Re: SB 549 – Tribal Declaratory Relief Act of 2023

(August 25, 2023) — Dear Members of the California Legislature,

Ever since Proposition 1A was approved by California voters in 2000, tribal gaming has become a pillar of the state economy, a driving force for tourism, a source of pride for many communities across the state, and a crucial source of funding for tribal nations. Tribal gaming has helped bolster our state’s financial security, creating over 120,000 jobs for tribal and non-tribal families, and has generated nearly $1.4 billion for state and local governments.

Subjected to genocide that resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of our ancestors, displaced and forced into remote areas of the state, tribal nations have very few viable options available to support our people. Gaming has allowed tribal nations to provide our communities with essential government services such as housing, education, public works, healthcare, environmental protections, food programs, cultural preservation, elder care, emergency services, law enforcement, and security. These services, which are widely supported in many California cities through myriad commercial opportunities, are only available to most tribal nations due to funding through gaming revenues.

Tribal gaming, however, is much more than merely an economic engine. It represents the enterprising spirit and resilience of our people who still face challenges securing our rightful place in lands we have lived in for centuries. It symbolizes a commitment to overcoming adversity and striving for a better future despite historical injustices. It also reflects a promise made to tribal nations across California empowering us to shape our own destinies and sustain our own communities.

Tribal gaming safeguards our sovereignty, preserves our cultural heritage, and provides crucial support for our people’s livelihoods.

Yet California’s courts have denied us access to the judicial system to protect the rights California voters gave us 23 years ago. This is why I am standing with more than 70 tribal nations and urging immediate action on California Senate Bill 549 which would do nothing more than allow our tribal governments to have legal standing to ask a California court to rule on the illegality of these games.

SB 549 allows our tribal nations to seek justice and bring closure to a decade-old question regarding certain gaming activity by California card clubs. Specifically, the bill allows a one-time lawsuit to determine a single issue: whether certain controlled games operated by California card clubs are banking card games that violate California law and infringe upon tribal exclusive gaming rights. The exclusive right to operate bank card games is constitutionally guaranteed to tribal nations as a path to re-establish our sovereignty and rebuild many of our tribal nations which were torn down by years of oppression and injustice. It is a right we take seriously, and a right we depend on to support our people.

While gaming is just one aspect of our tribal nation’s contributions to California, this issue is also emblematic of the broader struggles tribal nations have faced in our pursuit of equal justice under the law. Supporting SB 549 directly aligns with our commitment to ensuring that our people’s rights are no longer disregarded and that we continue to uphold the principles of fairness, justice, and equity. Because without access to a fair and impartial justice system, our tribal communities will never be truly free and sovereign entities.

I stand united with my fellow tribal nations, labor unions, and business associations, calling for an immediate vote on SB 549. This legislation does not pick winners or losers; it guarantees the opportunity for tribal nations to secure justice and offers another step forward in our shared goal of building a more inclusive, prosperous, and just California. By supporting SB 549, we reaffirm our dedication to protecting tribal sovereignty, fostering economic growth, and upholding the promises made by California voters to tribal nations.

I urge our state’s leaders to recognize the significance of SB 549, to release the bill from Assembly Rules Committee, bring the bill up for an immediate vote, and to champion the empowerment of tribal nations across California. Let us continue to work together to ensure that our future is characterized by cooperation, respect, and a commitment to justice for everyone.

Very truly yours,
John A. Christman, Chairman
Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indian