GRAND RONDE, Oregon—It’s worth a trip just for the people watching.
At the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon’s Spirit Mountain Casino, wide smiles light up senior citizens’ faces as they disembark tour busses, ready for a day of play at the most successful casino in the Pacific Northwest. It’s Oregon’s top attraction, drawing three million visitors a year.
It’s cradled between the Coast and Cascade Mountain Range, 65 miles southwest of Portland and less than half an hour from the Pacific Ocean, on a route blanketed with stands of Douglas fir and cedar trees. Spirit Mountain provides the backdrop. And even for Oregon in spring, the sun has shown in a cloudless sky for days on end.
And to top that, you can feel good about playing, knowing you’re contributing to the six percent of net profit the Grand Ronde Tribe’s Spirit Mountain Community Fund dedicates to charitable organizations in Western Oregon, and to tribes located anywhere in Oregon.
Since its inception 15 years ago, the Fund, now the 10th largest foundation in Oregon, has given away $56 million to date to charitable organizations. Its anniversary last month was a cause for celebration that drew 400 Fund recipients, tribal leaders and members, Elders, and dignitaries at a special event at the casino May 11. Pacific Northwesterner, and famed author Sherman Alexie joined in the celebration.
Indians have plenty of reasons to be angry, to want to fight back, Alexie said. Not so the Grand Ronde, who he said have set an example that “more and more,” will want to follow. “To see this tribe operate with such love and forgiveness is incredible,” he said.
“Every grant is a story,” the Fund’s director and Grand Ronde tribal member Kathleen George said. “It’s been an honor for our tribe to be a part of 1,800 stories.” It was humbling and inspiring, George said, to meet up with the recipients, “doing the on the ground work.” Since their first grant to the Life Flight Network, which provides life saving transport to seriously ill or injured patients from the scene of an emergency or from one hospital to another for people in the Northwest and Intermountain West, the Fund has partnered with over 800 organizations and tribes.
George doesn’t have a favorite charity, but ask her about one she is excited about and she names the Black United Fund of Oregon. Their program takes kids of all colors, “anyone who needs help,” George said. “They reached out to rural kids,” when they discovered no one was helping their population. The organization realized that the kids in their programs didn’t know how to write an essay to accompany college applications, so they taught them, along with how to find and fill out college scholarship and grant applications.
The Fund’s financial support of human services and other organizations is critical in a state that recently reported, “Growth in Oregon’s general fund revenues slowed to a crawl at the beginning of 2012.” Oregon has suffered an economic turndown, George said. “State revenues are down, and so is the tax base that supports our social safety net services, education and key programs so important to getting the economy back on its feet.”
Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber thanked the Fund for a decade and a half of critical funding for the state in a congratulatory video shown at the celebration. “Grand Ronde has shown creativity and leadership in providing valuable resources,” the Governor said.
Oregon wasn’t always so appreciative. When tribal gaming became successful in the mid-90s, she said the state of Oregon suddenly began efforts to figure out how to tax tribal revenues. “From the perspective of tribal sovereignty that was something we couldn’t have,” George said.
Yet the Grand Ronde wanted to invest in local communities. “What we needed was a new solution,” says George. The charitable model they conceived in a 1997 gaming compact, two years after the casino’s opening set a new precedent.
“I think we’ve proven in 15 years a tribal charitable foundation has been a win win win,” George said. “The tribe certainly believes we’ve demonstrated this is a win for the surrounding communities, a win for the people, and a win for the tribe, who wants to participate in how the monies are spent.” The fund is controlled by eight trustees, three of who are tribal council members.
A community of over 20 tribes and bands from western Oregon and northern California make up the Grand Ronde. In the 1850s, area Indians were forced from their homelands and marched to a 69,000-acre reservation. Their vast land base dwindled to 7.5 acres, and in 1954, during the infamous “termination era,” the U.S. government ceased to recognize them as Indians.
They called themselves, “landless people in their own land.”
Tribal leaders initiated efforts to restore their status in the 1970s, and though it took until 1983, they prevailed. Congress re-established a 9,811-acre reservation, to which they’ve added acreage with casino revenues. Casino proceeds have also allowed them to develop housing, education, health care, and other programs for their members.
“When our tribe looks at this casino, we see health care, college scholarships and housing,” said George. “Rurally isolated tribes do not have a lot of opportunities to open destination businesses. Casinos have provided that.”