Game time

Mechoopda tribe bets it can add another casino to North Valley mix

HOMELAND SECURITY? Steve Santos is chairman of the Mechoopda tribe, which plans to build a casino at Highways 99 and 149. Area Native Americans’ land options for building are limited, in part because most of their original tribal lands were taken over by white settlers. The small cemetery along West Sacramento Avenue (shown here), sandwiched among student housing, is part of the Mechoopda heritage.

HOMELAND SECURITY? Steve Santos is chairman of the Mechoopda tribe, which plans to build a casino at Highways 99 and 149. Area Native Americans’ land options for building are limited, in part because most of their original tribal lands were taken over by white settlers. The small cemetery along West Sacramento Avenue (shown here), sandwiched among student housing, is part of the Mechoopda heritage.

Photo by Tom Angel

Rules of the game: The Mechoopda were one of 15 tribes to receive federal recognition since 1978. Of these tribes, only one has a casino. Three-quarters of gaming tribes push casino funds directly into the tribal government. Only one-quarter give per-capita payments to their members. Non-Indians make up 75 percent of the employees working on tribal casinos nationwide.

His black but graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, Mechoopda Tribal Chairman Steve Santos stands in front of the new tribal office on Mission Ranch Boulevard off the North Esplanade in Chico. He gestures toward the community center behind him. “Would you like a tour?”

Inside the sparkling new facility, Santos indicates a row of black-and-white photographs of people wearing expansive headdresses. “This is a photograph of the last round house built on the [Mechoopda] rancheria. My great-grandfather is on the far right.” He doesn’t mention that the rancheria was located in what is now the heart of Chico, on land now occupied largely by student apartments.

He turns the corner and walks down the hallway into a room festooned with neon-yellow posters declaring that storytelling is an “anti-drug.” Smiling broadly, Santos points toward the wall. “The kids made these.” Those kids are part of the Mechoopda youth group. Santos explains that teen-agers use the community center as an alternative to drugs, alcohol and gangs. “They’re involved in developing cultural skills, like storytelling, basket weaving, or just sharing and spending time together,” he says.

But behind this success is the nagging question of funds. The tribe’s community center was built with the aid of a federal grant, but those dollars have been harder to come by in recent years. Across-the-board federal budget cuts have hit Native American programs hard.

Many local programs have been forced to the back burner, such as a plan by the Mechoopda to teach their language from a series of tapes they already have. “We wanted to start a program, but we were unable to get a grant to make that happen,” Santos explains.

The Mechoopda must stretch available funds to provide even basic services to tribal members. “We have a tremendous amount of working poor, and we can’t afford the projects to assist them,” Santos says.

So the tribe is turning to the same revenue source so many other California tribes have tapped, gaming, which in this state only they, as sovereign peoples, are allowed to do as a business. In rural areas all over the state, tribes are building glitzy casinos and discovering that the income provides them with a newfound wealth and political power. The Mechoopda want to get in on the action.

They’ve got a plan and a site picked out. The goal is to build a 250,000-square-foot facility on 645 acres of land off Highway 99 near its intersection with Highway 149, the Oroville cutoff. It’s a rural location far from other development, but it’s also highly visible and, being midway between Chico and Oroville, strategically placed.

The Mechoopda are hardly the first local tribe to go this route. Oroville already has two casinos, there’s a large one in Colusa and another in the Redding area, and a fifth gaming palace will open soon in Corning. All have created jobs and incomes for people long stuck in poverty, but just as important is that they’ve allowed the Indians to continue living in their traditional areas and restore many of their tribal cultural traditions.

That’s been the case for the Mooretown Rancheria, which operates Feather Falls Casino in Oroville, reports its tribal chairman, Gary Archuleta. “We created new programs that allow us to bring back a lot of our culture—classes for the young kids taught by elders,” he says. “The tribe is trying to re-establish its culture.”

Re-establishing their culture is an ambitious goal for the Mechoopda, a tribe that, at least technically, didn’t even exist 10 years ago.

