How Native Americans in California thwarted the odds

You can’t turn on your TV or click on a YouTube video these days without being subjected to a deluge of ads for and against California’s ballot measures that would legalize betting on sporting events.

Virtually all of these spots feature members of California’s Native American tribes. Most tribes oppose Proposition 27, an online gambling measure sponsored primarily by FanDuel and other gaming companies, saying it would hurt the finances of casino-owning tribes. However, a few tribes that don’t have casinos are touting Proposition 27, saying its provisions would help them escape poverty.

No matter what happens to Proposition 27 or Proposition 26, which is sponsored by casino-owning tribes and would expand their virtual gambling monopoly, the intense campaigns remind Californians of their state’s very large Native American population.

The 2020 census found that the state’s 762,733 self-identified Native Americans — nearly four times their number when the first white explorers reached California — are by far the largest population of any state. Additionally, California has more than 100 federally recognized tribes, ranging in size from five individuals to over 6,000, and dozens of reservations.

The involvement of California’s Native Americans in multi-billion dollar political contests speaks to their resilience in a state that has attempted to enslave and/or eradicate them.

Those who survived slavery, smallpox and other diseases brought to California by explorers and fortune-seeking migrants were often treated like vermin.

“It is to be expected that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race is extinct,” California’s first elected governor, Peter Burnett, said after his taking office in 1851. “Though we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable fate of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avoid.

California offered a 25-cent bounty for Indian scalps, later increasing it to $5, and the federal government sent troops to California to keep the state’s native tribes under control. Ulysses S. Grant, who later commanded Union troops in the Civil War and was elected president, spent part of his early military career at Fort Humboldt, protecting the Trinity River gold miners from clashes with the local tribes.

The killings eventually ceased, but California Indians were largely confined to reservations, almost all afflicted with deep poverty until the closing years of the 20th century.

In the 1980s, a US Supreme Court decision gave California tribes the legal right to offer certain forms of gambling because California had several types of legal bets.

The ruling protected modest tribal bingo and poker parlors from police raids and some tribes pushed the legal boundaries further by installing slot machines. Although legally dubious, the tribes’ machines generated money to build bigger casinos and sponsor two ballot measures to lock in their monopoly on casino games.

With this monopoly, the tribes could attract investment capital and build even bigger casinos, full-fledged resorts. They also deftly cultivated support among politicians from both parties – which is why both formally opposed Proposition 27.

Although the battle so far has been over Proposition 27, and Proposition 26 has been all but ignored, its passage could expand the tribal gaming monopoly even further. In addition to sanctioning sports betting at tribal casinos (and some racetracks), Proposition 26 legalizes other games, such as roulette and craps. One section even subjects rival non-tribal poker rooms to potentially damaging legal action.

So whatever the voters decree in November, they will be writing a new chapter in the truly amazing history of California’s Native Americans.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

Nohemi M. Moore