Father of a Nation

As head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover single-handedly gave the Koi Nation land rights. Now, he's stepped through the revolving door to hawk the tribe's plans for a Bay Area casino.

In praising the team put together to work with the tribe before a civic group in December, Wilson singled out Castillo, the Sonoma State professor, as "an expert on Pomo history" who has written more than 30 books on the subject. But that appears to be misleading. Contacted by the Weekly, Castillo chuckled when told about the remark, saying that he has "written maybe 30 articles" -- not books -- as an academic, and that none of them was about the Koi. His one book about the Pomo in general (which did not deal with the Koi) turns out to have been a children's book of 48 pages.

The professor did, however, compile a history of the Koi Nation, at its behest, he said. But he declined to talk about it, citing a "confidentiality agreement" with the tribe. "There's so much controversy over the tribe's seeking land [for the casino]. What they don't want is a bunch of hostile reporting."

The tribe's reticence is perhaps understandable, considering the controversial manner in which Gover enabled it to attain recognition. In reaffirming the Koi by fiat, Gover ignored a benchmark criterion that BIA has long considered essential before officially recognizing entities claiming to be tribes: that is, whether such groups can show "continuous existence from historical times to the present."

"What that means," says Fleming, BIA's acknowledgment chief, "is that there has to be evidence that an entity has maintained tribal relations between members; that not only were there tribal leaders, but that those leaders exercised political authority and that the members followed the direction of the leaders' governance continuously through time."

Asked whether Lower Lake Rancheria/ Koi Nation meets that test in his view, he replies, "I think my memo speaks for itself." Others are more direct. "I don't call [the Koi Nation] a tribe, and I do not believe that Kevin Gover had legal authority to do what he did," says William Wirtz, 67, the retired former deputy solicitor in BIA's Pacific regional office for nearly two decades.

The Koi trace their origins as a recognized tribe to 1916, the year the federal government bought 140 acres known as Purvis Flats near the present-day town of Clearlake in Lake County -- about 130 miles north of San Francisco -- and designated it as the Lower Lake Rancheria. But the land wasn't good for much. Even a BIA official referred to it as "a rock pile." According to records on file at the National Archives regional center in San Bruno, despite being purchased decades earlier for "the benefit of the landless Indians residing in the immediate vicinity," it remained uninhabited until a handful of Indians took up residence there in the 1940s.

Those records show that Harry Johnson and his wife, Isabella, who occupied a shack on 41 acres of the property, were considered to be the only two Indians living there in 1953 when Lake County expressed interest in acquiring the land for an airport. A special Act of Congress in 1956 enabled the county to obtain 99 acres for the airport. At the same time, the 41 acres occupied by the Johnsons became their private property after they agreed to accept it as a "gift" from the government. As far as the federal government was concerned, Lower Lake Rancheria ceased to exist.

If there is evidence to show that the tribe maintained continuous governance either before or after the land was lost, the Koi Nation's leaders have not yet seen fit to make it public. Indeed, assuming an earlier tribal government existed, there is evidence to suggest that it wasn't revived until 1994. That's when Dino Beltran, presenting himself as the tribe's chairman, appeared before Lake County officials after they announced plans to close the airport, asserting the tribe's rights to the land. Beltran told the Board of Supervisors that a benefactor whom he declined to name was willing to front the tribe enough money to make an offer. (The property ended up being sold to the town of Clearlake.)

But according to a 1994 memo prepared for the tribe by a legal firm acting on its behalf, a copy of which was obtained by the Weekly, there was apparently no Koi tribal government in place until the Beltrans helped organize one after the airport sale talk began. "It is our understanding that the Koi people had not formed an active government functioning as the 'Lower Lake Rancheria Interim Council' until this year," says the memo, prepared at California Indian Legal Services, which advocates for Native American rights. "The impetus for the formation of the government appears to have been the realization that the Tribe may have rights to the land that is currently Pearce Field Airport."

Although she doesn't have much to say one way or the other about Gover, Rosemary Cambra wonders what a tribe that claims Lake County as its aboriginal birthplace is doing trying to establish a "reservation" in Oakland. "I don't object to them wanting to put up a casino," says the leader of the Muwekma Ohlone, a tribe whose ancestral lands include San Francisco and the East Bay, and which has been fighting for federal recognition for years. "It's just the wrong place for them to be doing business."

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