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Prop 27 Tribal Sovereignty Controversy

Most of the California tribes who have weighed in on Proposition 27 are against it. But if you've seen YES on Prop 27 ads, you've probably noticed the guy in a bright red shirt.

"... Prop 27 support financially disadvantaged tribes that don't own big casinos...."

That's Moke Simon, chair of the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians in rural Lake Country, about an hour's drive north of Napa. For much of the summer and fall his face was a constant presence on TV in support of Prop 27.

"By taxing and regulating online sports betting for adults 21 and over, we can protect tribal sovereignty."

Middletown Rancheria is one of three tribes that supports Prop 27. But Nicole found that more than 50 tribes oppose it — they're worried about language tucked away in the measure that could potentially undermine tribal sovereignty.

Sovereignty refers to the inherent right of tribal nations to govern their own lands and people. And in California, they also have exclusive rights to offer casino-style games on their lands... if they have the resources for gaming.

Jeff Butler is general counsel for the Yorcha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Northern California tribe that operates a casino resort. He says many tribes are skeptical of Prop 27 because it would require them to sign new agreements with big companies like FanDuel or DraftKings to offer online sports betting.

"But the problem is that to do so, the tribe expressly must waive its sovereign immunity. It's got to allow itself to be sued. And that is a nonstarter with respect to tribes."

Sovereignty is crucial to tribal cultures, especially after generations of genocidal policies from European colonizers that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Native people, stolen land and fractured tribal identity. These policies continued well into the 1960s, says Joely Proudfit. She directs the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State San Marcos.

What makes a tribe is its people. The tribe having the wherewithal and the resources to govern its people and its lands and its waters is critical. So to lose that and just have the people blend into society as simply another racialized group is really harmful to tribal peoples.

Proudfit says tribal gaming and casinos have helped pull tribes out of poverty and provide essential services, like health care and housing.

Tribal sovereignty is wonderful but having the resources to enact tribal sovereignty are critical.

And that point about resources is why Moke Simon— the tribal chairman features in Yes on 27 ads—- finds himself on the other sides of dozens of tribes: "Middletown, Rancheria has looked at the opportunities for us to grow for the next seven generations, and we're limited."

The 250 member tribe runs the Twin Pines Casino and Hotel— but it's not a big gaming operation. For Simon, the chance to partner with an online sports betting company could bring money for economic development and the potential to buy back tribal lands.
"This is just an opportunity for one tribe to make a decision, a sovereign decision on how they're going to move their people forward."

Polls show Prop 27 looks headed to defeat... but these questions of tribal sovereignty and sports betting aren't going away— as the issue could be back on the ballot again in 2024.