New Leadership at the Chumash

Jul 28, 2016
New Leadership
New Leadership at the Chumash

A new chapter

The Chumash look ahead to new leadership, a revamped casino, and a bigger reservation

They were here before.

Before there was Santa Ynez or Santa Barbara County or the United States, before there were casinos or environmental impact reports or legal restrictions on water usage, before there was Christianity or even monotheism, there were the Chumash.

Tens of thousands of them once spread across 7,000 square miles in present-day California, hunting, gathering, and fishing. In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries changed that, carrying European diseases with them to the Santa Barbara Channel and wiping out much of the Chumash population.

Still, they are here now.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, the only Chumash tribe recognized by the federal government, sits on a 137-acre reservation in the Santa Ynez Valley. About 300 residents live in 99 homes on the land, including only about half of the tribe's 150 enrolled members. Before the tribe got its casino off the ground in the 1990s, the reservation was viewed as a sort of "third-world country," according to Tribal Chairman Kenneth Kahn.

But in the past two decades, the Chumash Casino Resort has catalyzed economic success for the tribe, allowing it to build its government and member resources. The Chumash now offer educational programs and health services to their members and nearby residents. They're vying to increase their reservation tenfold so all their members can live on it. They're planning a museum to honor their long history, and they're looking to expand beyond gaming for economic development.

But the success hasn't come without pushback, primarily from local elected officials and community groups. The recent casino expansion has raised concerns among nearby residents about potential social and environmental impacts, sparking several lawsuits by Save the Valley LLC that failed to halt the expansion's July 23 and 24 opening. The tribe's pursuit of Camp 4, a 1,400-acre parcel owned by the Chumash, who intend to take the land into federal trust for housing purposes"has garnered opposition from local groups including Preservation of Los Olivos (POLO), and has engaged elected officials in tough negotiations.

And all this is now happening under Kahn, the brand-new chairman who's stepping in after Vincent Armenta's 17 years of tribal leadership.

The tribal government

An independent, sovereign nation, the Chumash are governed by both tribal law and federal law. As chairman, Kahn technically heads the tribal government, though he told the Sun he works on an equal level with other members of the Business Committee, including the vice chairman, secretary and treasurer, and two business committee members at large.

"We're all equals," Kahn said. "We're able to contribute at the same level. My job is to make sure the team stays focused and that we stay together, and act as a spokesman. So any time they make a decision, whether I like it or not, I carry it out. It's a good infrastructure. I'm not in it alone."

Other government committees include the educational board, the health board, the environmental committee, the behavioral health committee, and the museum advisory committee. The committee members are either appointed or elected by the tribe's 150 voting members.

"We're highly active with our community," Kahn said. "It's a very direct democracy. Every single member has a very powerful, strong vote."

The tribe contracts with local municipalities and the county for law enforcement, animal control, and other emergency services. But because local governments don't have much of a hand in what the tribe can and cannot do, those relationships can get complicated, Kahn said.

"We're working hard to make sure that we have the dialogue, we have the communication both ways, but we're still going to push, and we're still going to get pushback," he said. "It's part of communicating. It's part of finding the balance."

The Camp 4 issue

Perhaps the best example of dialogue between the tribe and surrounding governmental bodies is Camp 4, for which the tribal government has met with county representatives over the past year to negotiate terms for taking the land into federal trust.

From September 2015 to March 2016, Chumash leaders met with an ad hoc subcommittee from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to discuss water usage, gaming terms, waivers of sovereign immunity, and reimbursement for lost property tax on the land. But after seven meetings, the Board of Supervisors voted to take a break from the negotiations until August, a decision the tribe didn't agree with.

Meanwhile, the Chumash continued to pursue other avenues for putting Camp 4 into trust, including a federal bill called HR-1157, which was introduced in February 2015.

HR-1157 had some opposition of its own. According to Leslie Mosteller of POLO, the organization started a petition in the spring opposing the efforts of the Chumash to take Camp 4 into trust. The petition gained more than 1,000 signatures from residents of the Santa Ynez Valley, Mosteller wrote in an email to the Sun.

"This proposed congressional bill has a rich history of opposition in the Santa Ynez Valley," Mosteller wrote, "and POLO represents only one of the large local groups that has a consistent voice working to maintain local governing, local problem-solving, and private property rights."

