Native American Gothic
The American Indian has long been known for protecting the land. But farmers in the Capay Valley say the Cache Creek casino expansion could harm the environment and the quality of life in the valley.
A farmer stands before Wintun Indians to talk about an important issue to both—living lightly on the earth. As the white man opens his folded notes, he starts with what he hopes will be most powerful: the words of a Wintun elder.
“When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. … When we build houses we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshopper, we don’t ruin things. … But the white people plow up the land, pull up the trees, kill everything. … The Indians never hurt anything but the white people destroy all.”
Capay Valley farmer Will Baker read an early 20th-century passage on Wintun values, as recorded by cultural anthropologist Cora DuBois. It is directed to a panel representing the Yocha-De-He Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians. As Baker, a retired UC Davis English professor, continues, one stern-faced tribal leader sits motionless; the tribe’s attorney shakes his head slightly and looks into his lap.
“Some of us descendants of the white destroyers know our ancestors were on the wrong path,” says Baker. “We are trying now to find the right way—to farm sustainably and tread lightly on the earth. We hope the tribe will consider joining us, recalling their own great tradition of reverence for nature, so that your descendants and our descendants can say, ‘These Indians, and these white people, never hurt anything.’ ”
Baker hopes the tribe will take his comments to heart before beginning an ambitious project to expand its lucrative business—Cache Creek Casino. He and others in the community think this is a project loaded with environmental impacts and other quality of life effects that could forever change the valley.
Yet to the tribal members, Baker’s comments are a slap in the face—a patronizing appeal to justify the white man’s guilt. The Wintun’s public relations consultant, Doug Elmets, said people like Baker “wrap themselves in the cloak of philosophy” to avoid confronting their own latent racism. Elmets said these farming folks, like so many others, just don’t want Indian business in their backyard.
Baker is one of many Capay Valley community members protesting the Rumsey Band’s plan to transform the casino into a gambling resort, increasing the size of the entire facility by nearly 500 percent. Last month, the tribe released its environmental evaluation (EE) of the plan for a 30-day public comment period. This move, required by a 1999 compact between gaming tribes and the state of California, marks the first time the Rumsey Band has opened its business to public scrutiny. Since then, Yolo County officials and community members have been fighting the expansion in county meetings, letter-writing and media campaigns, petitions and at the tribe’s own public hearing. The plan’s opponents say the expansion is flagrantly out of scale for a small farming community.
In 1988, Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that recognized the sovereign right of tribes to offer gaming as a form of economic development on Indian land. Since then, many of California’s tribes have soared from poverty to mind-boggling wealth. Now, looking to a future of new opportunity, they are eager to make a profit—and then some. The Rumsey Band says the proposed expansion is necessary to keep up with competition from other gaming tribes. What the tribe does on sovereign land is tribal business so long as it doesn’t have a significant impact on the surrounding community. The challenge for all parties, however, is agreeing upon what makes an impact significant. When does Indian business become a community’s?
Many Capay Valley residents think the casino became their business back in 1995, when the tribe erected a towering, white, tent-like addition to the south end of the casino. The tribe did not consult members of the community. For Valley residents, the addition simply appeared. Other residents, whose children attended the tribe’s small private school, Yocha-De-He Preparatory School, decided they’d had enough when the school was moved without notice. A note on the school’s closed door notified students and parents that the school had been moved to a new location next to the casino. That was it. The tribe’s neighbors say events like these are what began to erode the community’s trust in the tribe—trust that the tribe would look out for not only their own, but for all Valley residents and the land they all hold dear.
So when the tribe released its environmental evaluation, the community was ready for a fight.
Farmers Tim Mueller and his wife, Trini Campbell, of Riverdog Farm are among a number of organic farmers who have spearheaded the protests. Since moving to the valley in 1995, the Riverdog farmers have watched the casino’s effects multiply in the valley. Now, they worry the new expansion’s effects could force farmers like them out of the valley.
“It’s like protecting your home,” said Campbell of the life they hope to preserve. Campbell and her husband have spent the last seven years “building up the soil” necessary for organic farming, finally reaching profits in recent years. In 2000, they were able to purchase 60 acres in addition to the land they lease and live on now.
Located just five miles north of the casino, Riverdog is a 120-acre organic farm servicing the Bay Area. While driving through the bumpy dirt roads between his fields of organic crops, Mueller explains that they are committed to making the valley a more beautiful, fertile place. Wearing his long sun-streaked hair under a baseball cap, Mueller looks to be in his mid-30s. His tanned face reveals a few days’ worth of stubble and a handsome smile. His fingernails are packed with soil. As he grips the steering wheel of a truck that is covered—inside and out—in the dust of this fertile land, he points out more than 60 varieties of tomatoes while talking about life on an organic farm.
