California is home to over 100 federally recognized Native American tribes, and approximately two-thirds of them are involved in one form or another with the California gambling industry. There are close to 70 tribe-operated casinos in the Golden State. In the United States, only Oklahoma has more tribal casinos. No other state has even half as many.
In other words, tribal gambling is huge in California, not only influencing all aspects of the state’s gambling industry but the California economy as a whole. In fact, while Oklahoma may have more tribal casinos, California is the largest state by far when it comes to tribal gambling’s economic activity and impact.
What follows is a complete overview of tribal gambling in California. Here you will find all you need to know about California tribal casinos, including how many there are (and where to find them), an overview of tribal gambling history in the state and how compacts work, where tribal casino revenue goes, how the casinos differ from California card rooms and more.
Quick facts about California tribal casinos
- Date first tribal casinos opened in California: 2001
- Number of tribes with tribal-state gaming compacts: 75
- Number of tribes operating casinos in California: 63
- Number of tribal casinos: 66
- Minimum age to gamble in CA tribal casinos: 18 years old in some; 21 years old in others, including those that serve alcohol on gaming floor
- Largest tribal casinos in California: Pechanga Resort Casino; Yaamava’ Resort & Casino; Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa; Thunder Valley Casino Resort; Cache Creek Casino Resort
- Legal games at tribal casinos: slots, blackjack, baccarat, poker, bingo, California roulette, California craps, casino poker (Pai Gow, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, etc.)
Tribal casinos in California
California tribal casinos add nearly $20 billion to the state’s economy, according to the American Gaming Association.
Casinos under the operation of California tribes annually generate around $8.5 billion in gross gambling revenue. That represents more than 25% of each year’s tribal casino revenue across the entire United States. California tribal casinos also generate around $3.5 billion per year in taxes and revenue share payments to the state government.
The California Gambling Control Commission notes that 75 tribes in California have signed and ratified tribal-state gaming compacts. Three more tribes are operating with Secretarial Procedures in effect under the direction of the US Department of the Interior, an alternate process sometimes employed in cases of dispute regarding the negotiation of a compact.
Currently, 63 tribes operate 66 casinos across the state. These casinos each offer Class III gaming, which includes Vegas-like casino games, although California gambling law uniquely prohibits games involving dice or a ball. In response, many of the casinos have come up with creative means to offer games that resemble craps, roulette, and other favorites.
In addition, there are several other tribe-owned facilities that offer Class II gaming (i.e. bingo and house-banked card games). Tribes can operate these facilities without having a compact with the state, although they do require federal approval from the National Indian Gaming Commission.
List of tribal casinos in California in 2022
Here is a complete list of all 66 tribal casinos operating in California as of the start of 2022.
|Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs||Palm Springs||Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians|
|Agua Caliente Casino Resort and Spa Rancho Mirage||Rancho Mirage||Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians|
|Agua Caliente Casino Cathedral City||Cathedral City||Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians|
|Augustine Casino||Coachella||Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians|
|Barona Resort & Casino||Lakeside||Barona Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians|
|Bear River Casino Hotel||Loleta||Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria|
|Black Oak Casino||Tuolumne||Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians|
|Blue Lake Casino & Hotel||Blue Lake||Blue Lake Rancheria|
|Cache Creek Casino Resort||Brooks||Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation|
|Cahuilla Casino||Anza||Cahuilla Band of Indians|
|Casino Pauma||Pauma Valley||Pauma Band of Luiseno Mission Indians|
|Cher-Ae Heights Casino||Trinidad||Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria|
|Chicken Ranch Casino||Jamestown||Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians|
|Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino||Coarsegold||Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians|
|Chumash Casino Resort||Santa Ynez||Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians|
|Colusa Casino Resort||Colusa||Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians|
|Coyote Valley Casino||Redwood Valley||Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians|
|Desert Rose Casino||Alturas||Alturas Indian Rancheria|
|Diamond Mountain Casino & Hotel||Susanville||Susanville Indian Rancheria|
|Eagle Mountain Casino||Porterville||Tule River Indian Tribe|
|Elk Valley Casino||Crescent City||Elk Valley Rancheria|
|Fantasy Springs Resort Casino||Indio||Cabazon Band of Mission Indians|
|Feather Falls Casino & Lodge||Oroville||Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians|
|Garcia River Casino||Point Arena||Manchester Band of Pomo Indians|
|Gold Country Casino & Hotel||Oroville||Berry Creek Rancheria of Maidu Indians|
|Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center||Campo||Campo Band of Diegueno Mission Indians|
|Graton Resort & Casino||Rohnert Park||Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria|
|Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain||Wheatland||Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians|
|Harrah's Northern California||Ione||Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians|
|Harrah's Resort Southern California||Valley Center||Rincon Band of Luiseno Mission Indians|
|Havasu Landing Resort & Casino||Havasu Lake||Chemehuevi Indian Tribe|
|Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel||Jackson||Jackson Band of Miwuk Indians|
|Jamul Casino||Jamul||Jamul Indian Village of California|
|Konocti Vista Casino||Lakeport||Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians|
|Lucky 7 Casino||Smith River||Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation|
|Lucky Bear Casino||Hoopa||Hoopa Valley Tribe|
|Mono Wind Casino||Auberry||Big Sandy Rancheria of Western Mono Indians|
|Morongo Casino Resort & Spa||Cabazon||Morongo Band of Mission Indians|
|Pala Casino Spa Resort||Pala||Pala Band of Mission Indians|
|Pechanga Resort & Casino||Temecula||Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians|
|Pit River Casino||Burney||Pit River Tribe|
|Quechan Casino Resort||Winterhaven||Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation|
|Rain Rock Casino||Yreka||Karuk Tribe|
|Red Earth Casino||Salton Sea Beach||Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians|
|Red Fox Casino||Laytonville||Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria|
|Red Hawk Casino||Placerville||Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians|
|Redwood Hotel Casino||Klamath||Yurok Tribe|
|River Rock Casino||Geyserville||Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians|
|Robinson Rancheria Resort & Casino||Nice||Robinson Rancheria|
|Rolling Hills Casino||Corning||Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians|
|Running Creek Casino||Upper Lake||Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake|
|Sherwood Valley Rancheria Casino||Willits||Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians|
|Sho-Ka-Wah Casino*||Hopland||Hopland Band of Pomo Indians|
|Soboba Casino||San Jacinto||Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians|
|Spotlight 29 Casino||Coachella||Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians|
|Sycuan Casino & Resort||El Cajon||Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation|
|Table Mountain Casino||Friant||Table Mountain Rancheria|
|Tachi Palace Casino Resort||Lemoore||Santa Rosa Indian Community of the Santa Rosa Rancheria|
|Thunder Valley Casino Resort||Lincoln||United Auburn Indian Community of the Auburn Rancheria|
|Tortoise Rock Casino||Twentynine Palms||Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians|
|Twin Pine Casino & Hotel||Middletown||Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians|
|Valley View Casino & Hotel||Valley Center||San Pasqual Band of Diegueno Mission Indians|
|Viejas Casino and Resort||Alpine||Viejas Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians|
|Wanaaha Casino||Bishop||Bishop Paiute Tribe|
|Win-River Casino||Redding||Redding Rancheria|
|Yaamava' Resort & Casino||Highland||San Manuel Band of Mission Indians|
*listed by California Gambling Control Commission among active operators although closed since 2018 due to California wildfires
Tribal-state compacts in California
While each of the tribal-state compacts in California is different, they all essentially fall into three categories. These often go by the following names: the 1999 Compacts, the 2004 Compacts, and the 2012 Compacts, with the dates, approximately referring to when the compacts were negotiated and ratified.
The 1999 Compacts were the first large set of gaming compacts between California and 61 tribes. Their key characteristic is a limitation of 2,000 slot machines per casino. The 2004 Compacts refer to ones negotiated later between the state and a small number of tribes that allowed an unlimited number of slot machines. The 2012 Compacts then refer to more recently negotiated compacts (extending to the present). The terms of these more recent compacts vary, with some allowing more than 2,000 slots and some not.
The different compacts also determine how the tribes share casino revenue with the state. In most cases, tribal-state compacts are for 20 years, which means the parties have amended and renewed some of the original ones from 1999.
Where does California tribal gambling revenue go?
Tribal casinos do not pay taxes like commercial casinos. In California, tribal members who live on the reservation are not subject to state income tax, and tribal casinos do not have to pay corporate income tax. Instead of paying tax, the casinos pay fees into various funds and in some cases help support state and/or local agencies and programs. The amount they pay depends on how much revenue the casinos generate as well as the number of slot machines they operate. Each tribal-state compact determines the precise terms of the tribes’ payments and where those payments go.
California gambling tribes pay into three funds. Some pay into just one, while some pay into more than one. These are the three funds:
- Revenue Sharing Trust Fund — A fund designed to distribute money to California tribes that don’t participate in gambling.
- Special Distribution Trust Fund — A fund designed to support gambling addiction programs and regulatory costs, and to help state and local governments pay for law enforcement, fire and safety, emergency services, and other agencies. This fund also can supplement the RSTF where necessary.
