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Controversy Arises Over Oregon Tribe’s Casino Proposal, Prompting Debate on Tribal Land Rights

Tribes ask U.S. interior secretary to deny proposed casino in Medford (Credits: Jefferson Public Radio)

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.

An Oregon tribe’s casino bid sparks furor (Credits: York IE Fuel)

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.

Gambling in Oregon (Credits: KARE 11)

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.

Tribes Clash Over Gambling (Credits: Star-Herald)

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 benefit 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.

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