CNIGA’s Siva loves a good compromise; wants to expand role as tribal leader to IGA

“I think James has a unique ability for being in a leadership position and listening to the different sides of everything, giving tribal leadership a chance to hear both sides, and come to a compromise,” Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians tribal council member Dennis Hendricks said.

Siva said Hendricks was a mentor when he first joined the CNIGA executive committee.

Siva, the current CNIGA chairman, is hoping that is the kind of leadership that the Indian Gaming Association (IGA), which meets beginning Monday (8 April) in Anaheim is looking for. Siva announced his intent to run for vice chairman at the Western Indian Gaming Conference in February. He’ll be running against incumbent David Z. Bean of Washington’s Puyallup Tribe.

Young minds want to rise

Siva is one of two young tribal leaders who made this year’s National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development “40 Under 40” list of emerging tribal leaders and is running for national office.

James sivA (left), Andrew alejandre (center), and justin barrett (right) were honored for their roles in tribal leadership by the national council for american indian enterprise development.

The other is Justin Barrett, treasurer of Oklahoma’s East Shawnee Tribe. He’ll likely be running against incumbent treasurer Andy Ebona, of Alaska’s Douglas Village. Together, Siva and Barrett would bring representation from the two biggest tribal gaming states in the US onto the IGA executive committee. Neither California nor Oklahoma currently has a voice on the board.

IGA elections will take place 9 April, on the second day of the annual conference. Those interested in running for office must be nominated that day, then regional caucuses meet to determine who they will support, and then delegates vote. Every member tribe – no matter how big or small – is entitled to one delegate, one vote.

Time for change?

Siva and Barrett are both running in the hopes of effecting change.

“I feel there has been a level of complacency that has crept into IGA in the last five-10 years,” Siva said. “I think it’s not surprising at that level, things get a little repetitive. You have the same kinds of conferences, the same kinds of lobbying efforts in DC, it’s becoming a criticism from tribes across the country.”

Siva said that IGA, which lobbies around tribal issues in Washington, DC, requires unanimity before taking a clear position on an issue. As chairman of CNIGA – a coalition of 52 tribes in California – getting total agreement on issues is elusive, so Siva had to start thinking outside the box.

“We’ve had to really think about what unity of purpose means,” he said. “Unity built on complete consensus puts any action out of reach. But you have to have agreement on principles. We had to nail down our core beliefs and then we can disagree, but move forward.”

Respect critical to keeping CNIGA unified

One of the latest examples came in 2022, when a group of seven commercial operators ran a ballot initiative to bring online sports betting to California. In the end, Indian Country opposed and killed the initiative.

But along the way, three tribes – the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians, and the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe – all signed on to support Proposition 27, the commercial initiative, because they believed it would be a step toward financial independence and would help them maintain their sovereignty.

California nations indian gaming association chairman james siva announced his intent to expand his tribal leadership role to the national level at the western indian gaming conference in february.

Most of the rest of CNIGA disagreed, but Siva and his executive board did not shun or turn away the tribes.

“They came to all of our meetings and were treated with respect,” Siva said. “And they shared their thoughts. We had to be able to see our deficits so these tribes didn’t feel like they hard to turn to commercial operators for help.”

Said Hendricks: “It was a difficult time, and CNIGA’s job is to protect the sovereign right to have gaming on our lands. When someone takes the other side, it hurts some. We worked a long time for tribal unity, and it was painful, but now that we have come through it, even if we didn’t agree with their statements or cause, they are still part of our group and we respect what they have to say.”

James Siva from CNIGA – “Never underestimate California Indian tribes”

— Howard Stutz (@howardstutz) October 11, 2022

Siva’s goal: Allow everyone to be heard

As California’s Indian Country was healing from that rift, in 2023, another commercial group came forward with another plan for a ballot initiative. This time, Siva and CNIGA were firm in their opposition.

The group abandoned its plan, leaving the state’s tribes the opportunity to mend fences within their larger community and determine what legal sports betting and, eventually, online casino will look like in the nation’s biggest state.

“I try to advocate and create space where everyone has a place at the table and can share their decision,” Siva said. “I want to grow our industry, to promote tribal exclusivity, and defend tribal sovereignty. I think I can bring that to the national stage.”

Siva was elected chairman of CNIGA in 2020 after serving as vice chairman and a member-at-large. He’s also the vice chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, where he previously served as a tribal council member. Siva says he stumbled into tribal leadership, but has found it is his calling.

“This is the first thing that I have done that has really kind of checked all the boxes for me,” Siva said. “I get still do some academic work, like working on things for the legislature and policy. I’ve always been really comfortable as a public speaker and have come into my own on that. And I’ve always been a people person.”

Kindred spirit?

Twelve hundred miles east, Siva has found something of a kindred spirit. Barrett, who just turned 30, is the youngest tribal executive committee member in East Shawnee history, and if he wins his bid for IGA treasurer, it appears he will be the youngest ever to do so. Barrett said his family has long been involved in tribal leadership and politics, so it was a natural fit for him.

WATCH NOW: Deana Scott, Raving CEO & Owner, Chairman Alejandre of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians and Justin Barrett, Treasurer of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, explore the impact that growing up with gaming has on their generation's perspective.

— Tribal Gaming & Hospitality Magazine (@TGandHMag) November 8, 2023

Barrett and Siva are part of a group that is putting together the new Tribal Leadership Council, the goal of which is to give young tribal leaders the tools to succeed. The idea was born, Barrett said, through a conversation between himself and California’s Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians chairman Andrew Alejandre, who also made the “40 under 40” list.

“We had this conversation about how we don’t see anything out there for new or existing tribal leaders about how to do the job,” Barrett said. “The question is, ’How do we build a new generation of leaders and have a sustainable future?’”

Time to write the next chapter?

Barrett and Siva see one of the first steps as winning their elections and having platforms at the national level. Siva says Barrett’s background in casino operations and as his tribe’s treasurer make him uniquely qualified to be “an incredible treasurer with well-rounded experience”, while Barrett says Siva’s strength is “coalition building”.

If things play out the way Siva and Barrett hope, by this time next week, they will be starting to write their next chapters, something Siva is passionate about.

“I’ve always been a geek or a nerd,” Siva said. “I’ve always been inclined toward academics, but I am a high-school dropout with an Ivy League degree. I floated around for awhile (after getting a GED) before I found myself back in school, and then at Columbia.

“There is always time to rewrite your story.”