CEO Special: San Manuel Band of Mission Indians' Tribal Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena - acting on one's belief

September 19, 2023

Stephanie Feeley spoke to Lynn Valbuena about why the Tribe chose gaming and how it has completely changed the lives of people on the reservation and beyond.

Lynn Valbuena was elected as Tribal Chairwoman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in early 2022, but she has held various elected leadership positions within her Tribe’s government for nearly 50 years. During a video call with Gaming America, the Chairwoman also held two mounted photographs, which hang in her office, and serve as a daily reminder of how far the San Manuel reservation has come since she was a child.

The Chairwoman began the call, and the story of her career, by saying that she grew up on the reservation and saw what it was like firsthand, “all those years ago.” The San Manuel Tribe has experienced countless milestones since Valbuena’s childhood, and the Chairwoman smiled as she shared,  “After nearly 50 years of serving my Tribe, I still have a passion for what I do. It just really makes me happy; it’s so amazing what we’ve done.”

Growing up with her mother, father, grandmother and other members of her extended family, the Chairwoman recalled the humble beginnings of the San Manuel Tribe’s reservation. The San Manuel Band is now known throughout its native California, and worldwide, for its generosity, responsible business practices and flagship property, Yaamava’ Resort and Casino.


From the orange groves

Before the arrival of European settlers, the Serrano Indians’ ancestral lands encompassed 7 million acres of Southern California. During raids perpetrated against the indigenous people, Santos Manuel, the Tribe's great-great-grandfather and leader of the Yuhaaviatam Clan, escaped with a small populace of his people to the San Bernadino foothills. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians honors this leader with its present-day name, and was recognized by the US Government as a sovereign nation in 1891. However, after failed federal initiatives and times of struggle, Tribes were finally given more capacity to self-govern in 1934 due to the Indian Reorganization Act. During Chairwoman Valbuena’s lifetime, the San Manuel Tribe adopted its articles of association in 1966, and saw the passage of both the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975 and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. The first step which put the Tribe on a greater path toward economic development and self-sufficiency, however, was the opening of the San Manuel Indian Bingo Hall in 1986.

But Before the Chairwoman became involved with her Tribe’s foray into gaming, she graduated from the local high school and then received an Associate’s degree from Skadron Business College, which initially led to her being hired by the San Bernadino Indian Center at 20 years old. The Chairwoman said, “That’s where I started to learn more about the Tribes in the area, and in other states, so that caught my interest.” Two years after working there as a secretary, Valbuena was hired by San Bernardino Police Department, where over a 17-year career, she was a stenographer for a few years before being promoted to a police officer assistant, “one step under a sworn police officer.” She served her community by working with the detective bureau that handled missing children and adults, assisting with vice narcotics and working as a court officer. The Chairwoman says her time as Public Information Officer helped her to build skills in public speaking and building relationships – two important aspects of her role today.

When the bingo hall opened in 1986, Valbuena got more involved with her Tribe, learning the business. She said, “I would take my bingo uniform to the police department, and after I worked my job from 8:00 to 5:00; I would come up here to San Manuel and work at the bingo hall from 6:00 to midnight and just learn the position.” When asked why the Chairwoman worked so tirelessly to study the aspects of the burgeoning bingo industry, she said, “I saw the need of our Tribal participation so that we could run the business ourselves and get other Tribal citizens involved with our developments and our business.” During this time, the Chairwoman was also the first Tribal citizen at San Manuel to be appointed as San Manuel housing commissioner. Both the reservation and the bingo hall were much smaller then. She added, “We only had maybe five or six government homes that we called ‘crackerjack box homes’ because they were only about 500 square feet.” The bingo hall had 200 employees at its start; there are almost 8,000 employees at San Manuel now. The Chairwoman nodded as she said, “Almost 40 years now since we’ve had gaming. What we’ve done with community development, self-reliance, sustainability and where we are today: I’ve seen the change, and it’s all for the good.”

