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Sovereignty shapes county's relationship with tribal casinos

Eleven years after the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians opened Sonoma County's only casino in the Geyserville hills, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will throw open the doors to its far larger gambling palace next to Highway 101 outside Rohnert Park.

Both casinos were flatly opposed by Sonoma County government officials and many residents. But one factor above all hamstrung county officials and shaped their dealings with the tribes.

That factor is tribal sovereignty.

“It's very significant,” said Bruce Goldstein, an Indian law expert and the county's chief counsel, who led casino-related negotiations with both the Graton Rancheria and the Dry Creek Rancheria.

“In order to find solutions, it's important to work with them on an equal basis. The county's not in a position to impose regulations,” he said.

Tribal sovereignty has been controversial through the years because of the special status it accords a particular group of Americans and because it strips power from local and state governments.

But it springs from the legal recognition that tribes were North America's original nations, a position that comes with distinct rights.

The essential backbone of tribal sovereignty is that tribes have the right to govern themselves and their territory, lands that the federal government holds in trust.

And one entity's sovereignty necessarily excludes, at least to a major degree, that of another.

“You can't govern yourself if you have state and local governments regulating you and breathing down your neck,” said Matthew Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at the Michigan State University law school.

In regard to their control over their reservations, tribes are in most ways free from the reach of state law. Without invitation, non-members cannot go to tribal governance meetings as they can attend board of supervisors or city council meetings. And tribes are entirely out of reach of county or city ordinances.

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