The Mechoopda rancheria was once a 26-acre parcel near the intersection of West Sacramento Avenue and Warner Street. “Our tribe has always occupied that land,” Santos explains. But when the tribe was disbanded in 1967 as part of a federal policy terminating the official status of Indian tribes, it lost most of its original holdings to developers and Chico State University. Now, all that’s left of the original rancheria is a small cemetery.

In 1992, a court decision in the case Scotts Valley v. United States found the government guilty of mismanagement and unlawful termination of the tribes. As a result, the Mechoopda were able to reorganize, and using federal funds they established a tribal government for their 69 members.

But the move toward sovereignty was hollow without land. Getting back what had been taken wasn’t possible, since the stipulations of the Scotts Valley case forbade the Mechoopda from acquiring their original land. So the tribe is looking for new property to be taken into trust. “That’s the purpose of the casino project,” Santos says.

But first the Mechoopda must overcome several obstacles. One is finding the right investment group to buy land and coordinate construction. The Mechoopda have chosen Louisiana-based First Nation Gaming. “What attracted us to First Nation Gaming was that their company was majority owned by a tribe,” Santos said. “It’s a good example of tribes helping other tribes.”

The company has had its ups and downs, however. A successful project on the Campo Indian reservation in Eastern San Diego County was followed by a questionable result with the San Pascual band of Mission Indians north of San Diego. First Nation Gaming was working with the San Pascual to build a $200 million hotel, resort and casino near San Diego, reports the North County Times, a daily newspaper in San Diego. However, federal regulators nixed the project when First Nation was unable to produce documentation about finances and investors for its original application.

Santos insists that the majority of First Nation’s work has been solid. “We reviewed their projects, and we were pleased with those results.”

The next issue was the casino’s location. Because the tribe couldn’t claim its former rancheria, it chose the 645 acres near the intersection of Highway 149 and Highway 99. The land was selected to lessen the casino’s impact on Chico—to keep it away from schools or hospitals, in other words. “[The casino] wasn’t going to be built downtown,” Santos says.

More than that, the site needed to connect the tribe to its long history with the area. “There are former village sites there, and the buttes you can see are part of our cultural stories,” Santos explains. “The land had to mean something to the tribe.”

Picking the land and a partner was the easy part. Indian gaming is heavily regulated at every step, and the government has its hands full. The Department of the Interior is staggering under a court order to shut down every Web site dealing with Indian trust issues, including gaming. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been accused of mismanaging the multibillion-dollar trust fund that provides dollars for proposals like the Mechoopda’s.

In a case of bad timing, the Mechoopda have just filed a draft application with the same burdened agency. As Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, stated in an April letter, “These allegations now raise serious suspicions about the BIA’s decision making process in … granting gaming rights.”

Despite this news, Santos projects the casino project will take only about two years to complete. But will people come to it? Or have the six other casinos in the area already saturated the market?

Santos insists the tribe is making the right decision. “The scope of this facility is based on our market analysis,” he explains. “The tribe doesn’t want to overextend itself. We wouldn’t act unless it was based on good research.”

Furthermore, he says, critics often overlook the immense drawing power that a Chico-area casino could have. “The casino could make this a destination area for those who want to visit,” he said.

There is no question that the casino, if successful, would be an economic windfall for the tribe. “For this particular tribe, our goal is to use gaming as a catalyst for self-sufficiency,” Santos says. This self-sufficiency would lead to a long-range plan for economic revival, “everything from investments in the stock market to other partnerships in other areas,” he said.

Beyond the financial boost a casino might have for the tribal government, tribal members will find a welcoming job market. Santos said the casino will likely hire from the tribe to fill positions. “It is our goal to provide local employment, especially for the people of the tribe,” Santos says.

The casino would also draw heavily on Chico businesses. “Anything that would be needed for a large enterprise would have to be acquired through local business,” Santos says. Feather Falls Casino had such an impact on Oroville. Archuleta said that local vendors had to expand their work force in order to meet the casino’s demands. “It’s like a ripple effect. If we need things, [local businesses] have to supply it,” Archuleta says.

“Our goal is to inform people as we work through the project," Santos says. "That’s why we work with officials, to educate them about what our plans are. This casino is the tribe’s investment in their future, and we’re doing everything in our power to protect that investment."