Mueller’s days usually begin before 6 a.m., checking the crops, the weather, the soil, relaying the day’s plans to his employees and taking orders for deliveries. By noon, he’s grabbing a quick bite to eat before spending the afternoon fixing broken equipment, getting updates in Spanish from his employees, checking on the greenhouse and seeding new crops. After dark, he tries to steal a couple of hours with Campbell and 6-year-old daughter, Cassidy, where they’ll read the latest Harry Potter together. Once or twice a week, he’ll then get on the road to make deliveries, not arriving home until 3 a.m. The next day, he’s up again by 6 a.m.—seven days a week. It’s a hard life, but worth every minute, he says.
“You don’t farm to make money,” he says. “You do it because you love it.”
Although the tribe’s consultants have accused their opponents of being “gentlemen farmers,” the family’s home is a modest three-bedroom house surrounded by wild kittens, scattered toys and fields of lavender. Sitting at a weathered picnic table in their front yard, Campbell and Mueller talk about their biggest concerns related to the expansion.
Campbell, a trim woman with cropped black hair and striking green eyes, thinks the tribe’s plan would tax the small valley’s resources. Encompassing the small towns of Esparto, Rumsey, Guinda, Brooks, Capay and Madison, the valley is only 20 miles long and ranges from a half to three miles wide.
The Wintun’s expansion plans stand in sharp contrast to the scale of the valley. The tribe’s goal is to expand the casino from 113,000 square feet to 313,000 square feet. In addition, the tribe also wants to construct a six-story, 300-room hotel; a 7,500-square-foot pool and spa; a five-story, 2,500-space garage; and a diesel power plant. The tribe’s EE estimates these changes will bring a 65 percent increase in visitors, from 5,000 a day to 8,200. Opponents contend that at least a 300 percent increase is much more realistic. That would mean 15,000 visitors a day, traveling the two-lane Highway 16 into this valley of 4,000 residents.
Opponents who have reviewed the EE say the evaluation’s analysis of the project’s impacts is, at best, unrealistic and, at worst, deceitful and negligent. For example, the EE uses a rainy Thursday night in December as a benchmark for traffic figures. The architectural rendition of the expansion is also misleading, as it is not drawn to scale. The drawing shows the hillside towering above the hotel, but in reality the hills would be only slightly higher than the hotel roof. Given discrepancies like these and many unanswered questions, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors sent a 19-page letter to the tribe that details the county’s concerns.
According to the 1999 tribal-state gaming compact, the tribe is required to take into account any potential public impacts stemming from reservation development. The ordinance also calls for the tribe to make a “good faith effort” to incorporate the policies and intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). However, according to the board’s letter, the EE is dramatically inadequate in conforming to these requirements.
In outlining the EE’s deficiencies, the letter from the supervisors cites a long list of anticipated problems, including:
• light and sound pollution
• water depletion and contamination
• a structure disproportionate to the valley that would be nearly as tall as the hillside
• air pollution from a diesel generator and dangers associated with constant transportation of that fuel
• threatened cultural resources
• potentially adverse impacts on federal and state endangered species in the area.
In addition, the board is seeking resolution for current and possible future violations of a 1995 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the tribe and Yolo County. In the MOU, the tribe was granted 83 acres of federal trust land under the condition that it not be used for purposes related to an expansion. Despite this, the EE proposes to use a large portion of that land as a permanent spray and leach field for treated wastewater from the casino. Already in recent months, the tribe has used the acreage to temporarily spray treated sewage effluent onto the land. Adding fuel to the fire, the treated water has leaked onto neighboring properties and tested positive for chloroform bacteria.
In addition, the EE reveals that the tribe is considering dumping treated sewage into Cache Creek. This news shocked Valley residents, since just 10 years ago the tribe and neighboring communities worked together to keep Clearlake’s sewage out of Cache Creek.
“These are not ecologically sound decisions they are making, and I don’t think you would find anyone willing to say that they are,” says Mueller.
Campbell can’t help but reference the Native Americans’ own view of looking out for the next seven generations. “If you look at the resource degradation and potential depletion, they are jeopardizing their own long-term wellness,” says Campbell. “A plan that is that big, I don’t know how they can see it continuing 20 years down the road.”
