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Alexander Valley tribal leader spars with Thompson over casino


The leader of Alexander Valley's Wappo Indians on Thursday disagreed sharply with Rep. Mike Thompson's assertion that the tribe will try to build a casino if it attains federal recognition.

"He's a flat liar. I never admitted to building a casino," Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon said the day after testifying to a congressional subcommittee about why the Mishewal Wappo Indians are seeking to be restored as a tribe. "I said the casino could be an option."

Gabaldon said he didn't know "where Thompson is getting this from," when it came to Thompson's press release that stated: "By the tribal chair's own admission, if the Wappos receive federal recognition, they will attempt to build a gaming facility in Napa or Sonoma counties."

But a Thompson aide said Thursday that Gabaldon has previously admitted the tribe plans to pursue a casino.

"He told the congressman in his office at one point he wants to build a casino," said Austin Vevurka, Thompson's communications director.

The clash came the day after a hearing in Washington, D.C., in which Gabaldon singled out Thompson as an opponent to tribal recognition who wants to see the 350-member tribe become "a memory."

"Those that oppose us are rich, wine-profiteering politicos of Napa and Sonoma counties," Gabaldon said in his testimony before the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. He also described the opposition as "a coalition of vintners."

He added that vineyard workers and minimum wage earners are not lining up to oppose Wappo recognition and neither are six local Indian tribes.

Instead, Gabaldon claimed, "It's the wealthy that bear political agendas that stand to lose a tiny bit of their stronghold of political power in Napa and Sonoma county when our tribe's restored."

Thompson, however, said the tribe, which has filed a federal lawsuit to regain recognition, is trying to circumvent Congress and the Department of the Interior by going through the courts.

And if they prevail, he said, they will try to build a casino that would "damage our agricultural preserves and put our local economy at risk."

This week's hearing was not to determine whether the Wappos deserve tribal status, but to hear testimony on standards and procedures for how and when Indian tribes should be recognized by the federal government.

Of the nation's 564 recognized tribes, 530 have received recognition through congressional approval, according to the General Accounting Office.

The remaining tribes have gained recognition through litigation, or an administrative act by the Department of the Interior, which critics say can be arbitrary and opaque.

Gabaldon was among several Indian tribal leaders who testified about their often frustrating, decades long efforts to achieve federal status, which makes them eligible for benefits and land rights.

The Wappos claim the federal government acted unlawfully when it disbanded the tribe in 1959.

"We were unlawfully terminated at the request of a non-Wappo leader who ultimately received two-thirds of our tribal lands," he said of the 54-acre rancheria next to the Russian River, northeast of Healdsburg.

In making his case for tribal restoration, Gabaldon testified "we are not a new tribe. We were here before the state of California."

He said the word "Napa" is derived from their language and means "land of plenty."

But both Sonoma and Napa county, which intervened in the Wappos' lawsuit, have questioned the group's legitimacy. They say the Alexander Valley rancheria wasn't a real Indian reservation and the Wappos never met the federal definition of a tribe.

The Wappos have asked a federal judge to remove the counties from the lawsuit, but that decision is pending.

As far as a casino, Gabaldon told the congressional subcommittee:

"I don't truly believe that the only way for economic development for a tribe is through a casino, although it's the most economical way and the fastest way to do it."

"I believe my tribe has the knowledge and the business background to improve the quality of life for the tribal members, not only through a casino or whatever, but through many economic development opportunities."