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The fight for recognition

Casino concerns raise stakes for Napa in Wappo’s restoration quest

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If the Napa Valley was a plainer realm, without its bounty or its beauty, then perhaps this fight could be less fierce, and compromise more easily attained.

But these lands have billions of dollars in bounty and a beauty world-renowned, which helps explain the crux of a tangled, three-year legal battle that has unfolded in a federal court in San Jose between Napa’s county government and the descendants of the Napa Valley’s original Indian inhabitants.

The Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley, whose approximately 350 members live mostly in Sonoma County and claim direct lineage with the Napa Valley’s aboriginal Wappo Indians, sued the federal government in this court in 2009. Napa and Sonoma counties joined that fight in 2010 believing that the tribe ultimately wants to build a casino within their boundaries.

At the heart of the tribe’s lawsuit is its desire to regain federal recognition, which it lost in 1959. Recognition would make it eligible for federal funding for programs, services and lead to greater economic development opportunities.

“It has always been about getting your identity back,” Scott Gabaldon, Wappo tribal chairman, said.

The counties fear that federally recognizing the tribe will allow it to petition the federal government to take land into trust, exempting it from local land-use and zoning laws and allowing it to build a casino.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila has squashed the counties’ attempts to end the tribe’s lawsuit, and the tribe and the federal government have been in ongoing negotiations to settle the lawsuit.

To Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon, the prospect of a federally recognized tribe with trust land in the county would circumvent the land-use laws the county government has fought so hard to maintain. The county’s position is that only an act of Congress, not a court ruling, should restore tribal recognition.

“We don’t believe that it’s appropriate at all for the courts to decide this,” Dillon said. “It’s not an anti-Native American issue. It’s not even an anti-recognition issue. We’re opposed to the process they’re opting to use.”

Gabaldon said Napa’s and Sonoma’s fixation on land and a casino is misguided — the tribe’s concern at this point is recognition, which it claims the federal government illegally stripped from it in the 1950s. Because of that, the tribe has filed a motion to have the two counties thrown out of the lawsuit. Davila is set to rule on it next month.

“All these groups are saying, ‘Don’t build in the Ag Preserve,’ ” Gabaldon said. “My concerns are their concerns. They will have a huge say in land going into trust. As far as right now, it’s restoration. They have no say in that. What I’m asking for is the federal government to give back what it took and for the counties to leave us alone.”

The fight

Napa County has recently ramped up its lobbying efforts, and its rhetoric in explaining what’s at stake in the fight. It has received support letters from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and 10 influential Napa County groups. It received a letter of support last year from U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and Don Young, R-Alaska.

The Board of Supervisors has also received resolutions from the Yountville Town Council and on Tuesday from the city councils in Napa and American Canyon. It’s planning to ask the city councils in St. Helena and Calistoga for support soon.

One resolution states plainly what officials believe this lawsuit is about: “the motive behind the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit is mainly to build a massive casino gaming facility in Napa Valley.”

The tribe, however, has never stated that it plans to pursue a casino. The lawsuit originally stated that the tribe sought claims to its historical lands in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, although it amended it later to seek federal land, such as land owned by the Bureau of Land Management.

Gabaldon said a casino would be one of several options the tribe could pursue for economic development if it got restored. He said the tribe does have investment partners paying for the lawsuit, although he denies that their sole interest is building a casino, as local officials have alleged in the resolutions. He said the tribe sought them out to help with the lawsuit’s cost, and that their investments could be recouped in a number of ways aside from a casino.

“It’s a private investor,” Gabaldon said. “They’re investing in a tribe. They’re putting faith in me to get this done so they can get paid back.”

He accused the counties of creating legal diversions to delay the lawsuit’s progress and rack up legal costs. Four tribal elders have died in the two years the tribe has been fighting the counties, not living to see the tribe possibly regain recognition, he said. He considers the resolutions a sign that his tribe is winning.

“I’m fighting a senator, two congressmen, two counties — line them up,” Gabaldon said. “My little old tribe could bring down wine country? Give me a break.”


Before the first grapevine budded and bloomed in the Napa Valley, and before its first grapes were crushed into wine, the Wappo Indians lived here.

Their historical territory stretched from portions of the Napa Valley — the present-day city of Napa being the most southerly part — to the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County in the northwest. From there it stretched west to Cobb Mountain and present-day Middletown in Lake County. A smaller territory south of Clear Lake was also inhabited by Wappo Indians.

Gabaldon said the Wappo had 8,000-10,000 members in 1834. But that population plummeted as they succumbed to disease, were displaced, taken to missions or killed in skirmishes, leaving the valley to be inhabited by settlers with names like Yount, Bale, Coombs, Pope and Chiles.

A federal census in 1910 identified the Wappo as having 73 living members, three-fifths of whom were full-blooded, according to a report from an expert hired by the counties, Lewis & Clark College Professor Stephen Beckham, which was filed in federal court.

In 1909 and again in 1913, the federal government purchased land totaling 54 acres on the west banks of the Russian River for the tribe, calling it the Alexander Valley rancheria.

Life at the rancheria could be brutally hard, with inadequate water and sewer, poorly maintained roads and sparse electricity, Gabaldon said. Most of the tribal members left to fish or work on ranches or farms during the summertime, and return in the winter.

