Casino inches forward

Mechoopda win in court, county to decide whether to appeal (again)

Dennis Ramirez has been chairman of the Mechoopda Tribal Council since 2007. He hopes to see the day the tribe is able to build a casino.

Dennis Ramirez has been chairman of the Mechoopda Tribal Council since 2007. He hopes to see the day the tribe is able to build a casino.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

For over a decade, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe has been entangled in court over plans to build a casino south of Chico. Its opponent: Butte County. Last week, a federal judge handed down yet another victory for the tribe. Chairman Dennis Ramirez, for one, hopes it’s the last.

“I don’t think they’re going to [appeal] anymore. People are saying enough is enough,” Ramirez said by phone this week. “They’re concerned about alcohol, drugs, people spending their money. We have those concerns as well—we don’t want people to lose their paychecks. We just want to be able to do the right thing and move forward.”

Moving forward for Ramirez means hiring a new gaming company to design and build a facility on a portion of a 645-acre parcel of land near the intersection of Highways 99 and 149. Previous plans have been nixed along with business agreements as litigation tied hands. He hopes to move forward sooner than later.

But County Counsel Bruce Alpert didn’t mince words when asked about the recent court decision, the latest in a string of appeals challenging the tribe’s right to the land in question. The county did win one of them, Alpert noted, but that was overturned. The whole process, he said, felt unfair.

Alpert said the county was not given adequate time to review material presented by the tribe’s expert witness. When it took more than 20 days to submit a rebuttal, the county’s argument was rejected as being too late. “They basically ignored our expert’s rebuttal of their expert’s report,” he said.

To understand the legal issues and arguments, which are mired in emotion because of the historic displacement and treatment of Native Americans by the American government, one must start at the beginning.

In the mid-1900s, the federal government made strides toward disbanding tribes across the United States, an assimilation tactic. So, like many others, the Mechoopda lost their federal recognition and, with it, their land. Much of that land is now part of Chico State or student apartments—with the exception of the small cemetery on West Sacramento Avenue.

In 1992, a federal court found the U.S. government guilty of illegally terminating tribes. So, that same year, the Mechoopda filed for and once again received federal recognition, along with the ability to operate a gaming facility as a way to generate jobs and income for tribal members.

“What it would do is give us self-sufficiency and improve self-determination for tribal members,” Ramirez said.

But where to build? The tribe could not regain the land it lost in 1967. So, as part of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, it requested that the Bureau of Indian Affairs take into trust a 645-acre parcel of land just south of Chico. That land was within the tribe’s sphere, it argued—the buttes there, for instance, are part of its ancestral stories—so it made a case for labeling the parcel “restored lands.”

That was back in 2002. Over the next several years, the tribe worked on developing plans for the casino, which it unveiled in 2006. That’s when Butte County filed a lawsuit challenging the National Indian Gaming Commission’s designation of the parcel in question as “restored lands” for the Mechoopda as well as the BIA’s taking of that land into trust.

“This was not restored land eligible to trust,” Alpert said, in explaining the county’s stance, which has been labeled as a challenge to the tribe’s very existence, as a report prepared for the county examining the Mechoopda’s ancestry deemed it was not a tribe prior to John Bidwell’s arrival.

“It’s emotional when they say things that basically hurt our elders,” Ramirez said. “Back when I first started here, that lawsuit basically said we weren’t Native Americans. That hurt our elders really bad. That’s why we kept fighting. When you get pushed around, you get up and keep pushing forward.”

Alpert took exception to the idea that the county challenged the Mechoopda’s legitimacy. “That is something we did not do per se,” he said. “We could have done a really strong job of that, but because of various decisions ….

“We were challenging their right to trust—not the Mechoopda tribe as a tribe, per se, but their historical right to that land as a tribe,” he continued.

Moving forward, Ramirez hopes to form a partnership with a casino developer to start plans for a new facility. He also wants to work alongside the county to find a solution that benefits everyone. Alpert didn’t sound so sure, though he emphasized that it’s not up to him—he will be bringing the matter before the Board of Supervisors in closed session soon. If they choose to appeal once more, it will go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If we don’t do that or it proved unsuccessful, we would then deal with the state and the tribe on a state compact and agreement for providing services,” Alpert said, adding, “This casino is going to be in the middle of nowhere. It will need lots of services—fire, police, EMS. Those are things to discuss. Also, traffic on 149 will be placed in real jeopardy with thousands of cars driving on essentially a driveway.”

Ramirez said he’s willing to sit down and discuss the county’s concerns.

“Hopefully they’ll invite us to the table and we can work this out together for the whole community,” he said.