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An Oregon tribe’s casino bid sparks furor over what land tribes can rightfully call home

Critics of plan are competing casino tribes in Calif., Ore.

By Hannah Wiley, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 13, 2024, 6:05am
8 Photos
A card dealer at a gaming table in the Northern California Karuk tribe&rsquo;s Rain Rock Casino on Feb. 6 in Yreka, Calif.
A card dealer at a gaming table in the Northern California Karuk tribe’s Rain Rock Casino on Feb. 6 in Yreka, Calif. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/) Photo Gallery

YREKA, Calif. — It was midafternoon at the Rain Rock Casino in this faded Gold Rush town, and Jody Criner had just won $47 on the Dancing Drums slot machine, a respectable return on her $5 investment.

“Cha-ching,” Criner said, her black leather jacket reflecting the neon blues, reds and purples flashing from the slots.

Criner is a Rain Rock regular, often making the 20-mile drive from Big Springs with her girlfriends. She once won $1,200, enough to pay her property taxes for the year, and she dreams of the day she’ll need a wheelbarrow to haul out her cash earnings.

“I don’t mind not winning if I have a blast,” she said. “Which I usually have a blast.”

Rain Rock’s owner, the Karuk Tribe of Siskiyou and Humboldt counties, depends on regulars like Criner to keep the casino afloat. Once the tribe pays off the roughly $70 million in debt it took on to build the Rain Rock, tribal leaders plan to funnel the revenue into improving healthcare, education and housing for its member families.

But the Karuk fear that those ambitions are in jeopardy.

The Coquille, a coastal Oregon tribe, is planning a casino about 50 miles north in Medford, a city of 86,000 in the Rogue Valley. Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery worries a competing casino so close to the border will cut into Rain Rock’s profits, threatening the tribe’s investment goals.

“We would be affected the most with the casino that’s going in there,” Attebery said.

It’s not unusual for casino tribes to fight over territory. But the dispute playing out across state lines over the Coquille’s proposal has introduced new dimensions, raising provocative questions about who gets to determine the reaches of a tribe’s ancestral homeland and the fairness of the federal process for determining where tribes can build casinos.

The federal government seized the Coquille’s land more than 150 years ago, taking more than a million acres. A 1989 compact allowed the tribe to reclaim about 1,000 acres in trust for a reservation and designated a far broader region, crossing five counties, as a “service area” where the tribe could draw on federal funds and other revenue to provide services for members.

The Coquille want to build a casino in Medford, about 165 miles from tribal headquarters along the southwestern Oregon coast in Coos Bay and North Bend. Medford doesn’t fall within the reservation, but tribal leaders claim an ancestral connection to the land and note it does fall in their federally designated service area. Just as crucial, they argue, many of their members live in the Medford area now, creating a vital modern-day connection.

In approving Medford, in Jackson County, as part of the tribe’s service area, the Coquille argue, the U.S. Department of the Interior essentially recognized the tribe’s legitimate claim to the territory.

“It’s about taking care of our people,” said Coquille Chair Brenda Meade. “It’s about us expressing our sovereignty and exercising our sovereignty to make decisions for what’s best for our people.”

The most vocal critics of the Coquille’s plans are competing casino tribes in Northern California and southern Oregon. Federal and state regulations make it difficult to build casinos outside reservations, with limited exceptions. When arguing for an exemption, tribes typically have to show a close ancestral connection to the land.

The Coquille’s opponents are adamant that the tribe has falsified its historical ties to Medford — a three-hour drive from its coastal base — in pursuit of profit.

The Karuk tribe is one of several working to thwart the project. Other opponents include California’s Elk Valley Rancheria in Crescent City and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation in Smith River, and in Oregon, Klamath Tribes in Klamath County and Cow Creek in Roseburg.

They’ve signed on to letters blasting the project as a legally dubious effort that deviates from the regulatory process that tribes have been following for decades.

