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Gambling Their Future 

How a tiny, impoverished Indian tribe managed to persuade a city, a powerful union, and the U.S. Congress to let them build a Nevada-style casino in the East Bay

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
In a high-traffic mall in Santa Rosa, behind a looming Gottschalks department store, is a squat, unimaginative office building dressed in a coat of beige paint. A simple sign announces that this building, which serves as the headquarters for a small Santa Rosa Indian tribe, has been given the incongruously idyllic name of the "Lytton Rancheria."

Inside, there are a few tidy offices, a sparse conference room featuring more beige paint, and an interminable length of bland, industrial carpeting. For the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians -- a nation of 220 people -- this dreary office building is the closest thing they have to a "reservation."

Lytton became one of about half a dozen landless tribes in California when the U.S. government stripped the tribe of its federal recognition in the late 1950s, and the tribe lost its land in Sonoma's Alexander Valley -- now some of the most valuable vineyards in California's wine country.

"We're sad to the point of anger," says tribal Chairwoman Margie Mejia, who for the last five years has led a relentless crusade to improve the Lyttons' fortunes. "Indian culture, you have to have land. Without it, you can't gather to practice your culture. You're the stepchild, a black sheep, a second-class citizen."

Landlessness brings a bitter pitch to Mejia's speech. It has been the cause, she says, of most of the tribe's afflictions: alcoholism, homelessness, rising high school dropout rates, teenage pregnancies, and inadequate health care. A full 70 percent of the tribe's members are unemployed. The tribe can't house its elders. It has to rent out a public park for its community events.

But soon that could change. If all goes according to plan, the Lytton tribe will become rich beyond its dreams -- wealthy enough to buy its own land and house all its members in comfort for the rest of their lives. Like other tribes, Lytton is pinning its hopes for salvation on a new casino -- but one that would be unlike any other in the country. Lytton is poised to become the first Indian tribe to run a Nevada-style casino in the middle of a major metropolitan area. Specifically, the Lyttons want to bring thousands of slot machines, blackjack tables, and baccarat tables to the East Bay city of San Pablo. With the casino, the tribe could rake in $150 million a year. The only thing standing in its way is negotiating an agreement with Gov. Gray Davis.

But the casino has also thrown the tribe into the midst of a heated debate over Indian gaming. The local card clubs, which fear for their pocketbooks, have mounted the most vocal opposition, organizing some surrounding cities and local residents who worry that slot machines and blackjack will lead to crime and chronic gambling. Lytton's San Pablo casino, the opposition insists, will open a floodgate of similar operations in cities around the country.

"This will impact traffic, parking, and crime," says Richmond Mayor Rosemary Corbin, a vocal opponent of the Lytton casino. "And there's the issue of people becoming compulsive gamblers. If people spend money they can't afford, their families suffer, and it's a burden on our welfare program."

But the opposition hasn't had much effect so far. In fact very little has been able to stop the Lyttons, despite improbable odds. How, for instance, did a tiny, destitute band of Indians end up buying a casino worth millions? How did an obscure, politically powerless tribe manage to win over the city of San Pablo and even a major anti-gambling organization, much less get a special act of Congress passed just for it -- a move that left its opponents howling about a sneak attack? And why in the world would a powerful, pro-gambling union step in at the last minute to help arm-twist that legislation through Congress?

In one respect, at least, the tribe's opponents are probably mistaken: Lytton's success doesn't figure to open a floodgate of urban casinos. Indeed, the tribe's path to San Pablo involved such a remarkable mix of political acumen, persuasion, compromise, perseverance, and luck that it may never be traveled again.

In her five-year tenure, Margie Mejia has become the leader, spokesperson, martyr, champion, and savior of the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. Heavyset and pug-nosed, Mejia is an articulate and formidable woman, alternately charming and cantankerous. She runs the monthly tribal council meetings sitting regally at the head of the makeshift conference table. She rules with alacrity and sympathy; she speaks in an easy, conversational manner, countered by an intimidating intensity.

"I've got my great-grandfather's gift for gab," she says. "My grandma used to say that I had a tongue so sharp I'd cut my lip."

Indeed, Mejia can deliver rousing sermons on the injustices done to her people, and mine a listener's sympathies like a wide-eyed orphan. But Mejia can also be suspicious and guarded. Her publicist screens her calls, and outsiders are treated warily. On a good day, she will be motherly and warm toward journalists; on others, she can be unyielding and rude. If Mejia is overprotective it is because she feels the weight of an entire Indian nation on her shoulders. To rescue her people from poverty, she believes she must shield them from the outside world by speaking for them, and she chooses her words carefully. Mejia's instinct for candor is kept in check by her tribal responsibilities; she is, after all, a head of state.

Mejia's ferociously stubborn and protective leadership style is shaped in part by a keen awareness of her tribe's painful past. Like that of all American Indians, the Lytton tribe's modern history begins with its persecution and slaughter by Spanish and American settlers. Eventually, the dwindling members of California's nomadic and clan-based tribes were left without any land to call their own.

Near the turn of the last century, the federal government attempted reparations by buying small parcels of land, called "rancherias," on behalf of the Indians who remained. One of them was the so-called Lytton Rancheria, 50 acres of rolling grassland in Sonoma County.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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