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Wappo tribe leader vows to fight ruling denying federal recognition

The leader of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley on Wednesday vowed to appeal a court ruling denying their attempt to regain federal recognition - what opponents see as an initial step for building another Las Vegas-style casino in the North Bay.

Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon described the court ruling as a “minor setback” for the Wappos in their quest to be restored more than a half-century after the tribe’s Alexander Valley Rancheria was dissolved by the federal government and distributed to two families.

“It’s just another bump on the road to the end result of getting our sovereignty,” he said. “We are going to appeal this thing as far as we can go.”

Napa County officials and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, hailed the court ruling, which they said will help keep casino-style gaming out of Napa County, some of the ancestral territory claimed by the Wappo along with parts of Sonoma and Lake counties.

In an opinion released Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila sided with arguments previously made by Napa and Sonoma counties, and advanced by the federal government, that the Wappos waited four decades too long to bring their lawsuit against the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The statute of limitations is only six years.

Had the tribe been successful in its lawsuit, officials said it could have led to it placing land into federal trust, exempting such lands from local and state regulations and likely leading to a casino.

“More than 50 years after the Wappo Tribe was congressionally derecognized, an attempt to circumvent Congress and the U.S. Department of Interior by going through the courts rightfully failed,” Thompson said in a prepared statement. “The motivation behind this lawsuit was clear. By the group’s own admission, if the lawsuit was successful, they would have attempted to build a casino in Napa or Sonoma counties.”

Wappo Chairman Gabaldon strongly disputed Thompson’s statement Wednesday, saying “he’s a liar. My tribe has never come out and said anything about a casino.”

Gabaldon said he met with Thompson several years ago and they only talked about the size of the tribe, its ancestral territory and how long it had been fighting to be recognized.

“We never even talked about a casino,” he said.

But Thompson’s spokesman disagreed.

“He told the congressman in his office at one point he wants to build a casino,” Thompson’s aide Austin Vevurka said Wednesday.

Gabaldon said the tribe, which has a small office in downtown Santa Rosa, with the majority of its 341 members living in Sonoma County, has other priorities for seeking federal restoration, including gaining access to health benefits and grants for schooling and housing.

But he also acknowledged the tribe’s legal bill have been subsidized by Greg Akopian, who has been associated with at least one potential casino development and runs a trucking company in Los Angeles with his brother Grish. The Napa Valley Register previously reported that the brothers helped finance the company Global Investment Enterprise, identified in court records as a “would-be casino developer” that was involved in a 2008 dispute with a Death Valley Indian tribe over gaming.

Gabaldon said his tribe has a number of different options for economic development, including building a hotel. But he also acknowledged a casino “may be an option in the future. We don’t have a place to put anything yet. We don’t have money.”

Napa officials see this week’s court decision as something that will help protect agricultural lands in Napa Valley that the tribe might try to place into federal trust for its own use.

“It was a big victory for Napa County,” said Board of Supervisors Vice-Chairman Alfredo Pedroza. “The ruling was very important to ensure local land would continue to be protected and uphold the character of Napa County.”

He said vintners, environmental and business groups are part of a united front that values the protection of agricultural preserves for the next generation.

“For any entities or businesses to come into this county and build a casino or other economic developments because they are privileged and exempt from local regulations would, in essence, destroy years of efforts by county residents who have planned for and aggressively protected the agricultural preserve,” the board of supervisors said in a prepared statement.

At one point, both Sonoma and Napa counties were opponents to the lawsuit seeking tribal restoration, which was filed in 2009.

The Sonoma County Counsel’s office also argued that the tribe wanted to find a site in Sonoma County or Napa County to build a casino.

But Judge Davila in 2012 removed the counties from the lawsuit saying they had no standing in the case, a ruling an appellate court affirmed in 2013.

Tribal historians and consultants say the Wappos have lived in the Sonoma-Lake-Napa area for at least 4,500 years. In the late 1800s, when Indian tribes had been devastated by disease and run off their lands by the Gold Rush and its aftermath, the Wappos were living in villages in Alexander Valley, northeast of Healdsburg.

By 1909 and 1910 they were living on a rancheria at the end of West Soda Rock Lane created by the federal government, which bought 54 acres there for landless Indians to live on, similar to dozens of such California rancherias created in the early part of the 20th century.

In 1917, one observer wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that the Alexander Valley Rancheria “is not occupied regularly by Indians as a home.” Five families lived there at the time.

By 1935, Wappo Indians moved to organize as a tribe with 15 residents living on the rancheria.

But by the late 1950s, the federal government was starting to dismantle rancherias.

The Wappos claim the federal government acted unlawfully between 1959 and 1961 when it dissolved the tribe’s rancheria because it was done at the request of a non-Wappo leader who received two-thirds of the tribal land.

But in his ruling issued this week, Judge Davila said the Alexander Valley Rancheria had no recognized tribal governing body and none was terminated along with the rancheria.

And he said a timely action challenging the distribution and termination of the rancheria should have been filed by 1967.

Gabaldon on Wednesday said the tribe could be recognized through a Congressional Act, but it is unlikely any representative could be found now to sponsor one. And another possibility is to seek recognition through a Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative action, something only a fraction of tribes have done.

But he said the Wappos must first exhaust all avenues for the lawsuit.

Gabaldon said the tribe has 60 days to challenge Monday’s decision, which he said will take time to go through and write a good appeal.

“We are in it for the long haul. And if I have to fight with bloody knuckles, I’ll do it,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas

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