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Ruling on Wappo tribe case could come in a month

Ruling on Wappo tribe case could come in a month


A federal judge appears close to ruling on a local Indian tribe’s efforts to seek federal recognition, with potential future implications for Napa Valley land use.

The Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley sued the U.S. Department of Interior to have its tribal recognition restored. Napa County officials fear such status might someday give the tribe the ability to build a casino locally, should it choose to pursue this course.

Both sides filed motions for summary judgment in their favor. U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila took the Mishewal Wappo case under submission in July 2013, beginning the wait for a decision.

In a recently filed document, Davila said he will issue an order addressing the motions by roughly March 31.

For Napa County officials, the heart of the issue is the ability of a tribe with federal recognition to purchase land and ask the federal government to take the land into trust. The move under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act results in land being placed under the tribe’s jurisdiction.

“If that occurs, (the tribe) is considered a sovereign nation and it’s not subject to land use regulation,” said Larry Florin, the Napa County housing and intergovernmental affairs director.

Napa County has tried to protect agricultural land through such steps as its agricultural preserve and Measure P, which puts most agricultural land changes in the hands of voters. A tribe with land in trust would not be subject to such laws.

Florin said the tribe might build a casino under a state-approved compact, or build a shopping center or other type of development. He said land not subject to local land use laws is anathema to county residents who voted for Measure P.

In 2012, Wappo Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon described his version of what lies at the heart of the court case.

“It has always been about getting your identity back,” he said.

Gabaldon had nothing to say when contacted on Tuesday, other than he won’t talk with the Napa Valley Register. He didn’t elaborate.

In 2013, the Register ran a story saying the tribe has connections to casino interests.

On its website, the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of the Alexander Valley calls itself the last remaining Wappo tribe in existence, and says it has 340 members. In 1851, about 8,000 Wappo Indians lived in such places as the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the website says.

The tribe in its lawsuit alleges that the United States government illegally stripped the tribe of its federal recognition during a 1950s California move to dismantle various tribal landholdings under the rancheria system.

Indian casinos have sometimes been a thorny issue in the region. Sonoma County has two such casinos. A tribe in 2003 talked about building a casino in rural Suisun Valley in neighboring Solano County, raising opposition from county government.

Gambling issues motivated Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties in 2005 to form the Northern California Counties Tribal Matters Consortium. Florin said the group has not met recently.

Napa and Sonoma counties sought to be part of the Wappo lawsuit as intervener defendants, but Davila removed them in 2012. That means Napa County has no status in the case and cannot appeal Davila’s decision, if it disagrees with the outcome.

“We’re an onlooker at this point,” Florin said — an onlooker that is “anxiously awaiting” the outcome.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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