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California's biggest tribe draws losing hand on Indian gaming

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By Aaron C. Davis -- Associated Press

WEITCHPEC, Calif. (AP) - Along California's rugged northwest coast, a freshly paved highway exit marked ''Bald Hills Road'' is, for most, nothing more than the entrance to Lady Bird Johnson Grove and Redwood National Park.

For the Yurok, the state's largest and perhaps poorest American Indian tribe, it's where the road home, and the Yuroks' struggles, begin.

Past the park, Bald Hills quickly narrows to a deadly, one-lane logging path and snakes high into the Pacific coastal range. Around blind corners and frequent cliffs, charred remains of Jeeps and rusted cars litter the ditches of a 40-mile-long washboard welcome mat.

It is a clan the state, if not time itself, has left behind.

For years, the Yurok have asked California lawmakers for permission to operate slot machines to begin making the money they say could help pull the poorest of their 5,000 out of grinding poverty. Their casino would be so remote it would seem few might visit, but the tribe estimates it could bring in more than $1 million a year, as much as doubling its discretionary budget in bad years and allowing the tribe to begin saving money to pave, or at least regularly grade, roads such as Bald Hills.

Here, surrounded by steep hills and stripped redwood forests, hundreds of Yuroks survive dug into the remote, muddy banks of the Klamath River. Most live without electricity or clean running water in clusters of dilapidated trailers supplied after a flood when Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

Children still learn in one-room schools. Wood fires warm homes. And a tribe that once thrived off salmon grapples with a river with few fish. The tribe's only jobs come from federal grants, or in helping timber companies take the very trees Yuroks believe to be their own.

The way the Yuroks' gaming efforts have been thwarted for years, both through bureaucratic slip-ups and in the crossfire of larger political feuds in the state Capitol, is the story of a tribe beset by misfortunes as confounding as any in the state.

Whether the Yurok can begin to escape their troubled past remains entirely unclear, but the issue is likely to come up again when the Legislature reconvenes.

In the short decade since voters approved gaming on Indian land, the Yurok Tribe has morphed from a poster child for needy tribes to an anomaly.

Many tribes have become so rich from megacasinos erected from Palm Springs to the Sacramento suburbs that the disparity between them and those such as the Yurok is now staggering. Nearly 50 tribes raked in a combined $13 billion from gaming in 2004, according to the California Attorney General's office, and their casino profits continue to rise.

By comparison, counting every cent of its federal grants, timber sales and $1.1 million from a state fund that shares casino revenues between rich tribes and poor ones, the Yurok spent $12 million last year. That's less than what one of the richest, the Agua Caliente Band of Mission Indians near Palm Springs, is spending to appoint rooms in its new resort hotel with granite counter tops, whirlpool baths, plasma-screen TVs and other luxuries.

Widening the economic gap between the tribes, rich ones also spend tens of millions on political contributions in the state capital supporting laws limiting competition and increasing their profits. Sometimes that means big-game tribes work to subvert small tribes' efforts to get into the business.

At the same time, antigaming forces and labor unions have stepped up efforts in Sacramento to block expansion of Indian casinos they say have already far outstripped - even perverted - what voters intended, and left thousands of workers in the state without protections commonly afforded in casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City.

Caught in the middle are tribes such as the Yurok.

''Gaming can do a lot of good for tribes, and for the Yurok it could be a small part of a larger solution needed to help them,'' said former state Sen. Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, who unsuccessfully lobbied for years for the Yurok compact until he was termed out in the fall. ''Compounding their trouble, however, has been the increased efforts of big-game tribes to squash those who are not yet gaming. Yurok stands out as the most disturbing example of that.''

The Yuroks' most recent attempt to win rights to a modest 99 slot machines was cut short in the fall when a compact they signed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was held hostage in a political showdown between labor and large gaming tribes over 20,000 new slot machines and bigger casinos, mostly to be built in Southern California.

In the delicate words of the Yuroks' deputy executive director, Reweti Wiki, the tribe's journey is analogous to the childhood misadventure story of 'Lemony Snicket.' ''It's been a series of unfortunate events,'' he said, forcing a smile through clenched teeth.

Others have a harder time hiding their disgust.

After four hours trekking through a remote swath of the reservation, Frankie Myers, the tribe's planning director and budding cultural leader, blurted out his true feelings.

''We got screwed, and we continue getting screwed. I think that's the underlying issue in everyone's psyche,'' said Myers.

Other problems facing the tribe, such as a diabetes epidemic, rampant methamphetamine abuse and a lack of higher education, also are rooted in years of poverty and neglect and won't be easily solved, even if the tribe is allowed to offer gaming.

To hear tribal members tell it, their name sums up their plight. In the Yurok language, the tribe's name means ''downriver.'' And there's perhaps no better word for the way the Yurok have been pushed down by the currents of power and politics over hundreds of years.

Yuroks grow up reciting dates such as 1855, 1891 and 1988 as the mile markers of a past perceived as filled with injustice. The years coincide with executive orders lumping the Yurok on a reservation with the neighboring Hoopas, letting Hoopas reap a majority of timber profits; and a failed legal battle that has kept $90 million in tribal money still locked away in a federal trust.

Still, the Yurok are not totally without amenities in nearby Klamath - an hour's drive back over Bald Hills along U.S. Highway 101, and closer to where four out of five tribal members eke out livings in Eureka and Crescent City.

There, the tribe boasts a new, neatly landscaped $3 million headquarters complete with leather-seated council chambers, a community recreation room, a kitchen and a computer lab that was funded with a federal grant.

Across the street is Pem-Mey Fuel Mart, the tribe's commercial enterprise. The Yurok took out a $3 million loan two years ago to open it, the only gas station within 30 miles. It's outfitted with a Subway sandwich shop and espresso bar, yet Wiki and others hint that the business isn't doing well. They say slot machines may be needed to help pay off the loan and keep it profitable.

If the tribes' gaming compact were approved, the Yurok could build a back room in the gas station for 20 slot machines.

Some tribal leaders dream that would only be the beginning. They envision a three-story hotel and casino with the 99 slots and card games the tribe would be allowed under its most recent stalled compact.

Years of waiting, however, has left Yurok Councilman Richard Myers skeptical.

''It will never bring much money. We will not be handing out checks; not like other tribes,'' he said. ''What it will do is put food on someone's table. That is a truth.''

Myers said the compact remains a sore spot. ''Look at us: it's 2006, and we are one of the last places to be electrified.''

To move forward, the Yurok will have to catch a break in Sacramento.

In 1998, when the state began handing out compacts, the Yuroks' paperwork for a casino was lost in the shuffle when it was faxed to the wrong Capitol office. The tribe then struck a deal with Gov. Gray Davis for 350 slots, but he was recalled before it could be signed.

Last August, a coalition of labor, horse racing and antigambling interests upended all nine compacts pending in the Legislature, even as those opposed to the cumulative casino expansion said they had no problem with the smaller Yurok deal, which is unlikely to raise labor or other issues.

Whether the tribe can now muster enough support, or pity, for a vote separate from the controversy of the big-game tribes is unclear.

''We all feel really sorry for Yurok. The feeling among so many is that Yurok should happen; it's so different than the others,'' said Elsa Ortiz, legislative liaison for Indian Affairs in Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata's office. ''Honestly, I don't know how things will work out for Yurok.''