Sunday, June 17, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 15

Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on October 15th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 32 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 32

Sovereign nationhood in a complex society

It seems like it's all about the money


Seeing that the Chumash Indians achieve their tribal rights and secure their sovereign nationhood within the Santa Ynez Valley by way of their fee-to-trust efforts, appears—certainly from a distance—to be the right thing to do. We are all raised to feel a certain amount of guilt over the white man’s conquest of this continent and the treatment of Native Indians. Since the entire country once belonged to the Native Indians, what’s the big deal about giving them full use of 1,400 acres in Santa Barbara County?

I live in the Santa Ynez Valley, a half mile from the boundaries of this recently acquired land under consideration for sovereign nationhood, so I have a stake in this. I’m not convinced that a sovereign nation within a small agricultural community is workable, considering the complexities of modern society and this region’s near-arid ecosystem.

For example, I have a well that was drilled in the 1950s, and because it is one of the oldest around here, the U.S. Geological Survey folks monitor it to determine the changing water table and the quality of water in this area. After each testing, they send me reports. Since there is no rain here from April to October and not much after that, the water table, as one would expect, is dropping even from today’s limited use by the existing population and growing agricultural uses, particularly vineyards. The quality of the water is certainly not improving (topic for another day).

If the Chumash are seen as a nation within Santa Barbara County and are exempt from what limited protections we already have for this treasured resource, there’s trouble ahead. Giving free rein to draw as much water as they can pump without considering the needs of the entire valley and disposing of wastewater without complying with community standards are not acceptable. From what we have seen of the way the Chumash manage their current tribal land, it is difficult to believe they would be topnotch custodians of the earth. Considering the connection of Native Indians to the natural world and their quest for independence, one would think that solar collectors would be very much in evidence on and around their tribal buildings.

Then there is the matter of roads that are already becoming clogged on weekends with tourists and casino visitors. Even during weekdays, Route 246 through Solvang, which serves the Chumash Casino, is a near bottleneck. I don’t know that our highway system can support more traffic. And who will pay for upgrading the roads? Probably not the Chumash.

Santa Barbara County is trying to protect this sensitive agricultural area from overdevelopment. The ever-increasing number of wineries is enough of a problem, but at least the wineries must conform to standards of community sustainability. In spite of claims by the legal counsel for the Chumash, it is hard to believe that the Chumash only want to develop homes. If that is all they want, then why not go through the permitting process like everyone else? Otherwise, local residents can only assume that more casinos, hotels, gas stations, golf courses, strip malls, and billboards will appear where buffalo used to roam.

Casinos may claim they bring in tourists who spend money, thus benefiting the community. But the Chumash want a sovereign nation with the tourist money spent at their hotels, their restaurants, their gas stations and casinos, while the local taxpaying population provides all the necessary services and the Chumash pay no local taxes. Do the Chumash plan to have their own schools on their sovereign nation land? Will they be speaking a different language and teaching it to their children? I wonder, too, if the Indians themselves want a sovereign nation that leaves them no recourse to tribal decisions, no right to appeal as they have been accustomed to with the judicial system they have grown up with?

On another matter, what makes for a Native Indian in today’s world? Dressing up in native costumes and performing traditional dances make for good pictures for the local newspapers, but are these ceremonial celebrants really Native Indians? Do they also speak the tribal language, follow the tribe’s cultural practices, have a tribal name, and participate in Native Indian spiritual ceremonies and rituals? 
Considering all the money the Chumash have made—and let’s face it, slot machines don’t come across as being the most noble way to bring in the cash—one would think that turning their purchased 1,400 acres into a nature preserve to honor their forefathers would be the most genuine way to show their respect to the living and to the departed who blessed them with their heritage.

What blood quantum level is necessary for tribal membership? Since most Native Indians assimilated into the mix of our American society, the membership roles for a few tribes are based on one grandparent being Native Indian, which is one-quarter blood quanta. One-eighth blood quanta, which is one great grandparent; or one 16th, which is one great-great grandparent; or even one 32nd, which is one great-great-great grandparent, can qualify for membership in certain tribes. This became a hot issue a few decades back when the federal government began handing out subsidies to Native Americans and tribal enrollments blossomed. What blood quantum level do the Chumash require for membership in their tribe?

How far back does the Chumash enrollment record go? There are reports that the Chumash did not identify themselves as a tribe until the Indian Gaming Act of 1998 and outside gambling interests became involved. How accurate are membership rolls?

DNA testing has been suggested for determining tribal membership, but DNA testing can only determine whether someone has native blood. It cannot identify a particular tribe.

Reports are that most people claiming to qualify as being Native Indians are opposed to DNA testing. The fear is that the test results could cause them to be removed from tribal rolls and thus cut out of casino profits. But if Native Indians make a claim for a sovereign nation, shouldn’t they first prove they are truly Native Indians? Otherwise we’ll think all of this brouhaha is just about money.


William Cates is a photographer, writer, and winemaker living in the Santa Ynez Valley. Send comments to the executive editor at

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