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Will A New Casino Threaten A Tribe's Economic Base?

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Ann McGarry/OPB
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Simple white crosses dot the grounds. Brittle yellow grass crunches under foot.

“This is the tribal cemetery,” said Justin Martin a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and their lobbyist. “This is one of the few places we had that were left with after termination.”

From this small plot of land west of Salem, the Grand Ronde have made huge strides in rebuilding their culture after their tribes were terminated by the federal government during the 1950s. Revenue from the Spirit Mountain Casino has allowed the tribe to build itself back up. But the Grand Ronde worry that revenue is now under threat.

The Cowlitz Tribe in southwest Washington wants to build a casino of its own in La Center, just 20 miles north of Portland. If that happens, the Grand Ronde say their casino — some 65 miles southwest of Portland — would be hurt economically because the Cowlitz’s casino would be a more convenient destination for Portland-Vancouver metro area residents.

But that’s not the argument they’re using to oppose the rival tribe’s plans. Instead, they are contending that the Cowlitz should not be allowed to proceed because their proposed casino is outside of the tribe’s historical lands.

“You can’t take history and transport it to someplace else and then call it your own,” said Rob Greene, the attorney for the Grand Ronde. “If they were doing this up along the Cowlitz River we would be completely supportive of that.”

A People Willing To Fight
In 1954, the federal government terminated the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, during a time when the policy towards Indian Country was to assimilate tribal communities into society. In the eyes of the United State’s government, it was as if the tribe no longer existed.

Tribal members worked for years to gain back recognition. In 1983, they got their way. The federal government once again recognized the Grand Ronde and eventually returned about 10,000 acres. That was a fraction of the tribe’s original 65,000-acre reservation, but far more than the two-acre cemetery that constituted the tribe’s entire land holding at the time.

Revenues from the Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Casino have allowed the tribe to shape a government as well as build housing for families and the elderly. There’s police, a tribal court, health care center and a new pow-wow arbor for dances.

The Cowlitz tribe has sought a similar development path in southwest Washington. But the Grand Ronde has been fighting the Cowlitz’s casino in court for years. Late last year, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Cowlitz. The Grand Ronde appealed.

The fight playing out in southwest Washington is not the first time the Grand Ronde have defended what they see as a threat to their economic base.

The tribe also opposed a proposed casino in the Columbia River Gorge backed by the Confederated Tribe of Warm Springs.

That deal ultimately fell through. But Grand Ronde tribal attorney Greene said there are parallels between the casino in the Columbia Gorge and what the Cowlitz is attempting.

“You know where your land is, is where your people are buried. And our people, the Grand Ronde people, are buried here,” he said during an interview on his tribe’s land. “When you look at Cowlitz, the people are buried up along the Cowlitz River in what they call their homelands. That’s where they should be. Not moving, invading somebody else’s land and then trying to call that their own.”

Greene said it’s no different than if the Grand Ronde were to attempt to build a government center in Bend, claiming their people once passed through the area.

This kind of inter-tribal conflict isn’t unique, said Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier, a tribal law expert in the Phoenix office of the law firm Snell & Wilmer. The tensions involve tribes with gaming on long-established reservations on one side, and newer tribes with plans for casinos of their own on the other side.

The Cowlitz got federal recognition in 2002, giving them an advantage over tribes like the Grand Ronde when deciding where to establish a reservation and build a casino.

Divisions like this began after 1988, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed. The law allows tribes to build casinos — and those that are able to do so near major population centers have an obvious advantage.

“In the case of a successful casino: location, location, location is everything,” Staudenmaier said.

In March, the Department of Interior took 152-acres near La Center, Wash. into trust for the Cowlitz. The grassy field is a former dairy farm just off Interstate 5. It’s where the Cowlitz want to have their reservation and build their casino.

Before the federal government would take land into trust, the Cowlitz had to show some historical connection to the property, Staudenmaier said.

“They simply can’t ask to have land designated in the middle of New York City or downtown Los Angeles without there being some sort of connection,” she said.

Cowlitz Disagree
For their part, leaders with the Cowlitz point to last year’s U.S. District Court ruling in support of their position. Now the case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Any ruling could only be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall is confident that the courts will continue to uphold his people’s claim that they — and their proposed casino — belong right where they’ve established their reservation.

“We’re here in our homeland, this is where we belong and I think [the Grand Ronde have] taken the other position,” Iyall said last year during a tour of the proposed casino site near La Center. “I beg to differ with their opinion of where we belong. It’s an unfortunate position and I just say that they’re wrong about that.”

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Radio