Published: August 4, 2012
OROVILLE, Calif. — A pitted gravel road snakes through the forest to the Enterprise Rancheria of the Maidu Indians’ sole piece of tribal land about 15 miles east of here in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Broken trailers and a hot tub rejiggered to irrigate a garden sit in a clearing, the few acres of flat land where a handful of people live in houses in disrepair.
With little accessible space on its 40-acre territory, the 800-member tribe used government grants last year to buy a nearby trailer park that is now home to a dozen families. About half live in old trailers that were used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house those displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
To pull itself out of poverty, the tribe applied in 2002 to build an off-reservation casino at a spot with more economic potential, near towns and highways about 35 miles south of here. After the federal government gave its approval last year, the final decision now rests with Gov. Jerry Brown, who is expected to decide on the fate of the Enterprise casino and another tribe’s off-reservation proposal by an Aug. 31 deadline.
But plans for the two casinos are drawing fierce opposition and last-minute lobbying in the state capital from an unexpected source: nearby tribes with casinos that they say will be hurt by the newcomers. Leading the fight against Enterprise is the United Auburn Indian Community, whose casino, Thunder Valley, has become one of America’s most profitable and has brought the formerly destitute tribe unimaginable riches.
“It’s really sad right now in Indian country with the divide between the haves and have-nots,” said Cindy Smith, the secretary of Enterprise’s tribal council. “It’s just a struggle to get on equal footing. And even when you’re on equal footing, you’re really not, because we’re almost two decades behind.”
Since Indian gambling was legalized in the United States in 1988, only five tribes have gotten final clearance to build casinos off their reservations. The intense campaign against Enterprise and the other applicant, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, comes as the gambling market has grown crowded, especially here in California.
Opposing tribes accuse the newcomers of encroaching on areas to which they have no historical ties. “We have other tribes out there doing what we call reservation shopping,” said Brenda Adams, the treasurer of United Auburn. “We played by the rules. We had to stay on our historical lands. They call it equal footing, but is it? We’d like to have a casino in downtown San Francisco, but that’s not our territory.”
The issue has raised larger issues in Indian communities across the nation about the goals of gambling. A decade ago, tribes were united in their efforts to further Indian gambling, which was supposed to give them the means to become self-sufficient, said Steven Light, co-director of the University of North Dakota’s Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy. But he said that talk of “fairness and justice” has given way in an increasingly competitive market.
A short drive from Sacramento — and about 30 miles from Enterprise’s planned site — Thunder Valley has a 2,700-machine casino, a 300-room hotel, an amphitheater and a golf course. Helicopters fly in high rollers from San Francisco. With 80 percent of its revenues coming directly from gambling, Thunder Valley is so profitable that it has transformed the lives of its owners, the 400-member United Auburn tribe, most of whom received welfare benefits until the casino opened in 2003, said Ms. Adams, 40.
The tribal council has provided housing for members, built group homes for troubled children and connected residential areas to water and sewer systems. All members receive free health care and dental benefits. Children making the honor roll receive hundreds of dollars as incentives. Tribal trips were made to France, Italy and Mexico.
The tribe’s 200 adult members each receive a share of the casino’s revenues, a cut that the local news media has reported as $30,000 a month per member but that industry experts estimate is more. Douglas G. Elmets, a spokesman for the tribe and a former White House spokesman during the Reagan administration, said only that members did not need to work for financial reasons, but that many did in tribal affairs.
Another tribe opposing the off-reservation casinos, the 20 members of the Jackson Rancheria of Miwuk Indians, depended on welfare and gathered firewood to make ends meet before gambling, said Rich Hoffman, the casino’s chief executive. Now, the tribe owns real estate in California and Nevada; Goldman Sachs manages the tribe’s portfolio, which is “in the hundreds of millions” of dollars, Mr. Hoffman said.
Still, he was worried that the good times would not last. With the state eager to get a greater share of gambling revenues, Mr. Hoffman said he believed that other forms of non-Indian gambling, particularly online operations, could become legal. “I don’t think the tribes 20 years from now will still have an oligopoly on gaming,” he said.
Another small tribe, the 60-member Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, has used profits from its Cache Creek casino to buy land and diversify into agriculture. The tribe has hired experts to farm 1,300 acres with a dozen crops. Its wine and olive oil, Séka Hills, is sold in San Francisco. Its new multimillion-dollar olive mill, which other olive oil producers in the area have contracted to use, is scheduled to start operating soon.
The tribe, which used to oppose the off-reservation casinos but is now publicly neutral, has felt the need to diversity beyond gambling. “Too many eggs in one basket is probably not a good thing,” said Marshall McKay, the tribal chairman.
Nationally, most tribes, including those with less profitable casinos, remain in poverty, experts say. So opposition, especially from some of the most profitable tribes, rankles the North Fork tribe, one of California’s biggest tribes with 1,900 members. Of the state’s 104 federally recognized tribes, 61 have casinos in what is the nation’s biggest market for Indian gambling.
“They don’t want to see other Indians prosper, I guess,” said Alvin McDonald, 34, one of a handful of people living on the tribe’s 80-acre tract on the edge of the Sierra National Forest about 200 miles southeast of here.
The tribe is waiting for the governor’s decision on its plans to build a casino on a highway about 35 miles away. Its main opponent, the nearby Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, accuses North Fork of being interlopers from the other side of the Sierra Nevada. The two tribes share many links, including intermarriage.
“That’s what makes it more hurtful,” said Elaine Bethel Fink, 65, the chairwoman of North Fork’s tribal council.
Here in Oroville, in the decade that he has fought for a casino, Art Angle, 70, Enterprise’s vice chairman and a retired logger, has lost friends in the opposing tribes — men with whom he had spent a chunk of his life “logging and partying.”
“They don’t look at me in the same way,” he said.
With the final decision only weeks away, Mr. Angle’s worries were turning inward. “I don’t have any money yet,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years. I may become as bad as them.”