Feds OK Enterprise Rancheria’s plans near Marysville

Oroville’s Enterprise Rancheria gets preliminary go-ahead to build off tribal land

The members of Oroville’s Enterprise Rancheria—the Estom Yumeka Maidu—have been working on a casino project for more than a decade. On Friday (Sept. 2), they won a major victory that brings them several steps closer to their goal, which, if realized, will pump millions of dollars into the local economy—of Yuba County.

The location of the Enterprise project, near Marysville’s Sleeptrain Amphitheatre, has been a hot topic of debate. Some argue that since the rancheria’s headquarters are in Oroville, it should build a casino there. By snatching up land elsewhere, in a completely different county, critics charge, it’s setting a dangerous precedent for future gaming projects. But the tribe disagrees, and a recent decision by the federal government backs it up.

“As Native Americans, we are divided by rivers, not county lines. We were up and down the Feather River,” explained Glenda Nelson, tribal chairwoman. “We’re the Estom Yumeka, which means Middle Ridge Maidu. We lived along the middle fork of the Feather River. After 1850, when they drew county lines, those were different from the lines we have from rivers. Indian people were moved all over the place—our aboriginal land does encompass two counties.”

That argument was brought before the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in the form of an application submitted in 2002. The Estom Yumeka requested that the federal government take 40 acres of land in Yuba County into trust for the tribe. That land could then be developed into a gaming facility—including 1,700 slot machines and an eight-story hotel—to bring jobs and revenue to the tribe and the community.

On Friday, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk approved the Enterprise Rancheria’s proposal, as well as a similar one made by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to be located near Fresno.

“Following a careful and thorough review … I have determined that both tribes’ applications meet the strong standards under the law,” Echo Hawk said in a release. “Both tribes have historical connections to the proposed gaming sites, and both proposals have strong support from the local community, which are important factors in our review.”

Indeed, Yuba County and the city of Marysville have long been supportive of the casino project, and now that unemployment is at a record high in the Central Valley, that support seems to have been reinvigorated.

“What this really means is, this is an opportunity for jobs, for our tribal members and Yuba County residents,” said Charles Banks-Altekruse, spokesman for the Estom Yumeka. “By allowing people to work, we can better the lives of all the people in our area.”

While the Department of the Interior’s recent decision is a coup for tribal members and the Yuba County and Marysville communities, opponents wonder what precedent it will set for future gaming projects.

“The decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior is disappointing because it helps validate a horribly flawed policy that allows tribes to build casinos away from their aboriginal territory simply for economic gain,” said Doug Elmets, spokesman for several California tribes with existing casinos. “Tribes throughout California that have casinos have played by the rules and have located their projects on their aboriginal territory.”

Elmets, who is familiar with the Mechoopda tribe’s unsuccessful bid to build a casino near Butte College, sees Estom Yumeka’s decision to build in Yuba County—and not near home, in Butte County—as a shame.

“It’s an unfortunate twist of fate for a tribe who has aboriginal land in Butte County and wants to create jobs for the region and economic prosperity for the tribe,” he said.

The Mechoopda actually faced a similar challenge to that of the Estom Yumeka in that their tribal land was taken from them by the federal government. The Mechoopda’s former land is now part of Chico State, while the town of Enterprise—from which the Enterprise Rancheria gets its name—and the location of 40 acres of land once owned by the Estom Yumeka tribe now lies beneath Lake Oroville. The Estom Yumeka do still own 40 acres near Oroville, in unincorporated Butte County.

The Mechoopda’s biggest hurdle was not proving that the tribe had ties to land near Butte College, where it wants to build a casino, but gaining local support. The Butte County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in 2006 to sue to block the tribe’s ability to build there. Last July, a federal appeals court reversed a previous decision and sided with the county.

Despite all the negative claims against the Estom Yumeka’s decision to pursue a project outside of Butte County, the tribe remains optimistic and excited for the future.

“The idea that this is an easy process or one that can be manipulated, as evidenced by 11 years in the making, is not true,” said Banks-Altekruze. “Had we located in Butte County, there would be more competition and disruption up there [because of the existing casinos].”

The Enterprise Rancheria is now awaiting a decision by Gov. Jerry Brown, who must concur with the DOI for the project to move forward. Banks-Altekruze estimates the project will create almost 4,500 jobs—about half during the construction phase and half after opening for business. In addition, he said it would pump about $200 million a year into the local economy.

“The impact of this thing is going to be enormous,” he said. “This project is really not a tribal project—it’s a community project.”