The federal government is proposing a shorter process for Indian tribes to gain recognition, but a California group warns it could lead to a proliferation of tribal gaming.
And the Valley could become a focus for gaming interests.
California has recognition applications pending for 68 tribes — seven in Fresno County, four in Kern County, two each in Tulare and Mariposa counties, and one each in Madera and Tuolumne counties.
Proposed rules would allow tribes to become federally recognized by showing they existed since 1934, the year the Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribes to re-establish and reclaim reservation land, instead of 1789, the current requirement.
Federal officials announced in May that they wanted to streamline the process as a response to tribes that have waited decades for federal approval.
"Tribal leaders have told us that the current process can be inconsistent, cost millions of dollars and take decades to complete," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.
The existing regulations, adopted in 1978, have been criticized as time-consuming and often arbitrary.
"Our proposed rules maintain the rigorous integrity needed, but allows that process to be conducted in a timely, efficient and transparent manner," Jewell said.
Officials with a handful of local tribes say they are seeking federal recognition to make tribal members eligible for grants and programs — not to build a casino.
Formal recognition will allow tribes to seek grants for housing, provide programs to educate their children and feed tribal members. While they recognize gaming is profitable, local tribes say their goals are more modest.
The roughly 225-member Traditional Choinumni Tribe, whose descendants lived in the Pine Flat Lake area, is best known in recent years for opposition to a gravel mine on Jesse Morrow Mountain, east of Sanger. The mountain has Choinumni tribal artifacts, some that were carbon-dated as 6,000 years old, said Audrey Osborne, tribal historian.
Osborne, 63, said her family owned property now under water at Pine Flat Lake.
The tribe's "sacred burial grounds" near Pine Flat Dam, where the roar of the Kings River can be heard in the distance, also dates back 6,000 years, she said.
Even with recognition, tribal Chairman David Alvarez said he doesn't know if the federal government would offer land for his people. But if it did "we would use it as a base to facilitate for our people," he said. "Some people can't pay their bills and buy food. We would like to help the people with housing and transportation to get them to the doctor or to a store to buy food."
Mariposa County's Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, which has sought recognition since 1982, is expecting to learn more about its petition soon.
Tribal Chairwoman Lois Martin said the tribe is seeking recognition under the existing, more stringent rules. She said their tribal lands are scattered family allotments.
Martin said the tribe wants to offer its 800 members housing and health care opportunities and offer education for younger members.
Gaming has not been part of the discussion.
"When we first started on our recognition journey we never thought about it," she said. "As a sovereign nation you don't ever want to give up any of your sovereign rights, but gaming (right now) is not for us."
Some tribes have sought recognition for nearly 40 years, and in that time some people overseeing the processes for those tribes have passed away.
The Dunlap Band, which has about 200 acres in federal trust land about 10 miles east of Squaw Valley, "just want to be federally recognized," said Florence Dick, secretary of the tribal council. "We can get grants for housing and write grants, but you have to be from a federally recognized tribe."
Dick said the 200-member tribe wants economic development, perhaps a grocery store.
She said they know recognition and running a tribe is a lot of work, but she wants to continue the work of her father and relatives, who signed the initial letter of intent for recognition in 1983.
"We're getting old now," said Dick, 70. "My dad and his cousins are all gone."
The last California tribe to achieve federal recognition was the Tejon Tribe in Kern County in 2011.
Its recognition was financially assisted by Cannery Casino Resorts, which also entered a gaming agreement with the Tejon.
Lawyer Jenny Kim, whose Bay Area firm is representing a handful of tribes, including the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians in Fresno County, said the existing process is cumbersome.
"It's not opening the floodgates," she said of the proposed rules. "It will still be a challenge to put together a professional petition."
But she supports the proposed rules because they will offer more clarity about the government's expectations.
She said the government wanted to make the process less onerous on tribes so it wouldn't take 40 years to approve a petition.
"Reforming the regulations makes what was virtually impossible to prove to start with potentially more feasible," Kim said.
Even though the new rules will streamline the process, it still will take years for recognition.
More tribes will mean more gaming, said a study supported by Stand Up For California, which is backing a November statewide referendum opposing off-reservation Indian gaming.
The study by Michael L. Lawson, a Virginia consultant in Indian historical research who once worked for the federal government, estimates that easing rules would lead to 22 new California gaming venues.
If new land is allotted for Indians, it will get taken off state and local tax rolls, reducing funding for local governments, said Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California.
Today, 71 of 109 recognized California tribes have gaming. If 34 of 68 seeking recognition are approved under the proposed rules, about two-thirds — 22 — will want gaming, Lawson estimates.
They may have a hard time finding financial backers, however.
Bill Thompson, a public administration professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said gaming revenues have fallen in recent years and new Nevada investors may be tough to find. He also said California is nearing gaming saturation.
"I think California is pretty well covered," he said, "and our operators don't have a lot of money to throw around on new ventures."
And even those that win approval continue to face challenges. The North Fork Mono Rancheria has received federal and state approval to build a Las Vegas-backed casino and resort near Madera after a 12-year effort, but a statewide referendum backed by Stand Up For California is asking voters to reject the casino because it's 36 miles from the tribe's home. Lawsuits also are being fought over the casino.
The Big Sandy Rancheria, near Auberry, also has plans to expand and open a new casino and, possibly a hotel, near Table Mountain Rancheria. They have been working on the project for nearly 10 years.
Gaming has not been all bad for tribes, said Dirk Charley, a U.S. Forest Service tribal relations specialist overseeing 30 tribes of federally recognized and nonrecognized tribes on Sierra and Sequoia national forests.
"It brought Indian country out of abject poverty," said Charley, a tribe member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians. "It brought back native language, allowed for better education and housing ... it doesn't mean all people want to have gaming."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beebenjamin on Twitter.