Alexander Valley's Wappo Indians have won a victory in federal court, where a judge ruled Sonoma County can't stop their bid to regain tribal status.
The county fears the Wappos want to build a casino, but the tribe's leader said they won't make a decision until they win federal recognition.
"It's an option for the tribe," said Wappo chairman Scott Gabaldon. "I'm not sure what the future will hold."
The Wappos sued U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009, charging the federal government acted unlawfully when it disbanded the tribe in 1959. The Wappos are asking the government to restore their tribal status, benefits and historic land rights.
The Wappos would get rights to casino gambling on restored land if their lawsuit is successful.
Sonoma and Napa counties intervened in the case last year, arguing the tribe shouldn't remove land from their jurisdictions without local approval.
They asked the federal court to dismiss the Wappos' case, alleging the group waited too long to file their complaint. The counties also questioned the group's connections to the historic Wappo tribe and argued the Interior Department has no authority to recognize the tribe.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila denied the counties' motion, ruling the Wappos can go forward with their claim.
The group is in settlement talks with attorneys for the Interior Department, according to court records.
It's too soon to say whether Sonoma County will appeal the judge's decision, said Jeffrey Brax, an attorney for the county. "We are obviously disappointed," he said Tuesday.