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

Aug 21, 2015

The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde have made huge strides in rebuilding their culture after it was dissolved by the federal government during the 1950s. Revenue from their Spirit Mountain Casino west of Salem has allowed the tribe to build itself back up. But, the Grand Ronde worry that revenue is now under threat.

Casino revenues have helped the Grand Ronde rebuild on their reservation in Grand Ronde, Ore. A new pow-wow arbor is set to be complete in July 2015.
Credit Ann McGarry / OPB

Simple white crosses dot the grounds. The brittle yellow grass crunches under foot.

“This is the tribal cemetery … This is one of the few places we had that were left with after termination.”

Justin Martin is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who also lobbies on their behalf. He and other tribal members are worried about that future.

The Cowlitz Tribe in southwest Washington wants to build a casino of its own in La Center --- just 20 miles north of Portland.
If built, the Grand Ronde say their Spirit Mountain Casino, would lose business, since it’s more than an hour’s drive southwest of Portland.

The Grand Ronde argue the Cowlitz shouldn’t be allowed to build their proposed casino because – they say – it’s outside of the Cowlitz historical lands.

Rob Greene is the attorney for the Grand Ronde.

“You can’t take history and transport it to someplace else and then call it your own. And that’s the difference here. If they were doing this up along the Cowlitz River we would be completely supportive of that.”

In 1954, the federal government terminated the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde. It was during a time when the policy towards Indian Country was to assimilate tribal communities into society.

Tribal members worked for years to gain back recognition.

Casino revenues have helped the Grand Ronde rebuild on their reservation in Grand Ronde, Ore. A new pow-wow arbor is set to be complete in July 2015.
Credit Conrad Wilson / OPB

And in 1983, the Grand Ronde got their way, eventually gaining back 10,000 acres of their reservation.

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 a tribal court, a health care center and a new pow-wow arbor for dances that’s just finishing up construction.

Greene says it’s made from trees logged on the tribe’s land.

“So yeah, it’s quite beautiful.”

The Cowlitz tribe has sought a similar development path in southwest Washington. In March, the Department of Interior took 150-acres near La Center, Washington into trust for the Cowlitz.

Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier is a tribal law expert. She’s not involved in the the dispute between the Cowlitz and the Grand Ronde tribes. But she says in order for the Cowlitz to get reservation land they would’ve had to have shown some historical connection to the property.

Land near La Center, Wash. where the Cowlitz Indian Tribe hope to build a casino.
Credit Ann McGarry / OPB

“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 says there are tensions across the country between tribes with gaming on long-established reservations, and newer tribes with plans for casinos of their own.

The Cowlitz got federal recognition in 2002, more than a decade after Congress authorized tribal casinos.

Studenmaier says that gives the Cowlitz the advantage of being able to select their reservation based in part on whether it would be conveniently located for people looking to gamble.

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

Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall disagrees with the Grand Ronde. He points to last year's U.S. District Court ruling in support of his tribe's casino plans.

“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.”

Iyall says the tribe is pursuing design work on the casino, but acknowledges that construction can’t begin until pending litigation is resolved.

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.

Copyright 2015 OPB