Sonoma County tribe loses bid to regain federal status
The Mishawal Wappo, a Sonoma County tribe pushing to regain federal recognition, has lost its latest appeal and perhaps last round in a court case it filed eight years ago.
A federal court of appeals agreed that the Wappos waited four decades too long to bring their lawsuit against the Secretary of the Interior claiming the tribe was illegally terminated in 1961 when its Alexander Valley rancheria was dissolved.
Opponents of the tribe’s lawsuit, which at one time included the counties of Sonoma and Napa, worried that if the Wappos were successful, they would open a casino.
Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon on Friday said the tribe is primarily interested in regaining federal recognition so its approximate 345 members can access health, education and housing benefits available to tribal members.
He said the tribe has yet to decide if it will appeal to the next level — the U.S. Supreme Court — but conceded it was a long shot.
“We have to decide which route we’re going to go next,” he said.
As for getting a casino built if the tribe prevails, he said “we are not going to rule out that possibility,” but insisted it is not the main impetus.
“If you look at a golf ball, you see divots on the ball,” he said.
“The casino is one divot. There’s a lot more to it than a casino.”
Gabaldon, a general contractor who lives in Windsor, acknowledged that the tribe’s legal bills — which he estimated at around $2 million — 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.
Concerns that a restored Mishawal Wappo tribe would be able to buy land for a reservation outside local land-use controls and build a casino led several cities — including Napa, American Canyon and Yountville — to take stances opposing the tribe’s attempt to regain sovereignty.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein also said the Wappos should not be recognized without restrictions on tribal development in Napa Valley’s agricultural reserves.
And Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, opposed the tribe’s move at restoration.
“By the group’s own admission, if the lawsuit was successful, they would have attempted to build a casino in Napa or Sonoma counties,” he said in a statement when a U.S. District Court judge in 2015 ruled against tribal restoration for the Wappos.
Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court.
“It’s the result we sort of expected, given the law,” Sonoma County Chief Deputy County Counsel Jeff Brax said Friday.
“It should be the last chapter in this lawsuit.”
But both Brax and Gabaldon mentioned the possibility that the tribe could try to seek recognition through an administrative decision from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Wappos are recognized by other tribes and state agencies that include Caltrans and the Native American Heritage Commission, according to Gabaldon.
They and many other California tribes lost their federal tribal status after Congress passed a law in 1958 aimed at privatizing the state’s small reservations, known as rancherias. Some of those tribes regained their status when courts ruled the federal government didn’t keep a promise to improve living conditions on their reservations, which the U.S. had held in trust for tribe members.
The Wappos’ ancestral territory encompassed parts of Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties. But by the early part of the 1900s, they were living on 54 acres held in trust for them by the federal government, at the end of Soda Rock Lane, next to the Russian River.
The Wappos claim the federal government acted unlawfully between 1959 and 1961 when it dissolved the rancheria because it was done at the request of a non-Wappo leader who received two-thirds of the land.
But the court said a timely action challenging the distribution and termination should have been filed within the six-year statute of limitations — by 1967.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or email@example.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.