Did you know that the United States Constitution and treaties recognize Native American communities as separate and independent sovereign nations within the territorial boundaries of the United States? Tribes operate under independent constitutions, have their own systems of governance, and establish and administer their own laws. This sovereign status of tribal governments dictates that the United States and all agencies operating within it engage in government-to-government relationships with Native American tribes. In the San Diego region, there are 17 federally recognized tribal governments with jurisdiction over 18 reservations – the most in any county in the United States.


A Different “Border” Relationship in Planning: Tribal Nations in a Regional Landscape

While the federal-tribal government relationship is well established, the local-tribal government relationship has not been as clearly defined. As the San Diego region continues to grow, there is an increasing need to better coordinate tribal, local, and regional planning efforts to make the best use of resources while protecting and enhancing the quality of life for all residents. The need for establishing a government-to-gov  ernment framework at a regional level has become increasingly apparent. SANDAG‘s Borders Program – with an ‘s’- provides a policy framework for developing a government to government relationship with tribal nations in the region. The Borders Committee usually discussed policy issues related to San Diego’s borders with Mexico and other counties. Acknowledging the borders with sovereign tribal governments as part of the Borders Committee represents an important step in understanding the issues and challenges facing tribes and developing a long-term relationship between governments.


Brief History of Tribal Nations in San Diego

Of the 109 federally recognized Indian tribes in California, 18 are located in San Diego County – the most in any county in the United States. [1]  Historically, the tribal members of today’s bands represent four Indian cultural/linguistic groups who have populated this region for more than 10,000 years. The four nations are: the Luiseño, who traditionally inhabited the land in north and northwestern San Diego County; the Cahuilla, who live in the mountains in the northeastern part of the county; the Cupeño, who live in the Warner Springs area; and the Kumeyaay (Northern Ipai/Southern Tipai), who live in the southern part of the county from the coast to the mountains and Baja California.

Prior to California’s statehood, the federal government developed treaties with Native Nations in an effort to reduce tribal and settler violence. However, these treaties were never ratified—they were thwarted on the United States Senate floor by pressure from the new California Senators—and the tribal nations that had signed the treaties were never informed. Most of the current tribal reservations were established by the end of the 19th century; however, several were established well into the 20th century. Today, San Diego has 19 reservations and are represented by 18 federally recognized tribal governments[2]


Tribal nations in a regional landscape – Planning Issues

As domestic sovereign nations, tribes are subject to federal regulations, but are not usually subject to local or state regulations. In addition to the standard governmental functions of regulating, taxing, and delivering services, tribal governments act to preserve and protect tribal culture and community, including determining tribal membership. Tribal governments are responsible for the development, management, and operation of tribal economic enterprises.

Native American reservations currently cover more than 127,000 acres in the San Diego region, approximately 4 percent of the region’s land base. Like many rural communities, planning and transportation issues affect these reservations, as they are all located in remote areas outside of incorporated cities. Some reservations are outside the urban transportation system, but near major highways, while others are not even fully connected to county roads. Inadequate access to and from the reservations often results in a lack of economic opportunities, as well as insufficient health, social, and cultural services.

Tribal governments face many unique environmental challenges because of their sovereign status. Conservation is important to tribal nations, but most tribal lands are now surrounded by land controlled by federal, state, or private parties. As efforts to preserve habitat throughout the region increase, pressure for tribal lands to be considered open space or endangered species habitat have risen. Additionally, there are many important natural areas with cultural significance located outside the reservation in areas where tribes have limited influence or control. This highlights the importance of diplomatic discussions to identify ways in which tribes, as land use authorities, can join the regional dialogue on environmental conservation and habitat planning.

In recent years, gaming and other types of development have led to rapid economic growth for a number of tribes. In the San Diego region, the Indian gaming industry has created more than 10,000 jobs resulting in a $1 billion industry with approximately $263 million in goods and services purchased annually and $500 million in payroll.

This growth has been accompanied by increases in traffic, jobs-housing accessibility issues, and the need for additional resources such as water and energy. As part of the gaming compact process, tribal governments are required to submit to the State a Tribal Environmental Impact Report, the findings of which are subject to negotiation between the tribal government and the local land use authority adjacent to it. However, there are currently no protocols or requirements in place for exchanging information regarding long-term land use and transportation plans on tribal lands for the purposes of regional planning.


Border “s” Framework: Government to Government Framework with Tribal Nations

Over the past fifteen years SANDAG and the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association (SCTCA) – an intertribal council of the tribes in the region- have developed a government-to-government framework to engage in planning dialogue and action at the regional level. On January 26, 2007, the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association (SCTCA) and SANDAG signed a Memorandum of Understanding incorporating the SCTCA as an advisory member on the SANDAG Board of Directors and Policy Advisory Committees. Tribal leaders are now part of the regional decision-making process at a policy level, offering a tribal perspective to complex regional issues.

An overarching element of the government-to-government framework is having periodic summits between the leadership of the two principal intergovernmental agencies—SCTCA and SANDAG. A summit offers an opportunity for tribal and local elected officials from the region to engage in a diplomatic dialogue, identify issues of mutual concern, and develop priority actions that can be carried out through the partnership framework.

The government-to-government framework provides a technical mechanism for pursuing collaborative action. Based on a recommendation made at the 2006 Tribal Summit, SANDAG facilitates an Interagency Technical Working Group on Tribal Transportation Issues as a forum for tribal governments to discuss and coordinate transportation issues with planning agencies, including SANDAG, Caltrans, the County of San Diego, the Metropolitan Transit System, and the North County Transit District. This working group and the SCTCA review activities and plans being implemented by SANDAG and the tribal governments to address issues of concern and ensure the needs of tribal governments are incorporated into the transportation planning process at the regional level.

The success of this tribal model within a borders framework has demonstrated that, when working collaboratively, public agencies and tribal governments can create a mechanism for timely, meaningful, and effective involvement of tribal governments in the regional and transportation planning process. SANDAG and tribal governments are continuing to develop a cross-border relationship and pursue better outcomes in the future.


Editor’s Note: Come learn more about the region’s tribal planning issues at the Cal APA Conference in San Diego this October! Jane will be attending and speaking at the conference. This is a great opportunity to learn about collaborative efforts underway in our region.



[1] Riverside County has the second highest concentration in the United States with 16 tribes.

[2]The original inhabitants of the still-federally-recognized Capitan Grande reservation established in the 1890s were moved to two different ranches in 1932 when the City of San Diego, by act of the United States Congress, acquired more than 7,000 acres of land inside that reservation territory to build the El Capitan Reservoir. Capitan Grande is currently uninhabited and is jointly managed by the Barona and Viejas tribal governments.