Tribe on top

County’s legal battle over proposed casino shot down in federal court

Dennis Ramirez, council chairman of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, says he hopes the latest court ruling will lead to new discussion with Butte County, not new litigation.

Dennis Ramirez, council chairman of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, says he hopes the latest court ruling will lead to new discussion with Butte County, not new litigation.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

As council chairman for the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria, Dennis Ramirez has spent the better part of a decade defending his identity.

The United States government recognizes the Mechoopda as an indigenous tribal people. The government of Butte County, however, in opposing a proposed development by the Mechoopda (with a casino as its focal point) on 625 acres south of Chico, has contested the tribe’s legitimacy in a series of legal challenges dating back to 2008.

“I think of my mother, my grandmother—my goodness, how can you not say that [the Mechoopda are a Native American tribe]?” Ramirez told the CN&R during an interview Tuesday (July 19) at the tribal community center in Chico. “It just blows my mind how people think. Yeah, I could understand it a hundred years ago, but not today.”

In November 2014, Butte County sued to have the U.S. Department of the Interior reconsider a decision designating the development property as tribal land, asserting that the Interior secretary did not take into account all the available information before accepting the parcel as tribally owned.

In particular, the county has pointed to research by Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham, a historian from Oregon, concluding that the Mechoopda did not descend from a single tribe but rather represent a collection of Native Americans from assorted tribes who assembled in Chico to work for John Bidwell. Beckham filed a report for the county in 2006, then follow-ups in 2010 and 2014 that accompanied county appeals.

Last Friday (July 15), a Washington, D.C., court ruled in the tribe’s favor. Senior District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. found that the federal decision regarding the Mechoopda’s right to the property “was not arbitrary or capricious” and that the Interior secretary “considered all the relevant issues.”

What’s next? That depends on the county. The Board of Supervisors will meet Tuesday morning (July 26) with County Counsel Bruce Alpert in closed session and then announce in open session what action the panel decided to take.

Alpert cited a list of concerns the county has with the Mechoopda’s project. Building a casino on this creekside land along Highway 149 (a mile east of Highway 99) runs contrary to the county general plan, he said, and poses problems related to the environment, traffic and public safety.

Then there’s the contention over the Mechoopda’s legitimacy.

The county apologized for a 2006 letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in which former Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh wrote that the tribe “manufactured its history of membership” and “manufactured a historic land occupancy.”

Yet, in a phone interview from his office this week (July 19), Alpert said the legitimacy matter is not a legal strategy—“it’s a reality. I know they take great offense to that, but it’s a reality.”

Beckham, whom Alpert calls “a world-renowned ethnohistorian” who’s an expert on Native Americans in this part of the country, reviewed all documents available locally and, Alpert added, “discovered documents that the tribe did not bring forward” while conducting his research. Thus, Alpert does not consider Beckham’s determination against tribal history to be supposition.

Asked if the relationship between the county and the Mechoopda has become antagonistic as opposed to just adversarial, Alpert simply responded: “I think it’s the county acting in a manner that protects its citizenry as a whole.”

Ramirez says the relationship devolved into antagonism, but hopes the sides can reconvene discussions instead of meeting again in court.

He declined to say how much the proceedings have cost the tribe, however, the drain has forced the Mechoopda to scale back plans from what would have been “an elaborate casino resort” to a smaller-scale facility.

Disputing the Mechoopda’s standing “is a sensitive hit,” Ramirez said, “but we’ve moved past it. We’re looking at economic development. We’re looking at childcare. We’re looking at health care, at housing, something to take care of our elders, put people to work.

“If we stick with that sensitive issue, we’re not going to move forward.”