That change took the San Manuel reservation from poverty to the eventual luxury of the Yaamava’ Resort. Valbuena recalled the childhood ritual of standing in the orange groves, waiting for the welfare and commodity trucks to come. That same area is now full of the homes that surround San Manuel and Yaamava’. The Chairwoman said, “We had no milk and put our bowl of cornflakes under a water faucet outside. I remember my mom and grandmother would go and clean homes in the area. There were times they’d take me with them, and I’d always say, ‘Gosh, these people are rich! They have a swimming pool and everything!' Then we came back to the reservation, and we had the chicken coop here and the outhouses there.” The Tribe was able to expand its gaming efforts, due to Proposition 5 in 1998 and Proposition 1A in 2000. California voters passed the initiative to amend the state constitution, giving Tribes the exclusive right to operate casino-style gaming on Indian lands. The Chairwoman said this time was crucial, but a lot of work for the Tribe, with its representatives often away from home as they traveled up and down the state to speak to non-Tribal organizations and the public on why the Tribes needed their votes. The voters of California passed Proposition 1A by 65%. This paved the way for a new era with San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in 2005. Now known as Yaamava’ Resort and Casino, a $600m upgrade and rebrand expanded the property in 2021 to over 7,200 slot machines, hundreds of table games, numerous dining options, a theatre, health center, spa and, of course, a swimming pool.

“A nation within a nation”

The Chairwoman introduced to Gaming America the overarching concept of ‘yawa,’ a word which in the Serrano language means, ‘acting on one’s belief.’ Valbuena’s strong belief in the work she does, and the amount her Tribal organization is able to give, is evident in everything that she says. She acknowledged the collaboration necessary between herself and the other six elected officials on the Tribal council, adding, “We all have to do this collectively with our staff. We always tell our employees that without them, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today.” The San Manuel Tribe has worked hard to leave federal housing grants behind, provide health insurance, have a wellness center with doctors on the reservation, and create mentorship and other programs for its people. Classes in the Serrano language are offered for Tribal citizens of all ages. Resources are available through providers both within the reservation, and through external groups that come and work with the Tribe, to develop community and family programs.

The Chairwoman remarked that as part of her role she continues to educate others about Tribal sovereignty and culture, because “most people still don’t understand.” This involves visits to non-gaming organizations, the public and local government officials. Valbuena said, “There are about 574 federally recognized Tribes in the nation and 229 native villages in Alaska. I’ve been asked, ‘So do all the Tribes in the nation speak the same language, like Spanish?’ And I say, ‘No, we all have our own languages. We all have our own culture.’” She said that often the “easiest way to explain” what it means to be a member of Tribal government, is by comparing the role to other legislative or leadership positions. For Valbuena, being a Tribal Chair is akin to being the mayor of a city, being the governor of a state, or even being the President of the United States. She said of her Tribal leadership duties, “We’re responsible for preserving our inherent sovereignty, enacting laws and policies within our governmental jurisdiction, and serving and looking out for the best interests of our constituents. I always say, we’re a nation within a nation.”

Valbuena also serves as the Chairwoman of the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations (TASIN), and has held this role for 28 years. As part of this Alliance, the Chairwoman has worked toward achieving greater unity among all Tribes, but is particularly aware of the gravitas her own state of California has, and the harmony necessary to influence state legislature. Of the 568 Tribes in the United States, 110 reside in California – this is a higher Tribal population than in any other state. TASIN holds regular meetings once a month with 13 Tribes in three counties throughout the central district of California. While uniting the Tribes can be challenging at times, the Chairwoman affirmed the effect it can have. “We always say it makes such a great impact when the state legislature or the leadership in the state sees the Tribes walking in to either support or oppose an issue or be at a hearing. Just having a presence really makes an impact with the state leadership so that they understand our issues when it comes to preservation of culture and sovereignty.”

