The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is a group of Native Americans that have been living in the lands east of San Diego in Southern California for over 10,000 years. Now located on the Viejas Reservation, also known as the Baron Long Reservation, on the outskirts of Alpine, CA, this tribe of fewer than 400 members has played a prominent role in the battle for online poker legislation in California, much more than their size would dictate.
The Viejas are part of the larger group of Kumeyaay Indian Nation who are represented by several bands in the area. The Viejas Band is recognized as a sovereign nation unto itself though, not just part of the Kumeyaay Nation.
Their reservation used to be a lot bigger back when it was known as the Capitan Grande Reservation, until they were forced to sell their land to the City of San Diego in 1934 to make way for the El Capitan reservoir to supply drinking water to the city, putting the Capitan Grande Reservation under water.
The band used the money it received from this sale to purchase Baron Long’s ranch, located nearby, which the people settled and they remain there to this day. The Viejas Band haven’t just sat idly all these years though, and to give you an idea of their level of economic activity, they recently paid San Diego State University $6 million for the naming rights of their sports arena, which seats over 12,000 people, now known as the Viejas Arena.
The arena used to be known as Cox Arena, with the naming rights held by Cox Communications for the previous 10 years, a multi-billion dollar company, and naming of arenas like this is reserved for big players, who have the wherewithal to spend such sums of money on these things, so the Viejas Indians are certainly not small potatoes.
While California has the highest number of legal poker rooms in the United States, by far, they have been far less receptive to allowing casino gambling, which is not permitted in the state. Indian tribes, on the other hand, claimed that their sovereignty exempted them from being prohibited to operate land-based casinos on their land, and in the end, and California was the battleground where this was fought.
The U.S. Supreme Court ended up siding with the Indians in a landmark case when the State of California sought legal remedy to shut down the gaming of another Southern California tribe, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. So the stage was set for tribal gambling in California and the Viejas Band has certainly become involved in that, in addition to holding other commercial interests in the area.
The Viejas have been hosting gambling on their reservation since back in 1977, starting out rather modestly with a bingo hall, and in 1991 they opened the doors to the Viejas Casino, which has since been greatly expanded.
They were one of seven California tribes to sign a compact with the state to allow for unlimited gambling in exchange for submitting higher revenues, and they took full advantage of that. Things got expanded, and a 128 room hotel was added to the casino, which now boasts 133,000 square feet of gaming space, in addition to 6 restaurants, a 57 store shopping mall, and a bowling alley. They also plan on adding a poker room sometime in 2016.
The band also own the first Native American bank in California, a 50% stake in a California sports talk radio station, The Mighty 1090-AM, two recreational vehicle parks, as well as Viejas Entertainment, which hosts concerts in their 1500 seat outdoor arena, as well as promoting entertainment to casinos across the country.
In California’s struggle to pass a bill to regulate online poker in the state, Indian tribes have played a very prominent role, and the Viejas Indians are at the center of the struggle. Outsiders may marvel at how much power these Indian tribes yield in this debate, but these aren’t just Indian tribes, as they play a huge role in gambling in California as the sole operators of gambling casinos in the state.
So they have a big interest in this matter and they also vigorously pursue this interest, and that’s certainly the case with the Viejas Band, who have become very outspoken on the matter, even using the media to advance their position, and even using what many call questionable tactics to do so.
For example, one of the real issues with proposed regulation is whether or not California should grant Poker Stars a license. Poker Stars is the 800-pound gorilla of online poker and seems to particularly scare some Indian tribes in the state, much more so than letting horse racing operators in on things, which is another bone of contention.
There are two factions involved, with several California Indian tribes on each side, and the Viejas Band is on the side that is more restrictive as far as who they want to see given licenses, including wanting Poker Stars to be excluded on the basis of the so-called “bad actor” clause.
In radio ads paid for by the Viejas, they mercilessly attacked Poker Stars, calling them criminals for continuing to offer play to Americans post UIGEA, in spite of U.S. law not even applying to them, and in spite of the fact that it is now agreed that the UIGEA never did even apply to poker, by way of a U.S. Supreme Court Ruling several years before, but one that the U.S. Department of Justice took their time accepting.
This actually may have backfired on the Viejas, and created a backlash where some people who may have been on the fence about this issue ended up siding with Poker Stars after this attack, although the matter has been far from settled as of yet, and the debate rages on.
The Viejas, along with the other 6 Indian tribes that they are aligned with, want to restrict participation in California online poker to just those who currently offer gambling in the state, meaning the tribes and the existing card rooms that offer legal poker.
The tribes claim that the state constitution grants them exclusivity over offering casino gambling, but it certainly doesn’t do so with poker, so they don’t really have any ground to stand on as far as this goes anyway. Several other California tribes are much more lenient, and the task thus far by the government has been to try to get consensus among the tribes, and with both sides just digging in, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
With mounting opposition to gambling in Washington DC building, and the inordinate amount of time this process has already taken, the pressure to bring this all to a conclusion is growing, but the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and the other tribes they are aligned with on this issue remain firm, as does the other side.
The Viejas are looking for a big cash here, as are the tribes they are in disagreement with, and it’s quite understandable that they are looking for a bigger cash by limiting competition. As time passes without getting this settled though, with all the money at stake here, and a strong political will overall to get this done, with both sides in favor, these Indians cannot expect to hold this up forever.