Lucrative California Gambling Pits Indian Tribe Against Tribe
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.