“This is not a fight that we ever wanted,” said Carla Keene, chair of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, which owns the sprawling Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville, Ore., about 70 miles from Medford. “We’re in opposition because it’s threatening our tribes, our people and the livelihoods of our tribal citizens.”

The Coquille’s wrought saga with the federal government dates to the 1850s, when the tribe agreed to relinquish its ancestral land in exchange for payments and a reservation. According to the tribe, the government took control of 1 million acres — but Congress never signed the agreements.

“We have a long history of broken promises,” Meade said.

About 100 years later, Congress terminated the Coquille’s federal recognition status, a designation that affords a “government-to-government relationship with the United States,” according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with federal funding and services.

It took 35 years for the Coquille to regain federal recognition and reclaim sovereignty.

The Coquille Restoration Act of 1989 designated five counties — Coos, Curry, Jackson, Douglas and Lane — as the tribe’s service area. The agreement allowed the Coquille initially to take up to 1,000 acres of land into trust in two of those counties, Coos and Curry, to establish a reservation.

In the years since federal recognition was restored, Meade said, the Coquille worked to provide for 1,200 members scattered across Oregon and 38 other states. To help fund those efforts, the Coquille opened the Mill Casino in North Bend on the Oregon coast in 1995.

The Coquille also began investing in an overlooked southern corner of Medford, about 170 miles southeast. The tribe rehabbed a nine-hole golf course and opened a Margaritaville-affiliated hotel, where guests are welcomed with a Coquille phrase inscribed on the shiny floors: “Dai’sla,” or “Greetings, friends.”

Sandwiched between the two businesses is a retro bowling alley. This is where the Coquille hope to build the casino, adding another entertainment draw to the revitalized corridor along Interstate 5. Unlike the Mill and Rain Rock casinos, Class III facilities featuring slots and card games such as blackjack, the Coquille’s Medford plan calls for a Class II casino with electronic bingo-style games of chance.

Supporters, including Medford Councilmember Kevin Stine, say the changes are a welcome boon for an area that was largely neglected before the Coquille took interest. In lieu of taxes, the tribe has agreed to pay the city a $60,000 annual fee if the project is approved.

“It’s kind of a depressed area of Medford, and they’ve been able to make that a place people want to go,” Stine said. “In my opinion, allowing them to keep doing their work, getting this land into trust, having a casino, will allow them to keep putting money into our local economy and be an overall benefit to Medford.”

The Coquille first petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012, asking permission to place the land into trust for a gaming facility. The proposal languished eight years before it was rejected. The department, under then-President Trump, wrote a 15-page denial citing opposition from federal, state and local officials and neighboring tribes, and raised questions over the distance between Medford and the Coquille’s “historical territory” along the coast.

The proposal found new life during the Biden administration, which adopted policies to make it easier for tribes to put land into trust.

Even with those changes, taking land into trust is a tortuous process that gets more complicated when gaming is involved, said Katherine Florey, a professor at UC Davis School of Law who specializes in federal Indian law.

Gaming is generally prohibited on non-reservation land taken into trust after the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was approved. An exception exists for tribes, such as the Coquille, that were terminated and later had their federal recognition restored. The exemption process often takes into account a tribe’s ancestral connection to the land, but gives tribes a “pretty narrow path to walk,” Florey said.

“The idea is for tribes to regain what they lost,” Florey said. But when government officials are making decisions involving “historical boundaries and cultural presence, there often aren’t bright lines, so these are often very difficult determinations to make.”

The tribes lobbying against the project say Coquille leaders are claiming illegitimate ancestral ties to Medford as a way of sidestepping the more customary — and arduous — process of getting buy-in from the governor, local officials and other tribes.

“They have no historical connection to the area,” said Attebery, the Karuk chair.

The Karuk tribe is headquartered in Happy Camp, about an hour and a half from Yreka through the Klamath National Forest, and provides services to 3,700 enrolled members and an estimated 4,000 descendants in scattered communities.

