The Gamble Over the Future of Indigenous People in California

Come November, Californians will vote on two ballot measures designed to bring greater economic prosperity to Native Americans, however both are not only controversial, they raise questions about the meaning of true equity and independence for state tribes.

Where Proposition 26 would expand and legalize other kinds of gambling for the major tribes that already have gambling operations, Proposition 27 is funded and championed by non-Native American national corporate interests who have essentially co-opted smaller tribes that lack the power to enter the state-sanctioned gambling arena. It also emphasizes online gambling — allegedly the most addictive and destructive form of gambling.

But I’m not here to weigh in on those ballot measures, and here’s why: I would like to see opportunities for both economic and social equity beyond the gambling industry, which has become the de facto economic engine for the Native American community. The fact remains that the majority of California’s indigenous tribes continue to exist as sovereign nations that are left out of larger conversations about ethics, land equity, and the conflicted role of state governments in expanding opportunities for indigenous people in American culture, politics, and the economy.

And yet, here on Indigenous People’s Day, history and progress continue to have a fractured relationship.

I have lived my entire life in California. As a child who attended elementary school in the Bay Area, I was fed the myth of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the New World.

I remember high up on the classroom wall were those familiar illustrations of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Columbus, benignly greeting a group of Native Americans. I remember that Columbus was as white as could be, while the Indians were nearly as red as cherries. As a little black girl in a largely white community, it made me wonder: where in my community were those Native Americans?

In 1990, when states began to transition from celebrating Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, many resisted that change. Did the name-change really transform our understanding? It certainly didn’t diminish one of the most ignominious acts in American history.

We know now that Columbus did not discover the New World.

What he discovered was an inconvenient truth: that he was not the first to land on this continent and it was not his to take, but of course, he did. In short order, he forced the Indians into slavery, converted them to Christianity, and then decimated entire villages with violence and a host of new diseases.

It is an age-old story that has repeated itself on all who have been sublimated and enslaved on American soil, my people included.

Consider that Native American tribes (nearly 400 of them) have been dispossessed of up to 99% of their historic tribal lands. After numerous attempts at reparations, many were forced to accept lands that had far less value than what was historically theirs. In fact, 24% of current lands held sovereign by Native Americans contain fewer oil, gas, and mineral resources than their historical lands. Do you think that was an accident?

Here in the Bay Area, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has spent more than fifteen years working to negotiate the true land of the Ohlone and revitalize that history, culture and tradition. The organization emphasizes the rematriation and restoration of tribal lands to their sacred origins as fertile territories. Just this past September, the City of Oakland announced plans to return approximately five acres of land owned by the City in the Oakland Hills to Indigenous stewardship.

Still, advocates of Propositions 26 and 27 continue to lean towards casino and gambling laws as a means of advancing the reparations to California’s native tribes.  While tribes have profited from the gambling industry, there is still much to be said for the lack of infrastructure, education, health care, and other social services that are still lacking with so many tribal communities — especially those without casinos.

Just as with other at-risk, ethnic demographics, Indigenous people continue to suffer from a different health care reality than most Americans. They statistically have a life expectancy that is 4.4 years less than all the races in the United States combined. They also have far higher rates of preventable illnesses like liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

It’s a paradigm that continues to play itself out in underrepresented populations across the country. It doesn’t mean it cannot be solved, but Indigenous communities are consistently the last in line when it comes to social services.

In our 25 years in communications. D&A has seen first-hand the inequities in health care. Just last year, we worked with the Alameda Health Services Department to develop a more accessible and equitable strategy for reaching county populations that are historically underserved, by establishing lower barriers to entry and designing communications tools that help inform and mobilize communities to take charge of their health. That’s not easy when factors like access to education, social stereotypes, and access to better nutrition continue to shape these communities.

 It’s an unacceptable reality: in a country where 300 million people have some form of health insurance, the vast majority of non-white Americans struggle with getting adequate coverage. For others, its none: the uninsured rate for Native Americans is nearly 30 percent of the entire population, compared to 15 percent for the country as a whole.

Whether you are for or against Props 26 and 27, the broader issues of equity and inclusion are more compelling when you consider the larger issue of how a people can equitably define and govern themselves beyond an economy built on the gambling industry.

 “Indigenous People’s Day” does not acknowledge the facts. How incredible is it that here are currently only six Native Americans holding seats in Congress, or that Native American/Alaska Native leaders make up less than one-percent of S&P 500 corporations. Is that equity?

It’s time. We need our Native American brothers and sisters to be part of the national conversation about policy, about business, and give them a platform for inclusion in this American life. Progress cannot and should not relegate them to being minor sovereign nations set apart on a reservation. Giving them land is not enough. Native families need broader support to increase fair and equal access to education, to healthcare,  jobs, and the same social and economic resources afforded to most Americans.

 Furthermore, giving them greater representation and power over their destiny will enhance and enrich the fabric of our American nation as a whole. And that’s something I can celebrate.

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