so….It is time to get rid of this racist law against Indians in San Diego.”
Marcos Cuero, chairman of the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians, noted the Kumeyaay people once occupied lands across San Diego County. “Our lands are where each of you sit today,” he told Supervisors. Even after the federal government set aside 138 million acres for reservations, he noted, those protections were eroded and tribal lands shrunk to 48 million acres. To partially right those wrongs, the federal government set up a fee-to-trust program under which tribes can buy back their lands. “They are not given to us,” he said. Cuero criticized the 1994 resolution by supervisors to “oppose all fee-to-trust for any or no reason” as an aggressive action which “sought to hinder tribal self government” and which has been “costly to tribes.”
Erica Pinto, chair of the Jamul Indian Village, stated, “I really appreciate the new direction that the new county board of Supervisors is taking.” She said the prior board prevented tribes from expanding their reservations for “homes, for medical buildings, for cultural centers.” She added that her tribe, which has a small reservation, had the “worst experience” with their request to expand their reservation denied. She called the changes “a long time coming” and noting that “as humans, we evolve.” She noted that while a past governor set a bounty to kill Indians, current Governor Gavin Newsom has apologized for those atrocities. “Please vote to rescind this policy,” she urged the board, regarding the 30-year-old resolution blocking tribes from expanding their land holdings.
Michael Garcia, Vice chair of the Ewiiaapaayp, noted that his tribe has a small reservation in Alpine and a larger one on Mount Laguna. One of the reservations has a health clinic serving seven tribes. The Alpine reservation, known as Little Ewiiaapaayp, is so remote at an elevation of over 5,600 feet that it is off the SDG&E grid and has a single, unsafe access road, he said. He said two non-gaming fee-to-trust applications by his off-grid,non-gaming tribe have been repeatedly denied by supervisors, an action he said “should be an embarrassment to the county” which is also inequitable.
Robert Smith, Chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, also urged support for the action. In a press release issued after the decision, he thanked the majority of Supervisors calling their decision “an important step in the right direction.” He adds, “Several tribes throughout San Diego County, including Pala, have responsibly developed casinos and businesses on their reservations, employed thousands of residents with good paying jobs and made significant contributions to the local economy. Tribal businesses are vital to economic development in our communities and we are committed to working to strengthen and foster strong government-to-government relationships throughout the region and the state.”
The Indian gaming industry alone has created over 10,000 jobs in the San Diego region, resulting in a $1 billion industry, according to county staff.
The measure passed by Supervisors and introduced by Supervisors Jim Desmond and Nora Vargas does several things. It repeals the blanket opposition to all fee-to trust proposals and requires that any future proposals be evaluated on the merits of each case. The county must consider economic benefits to the county in weighing future projects.
It also eases restrictions on tribes obtaining liquor licenses. Desmond said of the strict alcohol limits imposed by prior supervisors, “To me, it’s quite unfair. We don’t do this with any other jurisdiction or entity.” Tribes will now be subject to the same rules governing any other entity applying for liquor sales.
In addition, the measure passed Wednesday will establish a tribal liaison position to further the government-to-government relationship between the county and each of the 18 local tribal governments.
Supervisor Vargas proposed an amendment to assure notification and opportunities for public input, a point which Chairman Nathan Fletcher said was already required under existing laws.
The measure passed 4-1 with Supervisor Joel Anderson voting no, despite having numerous Native American reservations in his district. He did not state a reason for his opposition in the hearing. ECM has contacted his chief of staff to ask why he opposed the measure, but no response has yet been received.