Still, on July 12--toward the end of the tribe's and county's negotiations hiatus--the House Committee on Natural Resources voted to clear HR-1157, sending the bill that would put Camp 4 into federal trust to the full House. The vote happened after ad hoc subcommittee members Peter Adam and Doreen Farr wrote to the House committee insisting its members defer action on the bill, a sentiment also expressed by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara).

"At the heart of this matter are issues of land management, preservation, development, agriculture, and housing," Capps said at the House committee meeting on July 12. "Issues that, like many other communities, we have been dealing with for decades. This legislation, however, would remove the ability for a local resolution informed by those individuals and groups most intimately knowledgeable of the environment in question."

But the bill moved forward. Now, the ad hoc subcommittee and tribe are racing Congress to come up with workable terms for Camp 4 before HR-1157 clears the House, Senate, and president, which could happen by the end of the year.

"We thought it was appropriate that the subcommittee had stopped reviewing [the bill] pending the outcome of our negotiations," Farr told the Sun. "It was not a good surprise to learn the subcommittee was considering moving this on to the full Congress."

The Chumash Casino and Resort is largely responsible for the tribe?s economic success. Its recent expansion includes hundreds of new hotel rooms and several new gaming floors (pictured).

Originally, Farr said, the ad hoc subcommittee was hoping to agree on a set of terms for Camp 4 so the county could support the Chumash in their fee-to-trust application for the land, to which the county had previously objected.

"It was the hope that at some point in time we would reach an agreement and then we could go to Congress arm-in-arm with the tribe and say, 'Hey, we have an agreement and we're ready to support this,'" Farr said. "But we're not there now. We think this is really premature. It's unfortunate."

But Kahn doesn't see it that way--as far as he's concerned, the county's decision to pause its negotiations with the tribe and its request for the House to defer action on HR-1157 were stall tactics. Now that the bill is moving through congress, Kahn said he hopes the negotiations will continue more efficiently.

"It's really hard for us to be open-minded and communicate openly when everything we say they're twisting and using to try to slow down the process behind the scenes," Kahn said. "But we're aware of that. We're going to continue, because regardless of the tough personalities of the county, we know that it's good for the community and for the tribe to have these mitigations in place."

The casino

Until the mid-1990s, the Chumash reservation was notoriously poor. Its unemployment rates were high, its roads were unpaved, and many tribal members were uneducated--and then, the casino happened.

Now, Kahn said he considers the Chumash one of the most economically successful Indian tribes in the U.S.

"Gaming has obviously been the catalyst for much of our economic success," he said, "and we certainly aren't taking that for granted."

On the weekend of July 23, the tribe celebrated the grand opening of its casino's expansion, which added hundreds of hotel rooms (in a 12-story hotel tower) and parking spaces along with gaming floor space, restaurants, and a new indoor swimming pool. The opening featured Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up comedy and Stevie Wonder's musical prowess.

But the road to the expansion wasn't exactly smooth"it was dotted with lawsuits and angry residents and frustrated elected officials. Save the Valley LLC has filed three lawsuits in attempts to halt the Chumash Casino expansion, the latest of which actually goes after the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District.

The lawsuit, filed on May 3, claims there's not enough water to support the new casino, and that the project's water usage would violate the casino's deed restriction to use water for "domestic" purposes only, making the water district responsible for stopping the project.

The casino expansion includes new dining facilities, such as the café shown here.

But the suit hasn't moved forward since Save the Valley filed its initial complaint, and the casino expansion opened as planned.

Still, Kahn said the tribe is looking beyond gaming as means for economic development in the future. They've invested in hotels, commercial real estate, and landholdings all around the Central Coast, essentially saturating the market, he said.

"That's really put us in a good position, in case we don't have a resort to fall back on 10 or 20 or 30 years from now," Kahn said. "We want to strategically place our investments in different microeconomic environments. For us to really invest, we've pretty much capped out here in the Santa Ynez Valley."

The Chumash world has certainly changed since its pre-missionary days of hunting and gathering, but despite economic turmoil, legal battles, and community contention, Kahn said the tribe isn't going anywhere. It will adapt.

"When it comes to planning, we're able to look out and think about multiple generations and think about the future," Kahn said. "We're constantly working in a positive direction to provide opportunities for the tribe in the future. We're here forever."

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at [email protected]

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