Battle over Wappo tribe's future

The Mishewal Wappo Indians of Alexander Valley could be called Sonoma County's lost tribe.

They lost their land and their tribal status in 1959, along with 40 other tribes, under an act of Congress aimed at privatizing California's small Indian reservations.

While other tribes have regained their rights through lawsuits or congressional action, the Wappos struggled in vain for federal recognition.

Now they're close to achieving that goal. There's much at stake, including the potential for an Indian casino.

But the Wappos face some tough opposition. Sonoma County, Napa County and powerful politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein are lined up against them.

The Wappos aren't backing down, said Scott Gabaldon, a 42-year-old contractor from Lake County who has been the tribe's chairman since 2007.

"My focus since day one has been getting my tribe restored, so we can reclaim the benefits we lost over 50 years ago," he said. "You're not going to get anything unless you fight for it."

The tribe has an unnamed partner who is financing its legal fight, and the investor would share any profits from future tribal enterprises.

The two counties are worried the Wappos will open a casino, in defiance of local land-use regulations.

"I'm very troubled that this recognition is directly linked to future gaming in the county," said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district includes Alexander Valley. "We're committed to protecting our local environment and agricultural heritage."

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