James Ramos personifies the impact casino gaming made on California Indian tribes within a single generation.
It’s easy to see the large resort casinos sprinkled around the state or the Yaamava’ Resort & Casino at San Manuel sign behind home plate at Dodger Stadium and think Indian gaming has long been an economic force in the state.
Ramos grew up in a mobile home with his parents and four siblings on the San Manuel Indian Reservation. As a boy, he sold candy bars and sodas in a snack shop behind the horse stables that the tribe leased for $300 a year. That was the tribal government’s only income.
Then California tribal casinos transformed his life, along with many other tribal members around the state.
The change propelled him to become the first California tribal member in the state Legislature.
“Every day I walk into the Capitol, I’m in awe and blessed being able to sit there, going from where I grew up to where I am,” Asm. Ramos told PlayCA. “Tribal communities went from state poverty to successes because of gaming. But I think it’s up to us to tell the story of the atrocities, the genocide, the history that has impacted our people and to get those into the school books.”
Seeing tribal gaming transform his community
The San Manuel reservation was named after Ramos’ great grandfather. Santos Manuel led a clan of Serrano Indians from the San Bernardino mountains to safety on the valley floor during the San Bernardino Indian Massacre of 1866-67.
Ramos was born on the San Manuel reservation 100 years later, in 1967. At the time, it was one of the most poverty-stricken areas in California.
“All that time growing up, I saw the struggles that took place,” Ramos said. “I saw the different social issues that face many in the nation – alcoholism, drug abuse, all those things.”
Opportunities began to change on the reservation in 1985 when San Manuel moved forward with constructing its first bingo hall. Ramos helped in the construction. Later, he swept, waxed and buffed the floors every morning as a maintenance worker. He also served as a food runner with other members of his family.
Ramos began on the San Manuel tribal council in 1996. When the Indian Gambling Regulatory Act passed in 1988, he served as San Manuel’s first gaming commissioner. He helped create the first minimum internal control standards San Manuel used for Class III gaming.
In 1994, the bingo hall expanded to include a cardroom and slot machines. After legal challenges, 61 tribes around the state reached gaming compact agreements with California in 1999. California voters approved gambling on tribal lands the following year.
In 2005, the tribe converted the property into a resort casino. After a recent $760 million expansion, Yaamava’ Resort & Casino at San Manuel is one of the largest casinos in California.
Feeling the impact from tribal gaming
By the time Ramos was in his 30s, gaming had transformed the reservation. The tribe was able to put gaming revenue toward full scholarships to any tribal member who went to college. Ramos took advantage.
Indian casino gaming paid the way for Ramos to receive his bachelor of science in accounting from Cal State San Bernardino in 2002 and his MBA from the University of Redlands in 2009. He was the first in his family to attend college.
“Our tribal government put together a scholarship where anybody who wants to go to school and was accepted, there’s a scholarship that will pay full ride for it,” Ramos said. “I ended up taking advantage of that and got my bachelor’s degree from Cal State San Bernardino and my master’s in business administration from the University of Redlands through gaming revenue that provided for those scholarships.”
Expanding his leadership role off the reservation
Ramos served as tribal chairman of San Manuel from 2008 to 2012. His interest in public service extended beyond the reservation, however.
Ramos’ leadership career includes a series of tribal firsts. He was the first Native American elected to the San Bernardino Community College Board of Trustees in 2005, appointed to the California State Board of Education in 2011 and elected to the Board of Supervisors for San Bernardino County in 2012.
Ramos achieved another first in 2018 when he was elected to represent the 40th District in the state Legislature. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, an Alaskan Inuit, previously served in the Assembly.
“The election in 2018 of James Ramos, San Manuel tribal citizen and the first indigenous person to be elected to the California State Assembly, was historic,” said Lynn Valbuena, current tribal chairperson for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. “For the first time in our state’s history, we have a person in the Legislature who brings knowledge of tribal nations, cultures, history, government and the unique political status of tribes to policymaking at the highest levels of state government. California and the tribes are better off with the election of Assemblymember Ramos and appreciate his work.”
Ramos pointed out that tribal council members face many of the same issues relevant across the state.
“I sat on the tribal council for many years, and that groomed me to be able to be engaged in the politics of this country,” he said. “There is a stereotypical mindset that, when it comes to Native issues, they’re separate from everybody else. And they’re not. We’re dealing with homelessness, housing, infrastructure – all these things that are important everywhere.”
Making an impact in the California Legislature
As a member of the California Assembly, Ramos represents the San Bernardino County communities of Highland, Loma Linda, Redlands and parts of Rancho Cucamonga and the city of San Bernardino. But he also represents Native Americans across California.
“When Assemblyman Ramos was first elected, I think it was a monumental event for all tribes across the state to see that first California tribal person be elected to the California legislature,” said James Siva, chairman of California Nations Indian Gaming Association. “It was much overdue. But to see someone with his tenure of tribal leadership move into the California Assembly, I think all tribal people across the state viewed it as a personal victory.”
Ramos chairs the Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs and a select committee on Native American affairs.
