A federal judge has ruled against an Indian tribe seeking federal recognition in a case that Napa County officials feared might have opened the door for a local casino.
U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila issued the ruling Monday evening for the 2009 lawsuit. The judgment means that the U.S. Department of the Interior will not have to recognize the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley in Sonoma County.
Napa County officials oppose having the tribe federally recognized. They feared the tribe might then seek to have land held in trust by the federal government and try to build a casino in the county. Local land use laws would not apply in such a case.
County officials already have another casino concern on their hands. They say the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians — a federally recognized tribe based in Lake County — is pursuing an agreement with a Las Vegas company to seek a casino site in Napa, Sonoma or Solano counties.
“So on to the next battle, so to speak,” Supervisor Mark Luce said Tuesday morning after hearing of the Wappo decision.
But first, the Board of Supervisors and county officials took time to revel in Davila’s ruling. The mood at Tuesday’s board meeting bordered on celebratory.
Board Vice-Chairman Alfredo Pedroza opened the meeting at 9 a.m. with what he called “exciting news.”
“This is a really big victory for Napa County and our land preservation history we have here,” he told the audience.
Scott Gabaldon, chairman of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley, declined to comment by phone on Tuesday. He has previously stated he will not talk with the Napa Valley Register. That left it unclear Tuesday if the tribe might appeal the ruling.
Napa County quickly issued a news release saying Davila agreed with several arguments made by the county and adopted by the federal government. Among them is that the Mishewal Wappo Tribe waited far beyond the usual statute of limitations to file a lawsuit.
Rep. Mike Thompson in a news release said the Mishewal Wappo tribe attempted to circumvent Congress and the Department of the Interior by going through the courts. This attempt rightfully failed, he said.
“The motivation behind this lawsuit was clear,” said Thompson, D-St. Helena. “By the group’s own admission, if the lawsuit was successful, they would have attempted to build a casino in Napa or Sonoma counties.”
Davila’s ruling protects important agricultural lands from Las Vegas-style gambling, he said.
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The Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley was recognized as an Indian tribe by the federal government from at least 1851 to 1959. It had a 54-acre rancheria in Sonoma County held in trust by the federal government, according to the tribe’s legal filings.
By the 1950s, the federal government was working on dismantling the rancheria system so Indians could be assimilated into mainstream society. Members of the Mishewal Wappo tribe supposedly accepted an asset distribution plan for their rancheria.
But the lawsuit contended that rancheria residents mistakenly identified as Mishewal Wappos voted for the plan. It lists other factors that it says show that the United States unlawfully terminated the tribe’s rancheria and federal recognition.
Such contentions culminated in the 2009 lawsuit of Mishewal Indian Tribe of Alexander Valley versus then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Davila took the case under consideration in July 2013.
Circle Oaks resident David Heitzman at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting noted that the county has spoken out against having a casino in the agricultural preserve. That left him wondering about other locations in the county, such as Aetna Springs resort in Pope Valley or within a city.
“What if they located in Wooden Valley. Would you care then?” Heitzman asked the board during public comments.
After the meeting, Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners said Napa County has no ideal location for a casino. He pointed to such factors as the rural roads and limited main roads.
Opposing the Mishewal Wappo Tribe’s attempt for federal recognition sometimes seemed like tilting at windmills, Stults said. He could not have confidently predicted the outcome, he said.
Now the county and Napa Valley Vintners are turning their attention to a possible Scotts Valley Pomo Band of Indians casino. Napa Valley Vintners last week obtained what appears to be a confidential term sheet between the tribe and a Las Vegas company calling for locating a casino north of San Pablo Bay.
The vintners group helped organize a meeting Friday of community leaders and groups to talk about the possible casino. It is trying to establish a fund to address casino issues and has offered to match up to $100,000 and then add another $100,000.
Stults said Tuesday that the county and vintners have yet to talk with the Scotts Valley Pomo Band of Indians. It would be good to explain to the tribe why the county is so aggressive in protecting its agricultural land, he said.
Rob Ottone is tribal administrator at the landless tribe’s Lakeport office. He said in an email Tuesday that the tribe may soon have a public statement. Leaders are talking about presenting information on the tribe and economic development.