Online gambling

Prop 27 Online Game Sparks Debate Over Tribal Sovereignty



GUY MARZORATI, BYLINE: Most of the California tribes who have weighed in on Proposition 27 are against it.

But if you’ve seen YES on the Prop 27 commercials, you’ve probably noticed the guy in the bright red shirt.

MOKE SIMON (MS): Prop 27 supports financially disadvantaged tribes that don’t own large casinos

MARZORATI: This is Moke Simon, president of the Middletown Rancheria of the Pomo Indians in rural Lake County, about an hour’s drive north of Napa

For much of the summer and fall, her face was a constant presence on television in Support of Proposition 27.

SIMON: By taxing and regulating online sports betting for adults 21 and older, we can protect tribal sovereignty.

Middletown Rancheria is one of three tribes that support Prop 27.

But Nicole has found that more than 50 tribes oppose it – they are worried about the hidden language to the extent that could potentially undermine tribal sovereignty.

NICOLE NIXON, BYLINE: Sovereignty refers to the inherent right of tribal nations to govern their own lands and peoples.

And in California, they also have the exclusive right to offer casino-style gaming on their land…if they have the resources to play.

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

BUTLER: But the problem is that in order to do that, the tribe must expressly waive its sovereign immunity. He must allow himself to be sued. And that’s a no-start when it comes to tribes.

NIXON: Sovereignty is crucial to tribal cultures, especially after generations of genocidal policies by European colonizers that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people, the theft of land, and the fracture of 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.

JOELY PROUDFIT: What makes a tribe are its people. The tribe having the means and resources to govern its people, lands and waters is essential. So to lose that and just have people blend into society as just another racialized group is really detrimental to tribal people.

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

PROUDFIT: Tribal sovereignty is wonderful, but having the resources to implement tribal sovereignty is essential.

MARZORATI: And that resource point is why Moke Simon – the tribal president featured in Yes on 27 ads – finds himself on the other side of dozens of tribes:

SIMON: Middletown, Rancheria looked at growth opportunities for the next seven generations, and we’re limited.

MARZORATI: The 250-member tribe runs the Twin Pines casino and hotel, but it’s not a big gambling operation.

For Simon, the possibility of partnering with an online sports betting company could bring money for economic development and the possibility of buying back tribal lands.

SIMON: It’s just an opportunity for a tribe to make a decision, a sovereign decision on how they’re going to move their people forward.

MARZORATI: Polls show that Proposition 27 appears to be on the verge of defeat…but these issues of tribal sovereignty and sports betting aren’t going away, because the issue could be on the ballot again in 2024.

In San Jose, my name is Guy Marzorati… and in Sacramento, my name is Nicole Nixon.

This story was made possible as part of The California Newsroom, a collaboration of California public radio stations, NPR and CalMatters.