Similar to the Coquille, the Karuk went decades without a reservation, even after the U.S. government took ownership of the tribe’s aboriginal hunting and fishing land in a forested swath of the Klamath River Basin.

In 1977, the tribe began reclaiming some of that land, using hard-earned proceeds to purchase hundreds of acres of land that it put into trust.

In 2013, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a casino deal for the Karuk to build a gambling hall on a hill overlooking downtown Yreka, easy for drivers to spot from Interstate 5. The tribe borrowed some $70 million to build a casino, which opened in 2018, and an adjacent 72-room hotel and conference center still under construction.

Behind the casino, dozens of tribal apartments and single-story houses for elders dot a neighborhood with a breathtaking view of the Siskiyou Mountains. Down the street is a Karuk Head Start program and a wellness center where tribal members gather for cultural events. In January, the tribe opened the Karuk Community Medical and Dental Clinics, with six patient rooms and a lab.

For now, the tribe uses grant money — not casino revenue — to fund housing and services, Attebery said. Once its loans are paid off, the tribe plans to funnel casino earnings back into the community.

The median income on Karuk trust lands was $24,167 in 2019, according to tribal planning documents, and more than 400 people are on a wait list for housing. If the Medford project is approved, Attebery estimates it could cut into Rain Rock’s yearly earnings by 25%.

“That would directly affect our ability to provide services for healthcare, education, elder projects, youth projects, cultural activities, all the above,” he said. “But even more than that, the precedent that it will set is a big concern.”

Gabe Galanda, an Indigenous rights attorney in Seattle, serves as outside counsel for the Cow Creek, one of the tribes fighting the Coquille’s bid. He has written about how the rise of gaming capitalism has undermined long-standing bonds of kinship among tribes that helped them avoid total annihilation by settler colonialism centuries ago.

“I don’t begrudge a tribe trying to find new revenue sources,” Galanda said, “but there have to be some guardrails to it, especially inter-tribally.”

Galanda is among those who dismiss the Coquille’s ancestral claims to Medford: “It’s simply false,” he said. “They are manipulating history.”

Coquille tribal leaders have stood their ground, saying the Rogue Valley has long served as a “rendezvous point” for the Coquille and other tribes. Project opponents, they said, are undermining the right of the Coquille — and every tribe — to lay claim to its painful past.

“Indian folks have always been here, because it’s just a natural and good place for us to be,” said Jon Ivy, the Coquille’s member services coordinator and a Medford resident. “This isn’t something that we manufactured so that we could build a hotel or redo a golf course.”

Gregory Ablavsky, a Stanford law professor and expert in federal Indian law, said the agonizing dissension over the Coquille’s expansion plans underscores tribes’ continuing struggle — centuries after white settler colonialism — to rebuild their nations and economic viability.

“Indian gaming is very much a story of winners and losers,” Ablavsky said. “This is a consequence of the fact that there just aren’t that many models for economic development, especially for these native communities that are very far from metro areas.”

Ablavsky also said the sharp disagreements over the boundaries of ancestral homelands should come as no surprise. Mapping territories wasn’t a typical practice among native communities, he said, and tribes were relocated to reservations without much consideration by the federal government of how close they landed to their ancestral territory.

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“It’s not surprising that you have different groups who feel very strongly that they have very strong ancestral connections to particular homelands, and they come into conflict,” Ablavsky said. “Especially when you overlay money on top of that.”

Meade, the Coquille chair, said she will keep pushing for the casino, and would almost welcome a court battle to settle the issue.

“They’re afraid of competition and they fear they’re fighting for scraps. And I just don’t believe that,” she said. While casinos are a good source of income now, Meade said, there will come a day when gaming isn’t an option and tribes will wish they hadn’t spent so much time in battle.

“We know gaming is not forever,” she said. “They better remember, gaming is not forever.”

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