In 1935, Gabaldon said the tribe received federal recognition when its 14 adult members voted as part of the Indian Reorganization Act, which Congress passed the previous year.

A Bureau of Indian Affairs worker put the tribal membership at 49 people in 1940, according to Beckham’s report.

In April 1951, a BIA surveyor went to the rancheria and found only James Adams, who was not a tribal member, his non-tribal family, and a squatter. Gabaldon said that was because the other members were out working.

“People will say, ‘Oh, no one was living there,’ but the truth was, it was uninhabitable,” Gabaldon said. “You couldn’t live there.”

Regardless, according to Beckham in 1953 the California Senate Interim Committee on California Indian Affairs listed the Alexander Valley rancheria among those targeted for termination. In 1958, Congress passed the California Rancheria Act, and put those wheels in motion by terminating 41 rancherias and distributing the land among the tribe.


When it came to the Alexander Valley rancheria, however, the BIA could find only Adams and a tribal member, William McCloud, who was living off the rancheria, Gabaldon said.

On Sept. 11, 1959, McCloud and Adams voted to terminate the Wappo tribe’s recognition and distribute the rancheria’s lands between themselves, with Adams getting two-thirds despite the fact he wasn’t a member of the Wappo tribe. In exchange, the government pledged to improve infrastructure out there. Those promises weren’t kept, Gabaldon said.

Gabaldon said the other tribal members returned in the fall and winter, as they usually would, and found notices posted around the rancheria notifying them of the action.

“It wasn’t us that did it,” Gabaldon said. “James Adams did it. They just took the land. We didn’t do it. There’s no question they let somebody else do it. They didn’t even follow their own laws to do it.”

After termination, the tribe dispersed into Sonoma County, he said, and while his relatives went to Sacramento to try and fix the situation, they weren’t successful.

In 1961, Adams and McCloud received the deeds to their land and a notice was printed in the Federal Register officially terminating the tribe’s recognition.

In 1979, the Wappo joined a lawsuit brought on behalf of other tribes terminated in the Rancheria Act, called the Tillie Hardwick case. Four years later, 17 tribes had recognition restored when the case ended, although the Wappo were left out at the end because its distributes, Adams and McCloud, weren’t a part of it. Adams had sold the land in 1977 to its present owners, Gabaldon said.

“Seventeen tribes in one fell swoop got restored,” Gabaldon said.

Gabaldon said after the Tillie Hardwick ruling, his tribe got serious about pursuing recognition and formed a tribal government.

In 1992, Congress formed the Advisory Council on California Indian Policy, which said in 1997 that the Mishewal Wappo tribe should have its federal recognition immediately restored. In 2000, Kevin Grover, an assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Department of the Interior, testified as such before a House committee on a bill that would restore another tribe.

Gabaldon said the Wappo have repeatedly petitioned members of Congress to get bills passed restoring their federal recognition, without success.  “Mike Thompson said you need local support, and that’ll never happen,” Gabaldon said.

Nor could the tribe find success through the Obama administration. In a June 2009 letter, Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Department of the Interior, wrote that because the Rancheria Act is still in effect, the only options for restoration are through Congress or the courts.

To Gabaldon, the choice was clear. The tribe had to sue.

“We were out of options,” Gabaldon said.

And so in June 2009, the tribe sued the federal government.


Napa and Sonoma counties soon joined and attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out, although Judge Davila rebuffed the attempt last October. They sought to appeal his ruling in February, but were also denied; they can appeal after the case is resolved. The parties are waiting to see how Davila rules in June on the tribe’s motion to remove the counties entirely.

In arguing to remain in the case, the counties have alleged in court documents that the tribe is masking “inconvenient truths” about the lineage of its current membership, because the tribe has stonewalled its requests for discovery in the lawsuit. The resolutions circulating among local governments reference the tribe as “a group calling itself the ‘Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley.’ ”

Gabaldon said he’s stonewalled the counties’ request for the tribe’s membership records because they don’t have a right to the information. Inside a filing cabinet in the tribe’s office in Santa Rosa, Gabaldon said the tribe has records on file for its current members that link to members of the 1940 census, and to earlier population surveys done at the Alexander Valley rancheria.

He can pull out a typical file complete with a family tree, and photo copies of birth certificates and death certificates. If the federal government requested it, Gabaldon said he’d provide the records.

“If they want to say we’re not linked, they’re out of their mind,” Gabaldon said. “There’s no question who we are. I don’t give them this information because it’s none of their business.”

If the tribe wins, Gabaldon said it will pursue economic development opportunities to pay back its investors. What that will be — or where it will be — is not certain, he said. It could be renewable energy, or it could be casino gambling.

“We’re going to be looking at options of economic development,” Gabaldon said. “It could be anything. The casinos are the way everybody makes money now. It’s a way for tribes to get economic development, but it’s not the only way.”

Supervisor Dillon said she believes the tribe will pursue gambling, to the detriment of Napa County’s land-use controls.

“What concerns me most is we have some very specific land-use policies in place,” Dillon said. “It’s our land-use system. We have worked so hard to protect agricultural land.”


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