Diego James Robles
Attendees of the Western Indian Gaming Conference listen in on a water rights seminar at Harrah’s Resort Southern California.

Calif. Drought, Smoking on Agenda at the Western Indian Gaming Conference

Diego James Robles

More than 350 tribal people representing roughly half of the 109 federally recognized California tribes attended the Western Indian Gaming Conference earlier this month. Hosted by the Rincon Band of Luseno Indians, the conference featured several seminars on gaming entities and Native communities as a whole.

Wearing matching bowling shirts with her daughter before the start of the conference’s bowling tournament, Susan Jensen, the director of communications for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association touted the two-day affair for not only educating members and tribal representatives, but for bringing them closer together. “We made it less about vendors, and strictly business, and more about networking and building relationships,” she told ICTMN. “We do an afternoon network break that really tries to bring everybody together and show that we are unique tribal entities.”

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association, a non-profit trade organization, started as a way of address pressing concerns for the gaming tribes of California. Some of those concerns were addressed at the conference and included the 1999 gaming compact that tribes operate under; exploring a bill to push for online poker (which is currently illegal in Calif.); assessing the feasibility of turning all or parts of casino properties into non-smoking venues; and planning for a future in California with scarce water resources.

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In Jan. 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency after years of severe drought. Cynthia Gomez, the governor’s tribal advisor and the executive director of the Native American Heritage Commission, said the water problem in California was two-fold: years of persistent drought coupled with a depleting snowpack, and all this is exacerbated, she said, with an ever-increasing population and demand for the resource. “The governor’s office is concerned because we are not getting the precipitation and the snowpack,” Gomez said.

Gomez also warned tribal members of criminal enterprises targeting remote tribal lands for the cultivation of illegal marijuana plants. She described the findings made by the National Guard -- in conjunction with a dozen other government organizations when they helped the Tule River and Yurok tribes eradicate illegal marijuana growers. “One marijuana plant takes eight gallons of water per day,” she said.

Mike Conolly, vice president of the development corporation for the Capo Kumeyaay Nation, addressed tribal water rights. “What they are proposing now, to regulate water, is going to radically transform the relationship between tribes and the state, and I don’t think people have begun to realize how much it’s going to affect everything we do,” Conolly said referring to the state’s desire to regulate underground water now that above-ground supplies have dwindled. “Everything from endangered species to the housing developments to the water quantification process is going to require a lot of fights and battles.”

Conolly had other concerns. He asked why cattle -- virtually unregulated in California -- continue to roam free despite the huge amount of damage they cause water-storing facilities when they break into them. He also wondered if the state would ever reexamine the water-intensive crops that dot the California landscape. “We are a huge grower of rice, cotton, and alfalfa, and all three are water intensive,” he said. He also spoke about the toll the drought will take on his people.

In one of the conference rooms, Narinder Dhaliwal made a passionate presentation about the perils of permitting smoking in casinos, and how smoke-free venues do not take a financial hit, despite what many tribal members have been told.

After praising the Redding Rancheria tribe for having a 70 percent (smoking) cessation rate and improving the work conditions for their employees, Dhaliwal tried but was unable to hide her disappointment when the tribe -- having been pressured by non-tribal smoking community members -- voted to allow smoking back into 30 percent of their casino.

At the end of the conference, Ron Andrade of the La Jolla people, and the director of the Los Angeles City/County American Indian Commission, praised the event for focusing on important tribal issues. As he walked slowly from one acquaintance to another, Andrade was reminded why he attends every year. For me it’s all about going around and checking with old friends, and telling them, ‘What are you up to? What are you doing?’ he said. “So it’s easy if we can all get together in one place.”


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