A small California tribe will be able to move forward with its plan to develop an Indian gaming Casino on its land in the Sacramento Valley.
On January 24, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn approved a request by the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria to acquire 626 acres in trust in Butte County, California, near the city of Chico for gaming purposes. The Mechoopda Tribe will construct and operate a modest gaming facility on 91 acres of the site. The project is estimated to create 214 full-time jobs.
“The Mechoopda Tribe has pursued this initiative for more than a decade,” Washburn said. “The acquisition of the land into trust for the purpose of establishing a class III gaming establishment will result in substantial financial benefits to the tribe and help stimulate economic development.”
Mechoopda Chairman Dennis Ramirez could not be reached for comment.
The Mechoopda Tribe has a little more than 400 members, according to its website, and little in the way of economic development.
“Having seen firsthand the remarkable transformations Indian gaming has brought to other tribes, the Tribal Council of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe believed it was in the best interest of all members to pursue the development of a world-class gaming facility at Highway 99 and Highway 149 in Butte County,” tribal officials say on the website. “The profits garnered from the gaming project will undoubtedly allow the tribe to meet the housing, medical and cultural protection needs of its members. It will allow the tribe to drastically reduce debt, fund youth and employment programs and academic scholarships. Finally, this generation of Mechoopda has hope and – for the first time in a century – the prospect of living better than their parents and grandparents.”
The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to acquire land in trust for Indian tribes. According to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), the Secretary can allow gaming on trust land if it is determined that the property to be acquired in trust qualifies as “restored lands for an Indian tribe that is restored to federal recognition.”
The Department of the Interior approved the tribe’s first application for land into trust in 2008. This decision was challenged in federal court and ultimately remanded by the court to the Department of the Interior for reconsideration.
Washburn said that the Department conducted a thorough review of the tribe’s history and application, and determined that the lands meet the “restored lands exception” of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the Department’s implementing regulations, and that the Department is authorized to acquire the proposed lands in trust pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act.
The Mechoopda Tribe had a historical presence in the area both before and after European arrival, but the tribe is limited in its ability to acquire land on its former Chico Rancheria. Chico State University now owns and has developed much of the former Chico Rancheria lands, rendering those lands unsuitable for reacquisition by the tribe, Washburn said.
Mechoopda was a village community formerly located on Little Butte Creek, about 3 ½ miles south of today's downtown Chico. The people of Mechoopda spoke a language related to Maidu, one of the more than 175 languages and dialects once spoken in Native California.
In a story that’s all too familiar across Indian country the Mechoopda were involved with other tribes in 18 treaties negotiated throughout the state during 1851-1852, reserving more than eight million acres of land for tribes. But under pressure from California senators and the governor, who objected to the reservation of lands for Indians that might be of either agricultural or gold bearing value, the U.S. Senate secretly rejected the treaties on July 8, 1852, according to the tribe’s website. The secret deal wasn’t uncovered until 1905.
By 1850, the Mechoopda had moved to a former summer camp site located on the south side of Chico Creek near First and Flume Streets in what is now downtown Chico. A few years later the village was moved downstream. In 1868, the village was moved a half-mile west to its final location, eventually becoming the Chico Rancheria.
In a twist of irony – or a case of the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same – County of Butte, Office of County Counselor, California Department of Transportation, Department of California Highway Patrol, and the state attorney general on behalf of the governor all vigorously opposed Mechoopda’s land-into-trust application.
The trust lands are located within the reservation boundaries that would have been established by an 1851 Treaty with the United States. “The trust acquisition of these lands will enable the tribe to make its own decisions regarding its future, thus enjoying the benefits of tribal self-determination,” Washburn said.