- General Fund — The primary state fund that makes up the majority of California’s annual budget and supports a range of state and local agencies and programs.
Most of the tribes contribute either to the RSTF or SDTF or both. The tribes operating under the 2004 Compacts initially had to contribute to the General Fund. However, a federal court later ruled that those payments could amount to an illegal tax on tribes, and the tribes and state renegotiated most of those compacts. Today, very few tribes make payments to the General Fund, and new compacts tend not to require it.
California tribe’s lawsuit leads to Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988
As it happens, California played an important role in the legal machinations that led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. That’s the 1988 federal law that established the legal framework for Native American gaming in the US.
Prior to the IGRA, several California tribes hosted bingo halls on their lands to generate revenue. In some cases, the stakes at these halls were higher than California law allowed, which led to the state attempting to shut down the facilities. California wasn’t the only state where such conflicts arose during the 1970s and early 1980s. Tribes in Florida and Wisconsin, for example, likewise raised the ire of state governments with their high-stakes bingo games and found themselves fighting legal court battles to continue doing so.
In California, there were two small tribes, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, that operated bingo parlors on their reservations in Riverside County near Palm Springs. The Cabazon tribe additionally operated a card club similar to other non-tribal poker rooms located in Gardena and elsewhere in the state. In 1986, California shut down both tribes’ facilities on the basis that they violated state law prohibiting bingo games in which prizes exceeded $250. The state also argued that both the Cabazons’ bingo hall and card room violated a Riverside County ordinance.
California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians
It was a bit of a David-versus-Goliath situation with the tiny, 25-member Cabazon tribe in a conflict with the state of California. The tribe maintained neither state nor local laws applied on its reservation, and it filed a lawsuit in district court. The tribe won a favorable ruling, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld. The state of California appealed again, and California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians went to the US Supreme Court. On Feb. 25, 1987, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding, the court again ruled against the state’s appeal and in favor of the tiny tribe.
That ruling had a significant impact going forward in the way it upheld tribal sovereignty. One key takeaway was the fact that since California allowed other types of gambling such as the California Lottery (only just launched in 1985), the state couldn’t object to gambling on tribal lands. The decision became a precedent cited in other similar cases.
It also proved influential upon lawmakers who in October 1988 passed IGRA, the federal law that has made the US tribal gaming industry possible. Today, there are more than 500 tribal casinos operating in 29 states.
California voters twice back tribal casinos at the ballot box
Shortly after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became law, tribes in other states quickly began to negotiate and agree to tribal-state gaming compacts. The first tribal casinos to open under these new terms were in Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin. In other states, meanwhile, it would take longer for the tribes and states to come together and agree to compacts that satisfied both sides.
California was one of those states where it would take some time before the first tribal-state compacts would go into effect. There were several court cases during the 1990s revisiting the terms of the Cabazon ruling and other matters involving how to designate Class II and Class III games. Meanwhile, California Gov. Pete Wilson generally opposed tribal gambling. After lengthy negotiations, however, he finally signed the state’s first compact with the Pala Band of Mission Indians in March 1998.
Tribal Government Gaming and Economic Self-Sufficiency Act
The terms of that first compact were very favorable to the state. A few other California tribes supported the compact and were ready to sign their own with similar terms, but most other tribes did not. Rather than fight further with Wilson, a coalition of more than 80 tribes instead chose to gather enough signatures to place an initiative on the November 1998 ballot.
The initiative, known as Proposition 5 or the Tribal Government Gaming and Economic Self-Sufficiency Act, would amend the California Constitution to permit tribal-state compacts authorizing specific forms of Class III gaming. In particular, it would address one part of the Constitution that was proving to be a headache to the tribes where the law prohibited “casinos of the type currently operating in Nevada and New Jersey.” The amendment, as proposed, would clarify that tribal casinos would be “materially different” from those in Nevada and New Jersey.
Voters approved Proposition 5, with 62.4% voting in favor. It appeared for the moment that the opening of California tribal casinos was imminent, but the following year a legal challenge overturned the proposition.
Gambling on Tribal Lands Amendment
Even so, the political landscape had changed with the election of Gov. Gray Davis on the same day voters weighed in on Proposition 5. After some initial reticence, the new governor turned out to be less antagonistic toward the tribes offering gambling, perhaps in part because he had seen that a majority of Californians supported it. In 1999, Davis negotiated new compacts with 61 tribes authorizing a broader range of casino games (see above, “Tribal-state compacts in California”).