The San Manuel Tribe itself also continues to build relationships with local government, elected leaders and their citizens. The Chairwoman said meet-and-greets are held with officials who are elected in communities near San Manuel to, “sit and talk with them about sovereignty and what it does – about our programs and how we’ve become self-reliant and self-sustainable.” Other Tribal committees and boards exist to regulate the reservation with its own courthouse, including a judge and an appellate court. “What really makes me happy is that on these boards, we have our own Tribal members, our own Tribal citizens, that participate and oversee a lot of the developments we do here at San Manuel.” The Tribe has benefitted from an expanded network within the reservation as well as externally in the greater San Bernadino area. Valbuena said, “We have so many different departments now; it’s really amazing to me. It really hits home, knowing how we started back in the day. Building those relationships through the community means being able to pick up the phone and call the Mayor of San Bernardino, or call a county board supervisor, and hear, ‘Oh hey, it’s San Manuel, yes put them through!’ because of that relationship.”


Being good neighbors

Many people still ask Valbuena why the San Manuel Tribe got into gaming. The answer is clear. The negotiations made, the votes received and the referendum passed, which all led to the gaming compact with the State of California, also led to the goal of self-reliance for the Tribe. The growth that San Manuel has seen, not only within the Tribe’s own gaming operations, but in overall nationwide Tribal government gaming, has been exponential. From the 1980s, the Tribe was able to offer entertainment in the form of bingo and Class II gaming devices like “video pull tab machines,” but could not offer the patrons of its bingo hall any further games, such as slot machines or table games. The ability to diversify into Class III, or casino-style, games furthered the literal expansion of the San Manuel Indian Bingo Hall into its current 17-story Yaamava’ resort.

The growth of Tribal gaming and its importance to the Chairwoman was also dutifully presented during our call with figures she and her team had gathered, in order to give a full and accurate picture of its impact. Valbuena said, “There’s 48 states that have authorized some level of gaming since the 1970’s – including commercial gaming, lotteries run by state governments, sports wagering and online gambling in some states – not just Tribal government gaming. Tribal gaming alone in the US is a $40.9bn industry (as per the National Indian Gaming Commission’s full-year 2022 figures), now in 28 states. It’s growing rapidly.” The Chairwoman also touched on non-Tribal gaming organizations, saying that the growth of commercial gaming has also been part of the overall industry’s presence in the US.

“We always stress that, with Tribal government gaming, we do it for a reason and a purpose: to give back to our community and to others where we can. That’s the difference between Tribal government gaming and corporations, in our view. They don’t have the programs where funds are going directly to philanthropy, tuition, education, healthcare, insurance or other issues that may come up in their community.” Apart from the fact that other gaming ventures are run for a profit, the Chairwoman adds there is also a “big difference” in how non-Tribal gaming is regulated. She added, “Tribal gaming allowed the Tribes to build roads, build hospitals and develop schools and services for their Tribal members.”

When asked what Valbuena envisions next for the Tribe and its properties, she said diversification will continue to be a priority. “We have to secure diverse and reliable revenue sources for the long term so that we can stay self-sufficient and self-sustainable, and do what we can to help our people and others in the community.” This includes developing a 12-acre parcel of land that had sat dormant for years. The Chairwoman explained, “I remember as a kid when we’d drive by, it was raw land with big boulders and rocks. Eventually the Tribe purchased it and developed the site initially with a Hampton Inn as anchor. We did some renovations and ended the relationship with Hampton Inn in favor of our own branded hospitality property called Bear Springs Hotel.” The development called San Manuel Village also includes a conference and events center, an urgent care facility, two restaurants, and an office building, which houses some of the Tribe’s own staff, as our workforce has grown beyond the reservation.”

The Chairwoman was also proud to report that about 90-95% of employees who work within the Tribe’s properties are from local communities, which has helped to create and strengthen more relationships when it comes to other necessary aspects of business, such as purchasing goods and finding vendors in the area. The expanded entertainment venue at Yaamava’ holds almost 3,000 people and has created around 1,000 more jobs. “We had a large room that we used to have for bingo and put our entertainers in there; but now we have top name entertainers like Lionel Richie and Janet Jackson.” The diversifications into aspects other than gaming have given the Tribe a plan for its own future, as much as they’ve added to the local landscape. San Manuel has earned its self-reliance and plans to make sure its future as a business, and within its local community, is just as strong. “We’re always long-term financial planning.”

