Butte County challenges Mechoopda in court

A lawsuit aimed to stop a casino project brings back an argument against the tribe’s legitimacy

In May 2002, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria revealed its plans for a casino to be located near the junction of Highways 99 and 149. Tribe members anticipated a hard road ahead, and they got just that. But no one expected Butte County, which the Mechoopda call home, to hit below the belt.

That’s exactly what happened back in 2006, when the county challenged the tribe’s very existence. Despite the subsequent public announcement that “Butte County does not question the recognition or sovereignty of the Mechoopda Tribe,” the county struck a similar blow earlier this month in a Washington, D.C., courtroom, tribal officials charge.

“The outcome that they wanted obviously was to derail and undermine the legitimacy of the tribe,” said Sandra Knight, vice chairwoman of the Mechoopda Tribal Council. She was one of six council members who flew to D.C. to observe the hour-long trial Feb. 13, the result of a lawsuit filed by the county to halt plans for the casino.

The suit challenges the National Indian Gaming Commission’s designation of a 645-acre parcel along Highway 149 as “restored lands,” as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ taking that land into trust. The latter process has been going on for seven years and is now held up by litigation.

The crux of the matter is that the county opposes the Highway 149 site for a casino, and has for as long as the tribe has considered it. Among the reasons are environmental concerns, lack of water supply and access to services. Also, Caltrans just completed a major renovation of the highway system there, and to build something that would need further work, including a stoplight, is less than ideal.

“There are many reasons why it’s an inappropriate site,” said County Counsel Bruce Alpert, who participated in the trial via telephone.

Each side (the United States, Butte County and the Mechoopda tribe, which lobbied to be part of the trial) had about 20 minutes to speak in front of the judge. While Knight is confident that the U.S. and tribe made a strong case, it still hurts, she said, to hear the county she calls home deny her heritage.

“We all are very aware of who our ancestors are,” Knight said.

According to Alpert, at the Feb. 13 trial, where the county was represented by Dennis Whittlesey, its argument was that, while the county accepts the Department of the Interior’s recognition of the tribe, it challenges the tribe’s ties to the Highway 99/149 site.

“No. 1, we don’t think it’s restored lands that’s eligible to be put in trust,” he said. “Just because they’re now a recognized tribe does not mean that the Mechoopda tribe has a historical significance or attachment to that land.”

“This whole area was our land,” Knight countered. “These are our aboriginal lands. To say that we weren’t anything until pioneer John Bidwell came to this area is just incorrect.”

Knight explained that the site chosen for the casino is less than a mile from the buttes near Butte College, which are in the Mechoopda’s ancestral stories. That’s one reason the tribe chose that area. In addition, when the federal government terminated the tribe’s status in 1967 (the decision was deemed unlawful and overturned in the 1990s), they lost much of their original land to developers and the university.

Alpert took offense to allegations that the county has challenged the Mechoopda’s legitimacy.

“That’s an unfounded accusation. That has never been true,” he said.

The argument goes back to a report commissioned by the county three years ago from Dr. Stephen Beckham of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. In it, he explained that the Mechoopda were not in fact a tribe that was present in the area before John Bidwell. Rather, Indians from many different tribes gathered at the Chico Rancheria, on Bidwell’s ranch, where they met and intermarried, thus forming the Mechoopda tribe.

Former Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh wrote in his now-infamous letter to the BIA in August 2006, “In short, just as the Tribe has manufactured its history of membership, it correspondingly has manufactured a historic land occupancy which might have existed had the membership been as claimed but which did not exist in fact.”

The county has apologized for that comment. One reason the Beckham report was referenced at trial was because the judge asked about it, Alpert said.

Knight said her understanding of the judge’s question was that he wanted to know that the procedures had been correct and it had been read and taken into consideration, but that he didn’t necessarily want to know the content of the report. When asked if the county specifically made comments about the tribe’s legitimacy rather than solely its right to the land, she explained, “Whittlesey said that tribal members were only laborers and homeless Indians. That was the county’s argument that the tribe didn’t have any ties to that land.”

The final decision will be up to the judge, who must render it within the next 45 days. Then the losing party will have 60 days to appeal.

“The Mechoopda people have done a lot of great things. Nobody wants to do something like this [bring the matter to court],” said Butte County Supervisor Steve Lambert, whose district includes the site in question. “It’s not a personal thing at all, though they may not see it that way.”

Lambert said he couldn’t comment on the county’s arguments during the trial as he was not present—he and Alpert had planned to fly to Washington but decided it was too costly.

“We know who we are,” said Knight, her voice tinged with sadness, but not anger. “To have someone challenge that or question that, it’s hard not to take that personally.”