The US Department of the Interior (DOI) has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. They want to build a $700 million casino within the city limits of Vallejo, Calif.
The tribe sued the DOI after the department denied its request to have the parcel of land in Vallejo taken into trust as restored lands for gaming purposes. The department determined in February 2019 that the tribe had failed to demonstrate the required “significant historical connection” to the lands.
The tribe sued immediately, claiming the DOI decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and that it involved the misapplication of federal laws related to Indian gaming and land restoration.
The DOI wrote in its motion to dismiss that the decision is “factually and procedurally sound, and fully complies with the law.” The document was filed last Friday in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
The tribe has been eager to get a casino off the ground since 2006, when it first applied to the DOI for land to be taken into trust in Richmond, Calif. That’s some 103 miles away from its headquarters near Lakeport, on the western shore of Clear Lake.
When it failed to demonstrate a historical connection there, it rolled the dice on the Vallejo parcel, some 85 miles from its base.
The tribe was stripped of its sovereignty in the 1950s under federal Indian termination policies. But its recognition was restored in 1991, three years after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). This meant the tribe had to meet certain conditions to qualify for gaming, because the land was acquired after the bill’s enactment.
If the land in question is not part of a tribe’s historical reservation, it must prove ancestral ties to the area. This might include historical documentation of the existence of the tribe’s villages, burial grounds, occupancy, or subsistence use in the vicinity of the land.
The tribe pointed to a former chief named Augustine. According to records, he was born in the 1830s near Clear Lake. But throughout his life, he traveled to and from the North Bay region, the location of the Vallejo parcel. The tribe said this could be indicative of the wider movements of tribal members.
But after considering the evidence, the DOI concluded that Augustine’s “on-again, off-again presence in the North Bay” did not indicate a broader presence of the tribe’s ancestors in the area.
Should the judge toss the case, as is now likely, all is not lost for the Scotts Valley Band. The tribe could still pursue a casino at the site under the two-part determination provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. But that’s a long and difficult process that requires backing from the state governor and the surrounding community.
In 2016, officials from the city of Vallejo and Solano and Napa counties wrote letters opposing the casino plan.
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