Eleven years after the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians opened Sonoma County's only casino in the Geyserville hills, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will throw open the doors to its far larger gambling palace next to Highway 101 outside Rohnert Park.
Both casinos were flatly opposed by Sonoma County government officials and many residents. But one factor above all hamstrung county officials and shaped their dealings with the tribes.
That factor is tribal sovereignty.
"It's very significant," said Bruce Goldstein, an Indian law expert and the county's chief counsel, who led casino-related negotiations with both the Graton Rancheria and the Dry Creek Rancheria.
"In order to find solutions, it's important to work with them on an equal basis. The county's not in a position to impose regulations," he said.
Tribal sovereignty has been controversial through the years because of the special status it accords a particular group of Americans and because it strips power from local and state governments.
But it springs from the legal recognition that tribes were North America's original nations, a position that comes with distinct rights.
The essential backbone of tribal sovereignty is that tribes have the right to govern themselves and their territory, lands that the federal government holds in trust.
And one entity's sovereignty necessarily excludes, at least to a major degree, that of another.
"You can't govern yourself if you have state and local governments regulating you and breathing down your neck," said Matthew Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at the Michigan State University law school.
In regard to their control over their reservations, tribes are in most ways free from the reach of state law. Without invitation, non-members cannot go to tribal governance meetings as they can attend board of supervisors or city council meetings. And tribes are entirely out of reach of county or city ordinances.
As sovereign nations, federally recognized tribes enjoy the same immunity from lawsuits as the federal and state governments, though that can be partially waived if the tribe chooses to do so or by congressional action.
For example, in revenue-sharing agreements that the Graton tribe has signed with Rohnert Park and Sonoma County, the tribe partially waived its sovereign immunity in certain circumstances.
The right of tribal self-governance was affirmed in what is generally considered the most important judicial ruling in Indian law, the Worcester v. Georgia case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832.
In that case, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the decision that said tribes, while "weaker" political bodies than the United States, were still independent states. They had never surrendered the sovereign rights they held before Europeans arrived on the continent, Marshall said.
The ruling "held that Indian tribes were sovereign governments; they have always been sovereign governments; they can run their internal relations however they see fit," said Stephen Pevar, an Indian law specialist and senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marshall also affirmed that Congress had not given the tribes their sovereignty through treaties, laws or any other means. They had possessed it "from time immemorial," Marshall ruled.
"It's not delegated powers; those are original powers," Pevar said.
At the same time, tribes are in many ways subject to, as well as protected by, U.S. law. In another key decision, Marshall said tribes are "domestic dependent nations" with a relationship to the United States like "that of a ward to his guardian."