Humboldt County Indian Casino Blocked

Plans to develop an Indian gambling casino on scenic coastal land on California’s north coast at Big Lagoon near Eureka, were blocked Tuesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The panel held California did not violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by failing to negotiate the tribal-state gaming compact because the tribe did not have jurisdiction over Indian lands in question.

The decision overturns a summary judgment favoring the Big Lagoon Rancheria by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.

California reluctantly entered into a deal to allow Big Lagoon Rancheria to operate a casino on an 11-acre parcel of land in HumboldtCounty, near the Oregon state line.  The state negotiated only because it was compelled to by a federal court order.

The appeals panel, split 2-1, to hold the state did not have to negotiate because the tribe did not have right to the land.  The parcel was not Indian lands, which include lands held in trust for a tribe, according to the majority.

Accordingly, Big Lagoon could not demand negotiations to conduct gaming on the land, the panel stated.

In dissent, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson said the parcel was Indian land and the state of California could not collaterally attack the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ designation of trust lands years after its administrative and legal remedies expired.

The BIA acquired two parcels on the shore of the lagoon in 1994.

But the history of the land dates back to 1918, when an adjoining nine-acres were acquired by the BIA as a homestead for James Charley and his family out of funds to buy land for village homes for landless Indians.

Though seldom used after Charley died and the family moved to the town of Trinidad nearby, it survived two major national policy changes regarding Indian land.  The first was assimilation of Indians in the 1950s and dissolution of reservations.  Then in 1964 the law allowed for Rancheria dissolution and distribution of the land.

Although the descendants of the Charley family sought dissolution of the nine-acre parcel in 1967, the BIA said it was not part of a Rancheria and was not set aside for that purpose.

But the BIA nevertheless approved a distribution to the family, which was living on the land in 1968.  The distribution never took place because the family withdrew its request.

That 1968 distribution list formed the basis for the membership in Big Lagoon today, according to the court. The BIA purchased the 11-acre parcel in 1994, in trust for Big Lagoon Rancheria.

California proposed a model compact to all state tribes seeking to offer class III gaming on their land, including Big Lagoon.  Most tribes accepted, but Big Lagoon did not.  It sued.

In 2005, the state and Big Lagoon agreed to allow operations of a casino with another group on non-Indian lands in Barstow.  The settlement did not last and the Barstow Compact lapsed in 2007.

Big Lagoon sought new negotiations for a site on the HumboldtCounty parcel.  The state balked at allowing a 500-device casino and 100-room hotel near environmentally significant state resources, or options for smaller casinos.

BIA authority to take lands in trust for a tribe extends only to tribes under federal jurisdiction in 1934.  “Thus, the effect of our conclusion that Big Lagoon is not such a tribe is that Big Lagoon cannot demand negotiations to conduct gaming on the 11-acre parcel, and cannot sue to compel negotiations,” wrote Judge Frederic Block, visiting judge from New York’s Eastern District.  He was joined by Judge Stephen Trott.

Case: Big Lagoon Rancheria v. California, No. 10-17803



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