Then in March 2000, California voters came out a second time to vote on a new proposition, the Gambling on Tribal Lands Amendment (Proposition 1A), designed to resolve the technicality that had sunk Proposition 5. Again, voters approved tribal gambling, with 64.4% in favor this time. The vote further strengthened legal support for tribal casinos in the state. In 2001, California’s first full-fledged tribal casino, the Pala Casino, opened its doors.
It’s worth pointing out that while Proposition 1A did authorize tribal casinos, it only approved slots and house-banked card games and not games like craps or roulette. That’s why tribal casinos still today offer card-based options that resemble those other games (e.g., “California craps”) without violating California’s legal prohibition against games involving dice or a ball.
What is the difference between a casino and a card room in California?
There are no commercial (non-tribal) casinos in California as such. That said, you will still see plenty of establishments calling themselves “casinos” that offer legal gambling separate from any Native American tribes. What gives?
California is home to nearly 100 legal and licensed card rooms, including some of the largest in the country (and even the world). Some of these card rooms call themselves casinos, such as The Commerce Casino & Hotel, The Bicycle Hotel & Casino, The Gardens Casino, and the like. Even very small poker rooms with just a few tables will sometimes refer to themselves as casinos.
Technically speaking, none of these California card rooms are full-fledged casinos. None offer slots, roulette, or other casino games, and in fact many focus almost entirely on player-versus-player poker. You will find some that offer a variety of other card games like Pai Gow Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Let It Ride, and the like. Some also offer versions of other card games like baccarat and blackjack, although those games play a little differently in card rooms from how they do in casinos in order to abide by California law.
California card rooms have their own rich history dating back to the 1930s. During the middle decades of the 20th century, the Gardena poker clubs were famous throughout the country as a prime destination for legal poker games. For a long time, the card clubs operated under local regulation, but during the 1980s and 1990s, as more rooms opened, the state became increasingly involved with oversight. Today there are nearly 100 such card clubs, all licensed and regulated by the California Gambling Control Commission.
Tribes vs. California card rooms: California’s ongoing heads-up duel (a timeline)
In California, then, by the time the first tribal casinos started appearing during the early 2000s, the card rooms already represented an established form of legal gambling in the state. More than two decades later, disputes between the tribes and card room owners continue as each side challenges the legal justification for the other. Here’s a timeline highlighting a few moments of conflict between the two:
- 2000 — Voters approve Proposition 1A, authorizing tribal casinos in California.
- 2001 — Four card rooms, led by Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, file a lawsuit claiming the new constitutional amendment violates federal law. The lawsuit is unsuccessful.
- 2002-03 — Two similar lawsuits join the fray, one by Larry Flynt (owner of the Hustler Casino card room in Gardena) and another in 2003 by the owners of Artichoke Joe’s Casino (a card room in San Bruno). Neither lawsuit succeeds.
- 2004 — Cardroom owners (including Flynt) and some horse racetrack owners work together to place two new initiatives on the 2004 ballot that in different ways seek to alter the terms of compacts under Proposition 1A. Both propositions lose by wide margins (76% and 83% against).
- 2010-11 — The tribes and card rooms forge a momentary alliance, forming the California Online Poker Association to lobby for intrastate online poker. At one point as many as 29 tribes and 31 card rooms join COPA. However, the coalition dissolves after one year, and the effort to launch California online poker ultimately fails.
- 2016 — After years of lobbying, tribal groups successfully encourage the California Bureau of Gambling Control to mandate a new rule (starting in 2017) requiring card rooms to rotate the banker position in baccarat and blackjack games. The issue will continue to surface going forward as tribes continue to complain about card rooms’ noncompliance or creative workarounds enabling them to offer what are essentially house-banked card games.
- 2018 — Two tribes file a lawsuit against multiple California card rooms contending the card rooms offer prohibited games and thus negatively impact their casinos’ business. Ultimately, the case goes in the card rooms’ favor with a San Diego appellate court affirming the ruling in late 2021.
- 2019 — Three other tribes take a different approach by suing the state in federal court for failing to uphold Proposition 1A by allowing card rooms to offer house-banked card games. The lawsuit is quickly dismissed, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later upholding that ruling in late 2020.
- 2020-22 — With the possibility of legal sports betting in California, the tribes and card rooms back compete for ballot initiatives that each aim to ensure their own interests. The tribes’ initiative would authorize retail-only sports betting at tribal casinos and racetracks (and not at card rooms). The card rooms’ plan would allow both retail and online sports betting at casinos, card rooms, racetracks, and professional sports venues. The tribes’ initiative has earned a spot on the November 2022 ballot, while the card rooms’ initiative still needs the necessary signatures.