Yet perhaps the most personal of concerns for Valley residents is the issue of traffic and highway safety on the already precarious, two-lane Highway 16. In recent weeks, Highway 16 has been closed for more than an hour at a time for three serious injury accidents. Ironically, one accident involved two casino employees, when one fell asleep and hit the oncoming employee who was on her way to work. Meanwhile, everyone in the valley still refers to the infamous accident two years ago when a woman counting her winning money drove head-on into a local farmer and killed him.
Valley residents wonder what will happen on Highway 16 when thousands more are driving to the casino each day? Although the governor has fast-tracked a $60 million plan to widen and straighten the highway, the money does not include construction costs, said Mueller. Locals are worried that widening the highway will merely encourage faster driving and more development. Plus, the highway project that Mueller calls “the casino’s $100 million driveway” won’t begin until 2005, three years past the time the Indians plan to begin construction.
For Campbell and Mueller, the risks are very close to home. Just last year, Mueller, daughter Cassidy and one of Cassidy’s friends were involved in a near-fatal accident on Highway 16. Given pending litigation, Campbell is reluctant to discuss the accident in any detail, but she says it’s her top reason for fighting the expansion. Campbell plans to home-school her daughter in order to avoid a daily commute from the farm past the casino to schools in Esparto.
Nina Andres, a Valley farmer and mother of 4-year-old Joel, agrees. Andres was literally hit by the issue of highway safety when a truck trying to pass her smashed into her car as she tried to turn into her property’s driveway. Just minutes later, a car hit a school bus a few miles down the road. Fortunately, aside from the driver, the school bus was empty.
“Don’t Gamble With Our Lives,” read many signs along the highway—the community’s plea to the thousands rushing in for a chance to win big.
After you spend time at the valley’s farms, the casino is a shock to the senses. Walking across the vast, hot parking lot, you can still hear the valley birds and the hum of nearby farm equipment, but once you enter the casino, be prepared—a cacophony of sound, colored lights and thick cigarette smoke awaits.
The sound is almost otherworldly, a constant, bubbling hum of overlapping slot machine tunes. The casino’s new marketing manager, Alan Hopper, said the casino houses more than 1,000 slot machines, 74 table games and a 1,250-seat bingo hall. Even on a Friday morning, the casino is filled with patrons from Sacramento and the Bay Area. Hopper said employees at the casino joke that on a weekend night the casino is so crowded that you can’t see the carpet. This is one of the main reasons for the expansion, he explained, patron comfort.
Walking through the casino with Hopper, one sees customers sitting glassy-eyed on stools in front of the colored glow of slot machines. Many are elderly with canes and walkers by their sides. One older woman stops Hopper and tries in broken English to get someone to help her with a malfunctioning slot machine. She’s from Fairfield and comes several times a week. Hopper, a jolly looking man with a handlebar mustache, seems to love it all. A former public relations manager for Don King and Circus Circus, he’s right at home in the casino. But this casino is different, he said. “There’s a sort of spirituality that emanates from the tribe that is felt by everyone.”
Many employees speak highly of the tribe’s record as an employer. With more than 1,000 non-tribal employees, the casino is the valley’s largest employer, providing jobs to many Latino and Eastern European immigrants who cannot find jobs elsewhere. Additionally, the tribe has been supportive of union organizing, a rare stance in the service industry.
In front of the casino’s main entrance stand three massive wood sculptures of noble-faced Indian heads. Past these sculptures, one can look out over the highway onto a gorgeous field of flowers backing up to the hillside. This would be the view enjoyed by patrons of the casino’s new hotel rooms.
Back inside, hungry customers can grab some Java City coffee at the casino’s lounge, while watching golf on a big-screen television or learning a little Wintun history. Beautifully crafted baskets and ancient Indian artifacts are displayed in the lounge’s glass cases.
The casino is a friendly place where employees’ nametags reveal where they are from. Employees and customers chat and smile for the most part. Even the security is fairly upbeat, since, according to Hopper, their biggest challenge is usually dealing with car troubles in the parking lot.
Just as Hopper completes his tour, one giddy and fairly stunned woman hits the jackpot. After spending around $80, she just won $2,300. Happy Friday! She’s going to use it to pay off some credit cards. But, please, don’t take her picture.
“This is my secret life,” she says, laughing. “Nobody knows I do this.”
Thousands of people every day drive—sometimes up to two hours—in hopes of that big moment, when debts can be paid, vacations purchased or maybe, simply, a void can be filled. Just as the Cache Creek slogan says, “Live it Up and Hit it Big, because Winning is Everything.” And just like some of its patrons, the Rumsey Band has hit a jackpot of its own, bringing in millions for its very private members.
While researching this story, SN&R had hoped to interview not only a farming family, but one of the tribe’s families, as well.