The relationship with the community that literally surrounds Yaamava’ includes the distribution of around 3,000 bi-monthly newsletters. The Tribe also includes a timeline of San Manuel Tribal history with every issue of the Tribal magazine, Hamiinat, the title of which is the Serrano word for “hello.” The Chairwoman hospitably remarked, “When you come visit us sometime, you’ll see we are so different from other reservations as far as location. We’re right in the middle of a residential area; the walls of our casino and parking structures abut the backyards of Highland and San Bernadino.” Over the years, trust and relationships had to be built, and the locals are “very appreciative” of the work the Tribe has carried out. San Manuel has also added stoplights, paid for crossing guards and put in crosswalks for the areas of their property in close proximity to schools. “We as a Tribe do what we can to be good neighbors,” said the Chairwoman. “We’re really, really happy that we have good relationships with our community.”


“Remembering where they came from”

Part of San Manuel’s relationships with local organizations include its philanthropy program and an annual event called Forging Hope. The Tribe recognizes five or six local organizations and honors them with a grant. “We have these big, blown-up checks; we call them on stage, and we say, ‘this is for you and for what you do in the community.’” The Tribe has been giving to nonprofits for over three decades and in the past 20 years has given out $350m to organizations, both locally and affected by natural disasters. San Manuel has helped other US Tribes, but also extends its aid to other countries in need. The Chairwoman said, “We do a lot for our sister Tribes, but also in the Philippines, Japan and Haiti as well.” San Manuel will also assist Tribes in California without their own gaming operations. The Global Gaming Awards has honored San Manuel with the Responsible Business of the Year Award recently in both 2021 and 2022. When the Chairwoman took the stage to receive the Award last year, this was also a team effort, as she gracefully accepted while joined on stage by other members of San Manuel, which was followed by a memorable speech from the Chairwoman.

She said, “Things have changed over the years, and I personally – and others too – we don’t take it for granted. We’re very fortunate, and we’re very happy that Tribal government gaming brought us to this level. Now we can get back to those that really need the assistance as well.” Words of wisdom that have helped the Chairwoman in her career come from a predecessor who brought water and electricity to the reservation in the 1950s. Valbuena said the two phrases that her mother and grandmother always told her growing up, which still help her immensely to this day, are: “never forget who you are or where you came from,” and, “treat people like you would want them to treat you: with respect.” Holding the photos of the reservation from when she was a child, Valbuena added, “I was five years old, standing here on a dirt road, now where the casino is, and the parking structure. That original wall is still there. We have green hedge now right above it that says San Manuel.”

The Chairwoman’s own words of wisdom for anyone else in a position of leadership, or for whomever may indeed lead the San Manuel Tribe after her one day, come down to having self-confidence, not being afraid to speak up and having support at home. “We always say that our positions as elected leaders are 24/7.” A perfect example, Valbuena said, was years ago when her staff informed her on a weekday afternoon of an important hearing coming up in Sacramento. She was told, “You don’t need to testify, but if they see San Manuel – if they see leaders from the Tribe – it would be great.” Valbuena was told she’d need to pack a bag and leave that night to be there in the morning. She did. She’s also missed birthdays and family anniversaries, all for the cause. “The dedication comes with leadership, and with the job, but also looking at it as: ‘What an opportunity!’” While the Chairwoman knows she can’t be at every conference, event or meeting, she wants to be.

The drive that Valbuena has within her current role may come partially from a historic and Tribal perseverance, but the Chairwoman’s own desire to help her community has truly transformed it. She humbly smiled as she said, “If you don’t have the passion, it’s not going to happen.”


Sep/Oct 2023

It is that time of the year again! October; NFL season; fall. But for gaming specifically, that means the Global Gaming Awards, G2E Las Vegas and our Gaming America CEO Special. It is our great honor to interview some of...