He also chairs the California Native American Legislative Caucus. He believes it’s critical to engage his colleagues in the work of increasing awareness of Native American issues. More than 25 of his colleagues have joined.
Asm. Jose Medina, who serves with Ramos on the Select Committee on Native American Affairs, said:
“Assemblymember Ramos epitomizes the value of representation in leadership. As the first member of a Native American tribe in the state legislature, Asm. Ramos brings his own experience and background to the table – adding an essential perspective that the State of California has lacked for generations. Through thoughtful work on honoring indigenous lands, addressing the systemic racism in our institutions, championing legislation on mental health and the opioid crisis, and advocating for Native American curriculum in classrooms, Asm. Ramos has transformed the role of the Legislature.”
Legislative accomplishments for California tribes
Some of Ramos’ legislative accomplishments include supporting the passage of Assembly bills:
- 275 (2019-20), which streamlined the process for repatriating Native American artifacts and human remains;
- 2112 (2019-20), which created a statewide office of suicide prevention.
- 2314 (2019-20), which required the secretary of state to convene an advisory task force to recommend strategies for increasing Native American voter participation;
- 338 (2021), which facilitated replacement of the Junipero Serra statue at the Capitol with a memorial for the state’s Native Americans;
- 855 (2021), which made all state and local court employees first in the state to receive a paid holiday in celebration of California Native American Day instead of Columbus Day;
- 1554 (2021), which mandated reformatting the history-social science curriculum by adding requirements to teach California Indian culture, history, and the contributions of the first people.
“Being the only California Indian elected to the state Legislature, a lot of issues are coming our way,” Ramos said. “There’s a lot of things beyond gaming that still impact tribal communities.”
On the CA sports betting initiatives
California sports betting has become one of the most prominent tribal issues of 2022.
Although most California tribes, including his own, oppose online sports betting Proposition 27, Ramos takes a more diplomatic position.
“I think you see a lot of money being poured in on both sides, and so we’ll see how that plays out,” Ramos said. “I’m not going to sit here and say this one is going to be the winner or this one’s going to be the loser. In the state Legislature, we need to take more of an open view on these sort of things.”
Other tribes back Proposition 26, which limits sports betting to in-person at tribal casinos and a few California horse racing venues.
Ramos said he sees red flags in both initiatives.
He is concerned that homelessness funding in Prop 27 would go to only the largest 13 of California’s 482 cities. That would leave out cities in his district.
“Larger cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento get a bigger piece of the funding,” Ramos said. “Cities such as San Bernardino, Redlands and Highland will still be fighting for funding for homelessness.”
Ramos wants to look deeper into the Private Attorney Generals Act (PAGA) provisions of Prop 26. California cardrooms contend that language would allow tribes to sue them out of business, devastating communities that depend on cardroom revenue.
He pointed out that there is another online sports betting option backed by San Manuel currently undergoing signature verification with the possibility of making the 2024 election.
“On the horizon in 2024, there’s also another sports betting initiative that could qualify,” Ramos said. “So this isn’t the only year we’re going to see the topic addressed. It could be 2022 and 2024.”
The divide among Indian tribes
Ramos hates to see the division online sports betting is creating among California tribes.
“They’re pitting tribe against tribe,” Ramos said of online sportsbook operators in Prop 27. “That’s concerning.”
Three tribes – the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians and Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe – have come out in favor of Prop 27.
Ramos considers the chairmen of those tribes to be good friends. He said he respects their right to do what they think is best for their tribes. However, he said it is eye-opening for Native Americans across the state to consider why they are making that decision.
“We support what they’re doing moving forward on all aspects for all different tribes,” Ramos said. “But there has to be that question now of why they are exerting their tribal sovereignty to support this. There’s also others that are starting to look at it, and they’re good people. I’m not going to second-guess them. I support their sovereignty and their will to move forward with their people in the decisions they make.”
Bringing more tribal members into CA politics
Ramos hopes his lasting legacy is being the first of many California tribal members in the state Legislature.
“My longterm goal is to get more California Indian people engaged in the political system to ensure that we have someone coming when our term is done,” Ramos said. “That’s the big push, to get more Indian people engaged in politics at all levels in the state of California.”
Siva thinks Ramos has opened the door to that happening.
“Because of the example he’s setting and success he’s having as an Assemblymember in getting bills passed for the benefit not only of tribal members but people in his district, I think we will see more tribal members have successful runs into the state assembly and senate,” Siva said. “I imagine in the next three-to-five years, we’ll hopefully have another two-to-three representatives in Sacramento who also were tribal leaders or enrolled members of their tribes.”
Ramos still lives on the San Manuel Indian Reservation with his wife of more than 30 years, Terri. They have four children and three grandchildren.
To make the transition from leadership roles within the tribe to elected positions outside the reservation, he suggests tribal members follow his lead. That means starting at the local level on school boards, community college boards and county boards of supervisors.
“For Native American people who want to engage in the political system, I say jump right into it,” Ramos said. “Get engaged and move forward. I think more Native American people in the United States need to get elected and involved. It’s not just about Indian gaming. This is about the status of the state of California and the nation. The issues that are important to people in the United States are also important to Native American people.”