“I can tell you now that there is no way,” said a firm, but fairly apologetic Elmets, the public relations consultant. The tribe has been burned by outsiders, Elmets said, and they are very slow to trust.
The Rumsey Band is a small tribe composed of 22 adults and 22 children. They live in a gated, very secured community in the hills just north of the casino. Tribal life is a mystery to outsiders.
According to tribal literature, the government moved the tribe in 1942 to a 56-acre site in Brooks from its original site in Rumsey a few miles away. The Rumsey Rancheria also covers 118 acres of federally trusted land along Highway 16, just south of the 56-acre site.
Like other tribes across the country, the Rumsey Band is part of an independent nation with its own government, laws and voters. The Wintun tribe is governed by a tribal council and the 22 adults, who are voting members.
While the tribe was once a large population who lived along the waters of Cache Creek, the Gold Rush era devastated the Wintun. The majority of the population was either killed or forcibly removed from the land. Up until the late 1800s, the state of California paid a bounty for Indian scalps. By the 1970s, only three Wintun remained on the original rancheria, and life for those three was one of poverty.
Today, the granddaughter of one of those remaining members has seen her tribe recover and grow into prosperity. She is Paula Lorenzo, tribal chair for the Rumsey Band of Wintun for the last 10 years. Sitting in her attorney’s downtown Sacramento office, Lorenzo, 52, is the only member of her tribe who will talk with the public. Wearing a white sequined blouse and diamond earrings, she also sports a large tattoo on her right arm and a strong, ready smile. As she holds a Sacramento Bee editorial about the expansion, she jokes that she’s feeling a bit feisty today.
Arguably one of the most powerful women in California, Lorenzo helped negotiate the tribal-state gaming compact in 1999, has overseen massive tribal political contributions and, consequently, has steered California Indians into a position of immense political power.
A recent California Common Cause report asserts Indian gaming donors have become the largest political contributor in the state, handing out more than $8.5 million to candidates for the state Legislature and statewide office, while increasing lobbying expenses by a whopping 370 percent.
Meanwhile, the Rumsey Band has put millions into a wide range of investments, from government buildings (including California’s IRS headquarters) to West Sacramento waterfront property to, of course, political races. In fact, the tribe’s lobbyist, Darius Anderson, is also Governor Gray Davis’ chief fund-raiser. Although the tribe will not release any information regarding its earnings, recent reports speculate that its profits are at least $10 million a year.
In addition to their investments, the tribe operates the Rumsey Community Fund, which donates up to $1 million a year to regional nonprofit organizations. That, says Lorenzo, is how the tribe tries to look out for the community. Still, Valley residents and officials worry that the tribe’s focus has turned inward at the expense of the community’s well-being. But Lorenzo insists that the public’s concerns are not falling on deaf ears.
“We look at everything,” she says. “What’s going to be the best for our people? And if it’s affecting people around us, we’ll look to see what we can do. It’s always been a collaborative issue. Since I’ve been sitting on the chair, the door has always been open.”
Yet many outsiders don’t know how to enter the door of a tribe that remains so secretive about its lifestyle, earnings and business matters. These issues are personal, say the tribe’s consultants, but if you want to communicate, Lorenzo welcomes letters.
According to Lorenzo however, nobody had sent her a letter of concern until very recently. “They send them to the governor, the Board of Supervisors, the media, everyone, but not to me,” she says.
In a letter to Lorenzo, Assemblymember Helen Thomson acknowledged Lorenzo’s commitment to being a good neighbor in the valley, but expressed concern over the communication breakdown she sees happening in the valley.
“The tribe wants to do the right thing,” said the Indians’ attorney Howard Dickstein. “This is obviously not pleasant to feel like the people around them don’t like them.” Still, the Rumsey Band has stood by the expansion in concept, saying that their plans are the only way to remain competitive. According to Elmets, whose public relations firm represents many of California’s gaming tribes, the next five years will bring new casinos in Placer County, Butte County and the Bay Area. “What do you do in the face of competition? You make your property and business more attractive. Every casino on the drawing board or going through expansion has the potential to draw their patrons away from Cache Creek.”
Although the expansion may be unpopular, the tribe has to look out for its own, says Elmets. “They’re not trying to win a personality contest,” he says. “Their intent is to take care of their tribal members—housing, health care, education … not only for this generation but for future generations.”
A history of racism and poverty still haunt this wealthy tribe. Lorenzo’s story mirrors the story of most of her people. As a child, Lorenzo’s mother raised her and her 16 siblings in Sacramento, where she would have a chance to get a decent education and escape reservation life. Lorenzo attended Foothill High School, where she remembers taking a career aptitude test. As other kids were told they should go into law, teaching or cosmetology, Lorenzo and the three other people of color in the room were told they should become farm laborers.
