As California voters weigh proposed measures to authorize sports betting, they are confronted with emotional appeals extolling the possible economic benefits for Indigenous people.
Proposition 27 is one of two gambling initiatives on the state’s Nov. 8 ballot (the other is Proposition 26). Ads supporting Proposition 27, which would allow online sports betting on websites operated by California tribes or large companies partnering with them, suggest that it will benefit all California Indian tribes.
But that’s not the case. Federal law permits only federally recognized tribes to engage in gambling operations. Left out of online sports betting opportunities will be the state’s unrecognized tribes, which cannot obtain the federally approved tribal-state compacts required for gambling on tribal land, as referenced in Proposition 27’s language.
California is home to 110 federally recognized tribes, two that are petitioning for recognition and more than 55 tribes that have not received federal recognition. In addition, there are 12 tribes whose recognition was terminated between 1953 and 1968, during a period when the federal government attempted to end its relationships with tribes. That recognition has never been restored.
Federal recognition establishes a formal relationship between the tribe and the federal government that recognizes the tribe’s sovereign legal status. Unrecognized tribes, by contrast, are in a precarious state. Lacking formal acknowledgment, they are excluded from most federal programs to assist Indigenous nations and must find other means of forming legally recognized entities, including incorporating as nonprofit agencies.
State recognition, however, could provide these tribes access to federal funds, because that formal designation makes tribes more likely to be accepted as distinct entities and receive federal grants. A 2012 government study found that among 400 non-federally recognized tribes, only 26 received federal funding during fiscal years 2007 through 2010. Those 26 got benefits primarily because they were state-recognized tribes or nonprofit organizations.
Federal grants could be used to support more social services, education programs and vocational rehabilitation for Native people. Such funding could help bolster the state budget, offsetting the costs of creating a state recognition system. State-recognized tribes hiring individuals to administer the resulting programs would additionally increase payroll tax revenues.
Yet unlike some other states, California lacks a process to recognize tribes that have been denied or have not received federal recognition. That means we lag behind 11 states with their own formal recognition processes: Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. The state Legislature and governor could cure the deficiency by enacting legislation to establish a process for state recognition of tribes. Rather than starting from a blank slate, lawmakers could model the process based on what is used in other states.
A state recognition system would further “explore the historical relationship between the State of California and California Native Americans,” as called for in the executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019. It would help to correct the historical unfairness resulting from some tribes’ exclusion from support programs.
State recognition would also create a pathway to address an issue with the free tuition program for Native Americans that the University of California system announced this year. Currently, the program is limited to those enrolled in a federally recognized tribe so that it maintains compliance with Proposition 209, which prohibits universities from providing special benefits to students based on their “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.” State recognition of tribes that lack federal recognition may provide an avenue to expand tuition waiver programs to benefit more Indigenous students.
Regardless of Proposition 27’s fate in the November election, there remains great disparity among tribes in California. Those without federal recognition need the option to seek state recognition and its potential benefits. It is long past time for the Legislature to move forward with creating a state recognition process.
Kerri J. Malloy is an assistant professor of Global Humanities at San José State University and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project. He is an enrolled member of the Yurok Tribe. @kerrijmalloy
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.