Ramona Redeemed?: The Rise of Tribal Political Power in California
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Wicazo Sa Review 17.1 (2002) 43-63



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Ramona Redeemed?
The Rise of Tribal Political Power in California

Carole Goldberg and Duane Champagne


In the 1884 novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson and the annual California state play by the same name, Ramona is a Californio woman of Native Californian, perhaps Luiseno, ancestry living during the early post-Mexican period. She learns of her Indian ancestry and marries a native, settling with him on his peoples' ancestral lands in Temecula, California. Soon American settlers forcibly occupy the entire territory, chasing Ramona and her family into the hills, and eventually killing Ramona's husband. Ramona moves south to Mexico, leaving the country to the newly arrived U.S. settlers who make California their home.

The Ramona story symbolizes the marginalization and mistreatment of California Indians during the second half of the nineteenth century. California natives struggled greatly throughout this period of California history. Because treaties negotiated during the 1850s were never ratified by the U.S. Senate, many went landless until the rancheria and reservation acts of the 1890s provided tiny, economically undesirable land bases. Population decline was severe, dropping from approximately 300,000 at the beginning of the American period to only 15,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Federal policy toward California Indians during the twentieth century continued this disregard for tribal sovereignty and well-being. Beginning in the 1920s, land claims settlements targeted individual California Indians rather than tribes, suggesting the extinguishment of tribal existence. Approximately forty California Indian reservations and [End Page 43] rancherias were scheduled for termination during the 1950s and 1960s. The passage of Public Law 280 in 1953 extended concurrent state jurisdiction over criminal matters and led to state and local intrusion into tribal affairs and sovereignty. Public Law 280 also served as the excuse for federal withdrawal of services and support for California tribes, contravening the federal trust responsibility.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, California Indians have been administratively, culturally, economically, and politically disadvantaged, even compared with tribes elsewhere in the United States. 1 Most California Indians lived on small reservations with few economic prospects and little supportive attention from the Indian administration. As late as 1990, when tribal self-determination was professed federal policy, most California Indian tribal governments received limited funds from the BIA or other federal agencies. Few schools were created for Indian children in California, and most native children attended local public schools that did not receive supplemental funds from federal Indian programs. No support was provided for tribal law enforcement or tribal courts. Allocations from the Indian Health Service were seriously inadequate for the size of the service population. 2 Although the rationale for federal withdrawal was the availability of state services, state and local governments did not serve Indian populations effectively, with resulting high rates of crime, school dropouts, and substandard housing. Throughout most of the twentieth century, California Indian economic and political conditions were very bleak, and little hope or opportunity appeared on the horizon. Although the tribal population was relatively large statewide, it was distributed among over one hundred federally recognized tribes, making concerted action and influence quite difficult. California tribes seemed poorly positioned to join in the nationwide resurgence of tribal sovereignty that began in the late 1960s.

The advent of tribal gaming in the 1970s hinted at a different prognosis, however. The very influx of non-Indians into California that had nearly doomed tribal sovereignty also provided one of the largest markets for casino gaming in the United States. If tribes could capture that market, they could create economic opportunities for their people and use their newfound wealth to reverse the deterioration of their cultural and political fortunes. However, California had some long-standing, severe legal restrictions on gaming, particularly on slot machines and house-banked card games. Nearby Nevada had a strong interest and informal alliance with California designed to perpetuate these restrictions. Furthermore, California had become accustomed to dominating Indian country within the state, and did not take Indian nations seriously as governments. Thus...