“I wanted to do something more,” she recalls. “But still in the back of my mind I wondered if there was anything else, because that’s what I did at the time—work in the fields.”
She picked prunes, grapes and tomatoes. She became a single mom on welfare. Her first husband died when she was pregnant with her third child. Life was hard. But Lorenzo and her people are survivors, she says.
“We’re always going to try to help the tribe bring back the pride that was there years ago,” says Lorenzo.
Today, the Rumsey Band is building a new community just north of the casino. The construction zone features large, sturdy houses, a health-care facility and an impressive community center that will house the tribe’s school. From the looks of things, these people have achieved the American dream and more. Yet the tribe is offended when community members ask them, “How much is enough?” Gaming may not always be a viable business. Other tribes still struggle, and the past has taught the American Indians to expect the worst. Taking advantage of this moment in history, Lorenzo and her people will do everything possible to secure a prosperous future for Indians.
“Our plan is to assimilate the Native Americans into the American way, to go after the American dream,” she says. “Now we’ve really learned … probably better than most people who are in business. But now people are upset because we’re self-sufficient. They can’t say, ‘Oh those stupid drunk Indians.’ Now we can take care of ourselves. We take care of our own.”
To the tribe, Yolo County’s efforts to halt the expansion feel like a double standard. With a new 100-home housing development nearby, they can’t help but wonder where all the controversy was when that development arose … or why nobody asked for the tribe’s input when the city of Woodland was built … or why, when the white man created modern life, are so many people opposed to the Wintun trying to embrace it?
According to Dickstein, the Wintun are only now living the life so many others in the valley have lived for decades. Growing organic vegetables and living lightly on the land are lifestyle choices, he said. “These are middle-class people who rejected traditional values and now have chosen to live alternative lifestyles. The tribe has never lived that lifestyle. They’re trying to just get to where they can make these kind of choices.”
Although expansion opponents want to focus on the present, Dickstein explained that the Indians have a long memory. “It takes decades to gain trust of tribal leaders,” he said. “Tribal people have been burnt in the most horrible possible ways. Trust is not easily given. Their way of life is jealously guarded.”
Now as American Indians guard their newfound resources, many Californians are searching for equilibrium in the midst of a changing power equation.
Most of the people opposed to the casino expansion are the very voters who approved Proposition 1A, the 2000 ballot measure that officially declared Indian gaming legal in California. These are the people who want their kids to learn about American Indian history, who have tried to make up for the mistakes of their ancestors. And yet now they feel helpless in the face of tribal influence.
Indian wealth plus sovereignty equals incredible political clout and very few restrictions. While tribes must comply with federal endangered species and clean-air acts, no precedent has existed for addressing conflicts between gaming tribes and their surrounding communities. But in a dramatic move that may tilt the scales in favor of local governments, the Davis administration recently took its first stand in defining the limits of tribal power. In a July 12 letter to a Sonoma County tribe, the state attorney general asked the Dry Creek Rancheria to stop construction of a casino overlooking the Alexander Valley and resolve issues with Sonoma County or risk losing the tribe’s gaming license.
Just last Tuesday, the attorney general sent the Rumsey Band a letter, as well. The letter reinforces Yolo County’s concerns about the casino expansion and asks the tribe to produce a new environmental evaluation addressing the points outlined in the Board of Supervisors’ letter.
Amid these developments, Lorenzo’s band of Wintun has entered closed talks with the Yolo Board of Supervisors, moderated by former Democratic Representative Vic Fazio. These talks represent “unprecedented openness” and the tribe’s willingness to be flexible, said Dickstein. The Rumsey Band was the first in the state to sign an MOU with local governments, and remains committed to finding solutions that meet both tribal and county goals, he said. However, he added that although the tribe will subject itself to outside jurisdiction, it would never allow individuals to veto the Indians’ right to self-determination.
The Yolo supervisors, meanwhile, are also fiercely protective of the county’s citizens. For current negotiations to be successful, both sides must be willing to work toward compromise, said the board’s letter to the tribe.
After all, this intimate valley is too small for any of its inhabitants to operate in a vacuum. As John Muir once said, “When one tugs at one thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Now, while barefoot children eat figs straight from the tree and farmers plant their fall crops, the casino’s tug reverberates up and down the valley floor. Will the Indians tug so hard they unintentionally pull down the farms? The scope of the casino’s expansion will likely determine whether the valley’s farmers can hold on to their way of life.