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Jackson Rancheria mining for gold, casino-style

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JACKSON, Calif. - Jackson Indian Rancheria sits on 400 acres neatly tucked away amongst the oaks and golden grasslands in the Sierra foothill Gold Country in northern California. The name of the region itself is a reminder of the conquest the Mountain Miwok endured.

Now residents of the Jackson Rancheria have found a way to not just survive but to thrive. A sprawling casino and hotel complex spreads out among the foothills. The complex has brought new life to this once forgotten territory.

Amador County has long based its economy on the extractive industries of logging and mining. Environmental regulations, over logging and overtaxed mines contributed to a forced shift in the economy as the area has to rely on beautiful scenery and its own colorful past to lure weekend tourists from the burgeoning, nearby metropolitan centers - such as Sacramento - in the Central Valley.

The Mountain Miwok, the survivors for whom the past was not so colorful, are leading the way in this transition. For years they were the poorest residents of a poor county. Legalized gaming in California changed all of that.

The Jackson Rancheria Hotel and Casino - now the largest private employer in Amador County with more than 600 employees - affected the economics of this largely impoverished region. With a mixture of good timing and effort, the Jackson casino stands at the cutting edge of a region in economic transition.

Loreen, who is not a tribal member, works in the gift shop at the casino. She worked at a local grocery market for several years. When the economy started to dry up in the county, she had to find employment elsewhere. This is where the casino stepped in.

"There must be six or seven other people from the grocery store that work here. I know quite a few people that have been laid off from their jobs and this was the place to apply," Loreen says.

The casino floor is filled to near capacity on a Monday morning. Cocktail waitresses serve non-alcoholic drinks to patrons on the floor. If not for the American Indian statues standing on an island that is part of the lobby display, one would almost think they had walked into a casino in Reno or Lake Tahoe, both about 100 miles to the east over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The crowd on the casino floor is overwhelmingly non-Indian and older. In the parking lot a typical bumper sticker reads "Charlton Heston is My President."

"We know our demographic," says Rich Hoffman, casino marketing director. "We generally cater to an older, blue-collar crowd, which is typical for all casinos but I think that's changing. We're beginning to see a younger, professional more educated crowd, too."

Hoffman believes that changing because of the expansion of the casino into other forms of entertainment. A row of glass-encased posters along the wall outside the 1,500-seat, indoor amphitheater advertises several upcoming shows from the likes of Eddie Money and Chaka Khan. Though these performers may be a little past their prime, they are of the caliber of entertainment that would be featured in Nevada casinos.

"I come here about every other week," says Curtis Wilson, a middle-aged African American from Stockton. "I'm coming back in about two weeks to see Chaka Khan. I like the idea that they're having shows here now, but I would come anyway.

Wilson says he voted yes on Proposition 1A and says he is "most definitely" in favor of Indian gaming.

Casino management says that Proposition 1A has helped and not hurt them. Hoffman calls the ballot measure "free advertising" and says after its passage he saw a definite upturn in business.

Glenn Elrod of Lodi, who wears a hat from the trucking company that employs him, says he just comes to Jackson for a chance to win and he likes the proximity to his valley home.

"I used to go to Tahoe all the time, but I got tired of the long drive. This is much closer and the quality is about the same as it is there," Elrod says.

In addition to the casino, Jackson features a 103-room hotel that, according to management, runs at full occupancy during the weekends. The rates usually run from $85 to $180 a night and feature rooms with tribally handcrafted objects and furniture. Nicer rooms feature Jacuzzi bathtubs with large verandas with spectacular vistas of the Sierra foothills.

The complex recently opened a state-of -the-art conference center. Square floor tiles can be removed to access fiber-optic lines for phones and computers. Management sources say many of the companies that use the conference center are high tech firms looking for a quicker and easier getaway than Nevada.

Increased tourism also means a greater need for security. The tribal police are post-certified federal officers who meet all the peace-officer requirements of the state. Jackson sources say their police department works closely with the Amador County sheriff and is funded solely by the tribe, free of federal dollars or subsidies.

Hoffman says what makes Indian gaming unique from other legal forms of gaming is that 100 percent of the profit must go back to a tribe to pay for its government and services.

In the upstairs portion of the casino is the Raging River Restaurant. It features a redwood bark house - the traditional house of many northern California tribes- where customers enter. The cuisine is that of a typical grill house variety priced between $8 and $15 per entree.

The Raging River, along with the amphitheater and hotel, were part of an initial expansion. Originally the casino started out as a small bingo hall that barely covered the present gaming floor. It has expanded to 50,000 square feet and will soon change.

Steel girders reach out from the building in an expansion that can only be called massive. When the construction is completed, sometime next year, the casino will more than double in size to 120,000 square feet. The 380 video games and 14 table games will increase to 900 and 35 respectively. The relative smallness of the casino, however, seems to be a draw to some patrons.

"One of the reasons we like to come here is because we see many of the same people," Janice Reinhart of Modesto says.

"I don't like Lake Tahoe or Reno," her friend, Dale Anderson, chimes in. "Too big, too impersonal."

Lost somewhere in this activity seem to be the tribal members themselves. No one in casino management could provide any statistics regarding the benefit to tribal members.

Hoffman shares an anecdote about the tribe using the money to put up a shade net at the school. They were even unable to confirm the number of tribal members at Jackson. Access into the residential area is forbidden to non-tribal members.

Vice Chairman Bo Marks says that because of the number of tourists, the rancheria tries to maintain a sense of privacy. Marks recounts how tribal police have stopped many casino customers who stray into the brush and woods to find buffalo and American Indians living in tipis.

Jackson has only 17 tribal members. Marks confirmed they receive a per capita payment, but would not disclose the specific amount. He is one of four tribal members employed by the casino. While tribal members get first pick for the casino jobs, he says they must have a background for the positions they seek.

Marks talks of changes the casino has brought to the rancheria, including a dental facility and a new medical facility expected to open later this year. Currently tribal members have to go to facilities several miles away, over winding country roads, for medical care and many are uninsured. He mentions that a day-care facility the casino is building for employees will provide 24-hour childcare.

The small tribe is trying to diversify its economy as well. It has plans to build what Marks calls a state-of-the-art sewer plant on the rancheria it hopes will eliminate unemployment and provide an additional source of income.

Marks, 46, says he has seen big changes in his life. Young people now are now proud to be tribal members. He says his biggest worry is keeping them at home. The new opportunities have many young people thinking about looking for new lives off the rancheria.

While he is supportive of their hopes and dreams, he said he hopes they remember where they came from.

Does he find it ironic his tribe is capitalizing on a tourist economy that celebrates the very event that helped decimate the Mountain Miwok? "I know that some people here aren't really thrilled with the idea, but to me the future looks good. We've finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel. It's not necessary to dwell on the past when the future looks so bright."