Interior denies Coquille Tribe’s application for casino site

Richard Walker

Chairman says fee-to-trust decision ignores consideration process, is unlawful

Richard Walker

Special to Indian Country Today

The head of the Coquille Tribe says an assistant secretary of the Interior changed the application process midstream when he denied the tribe’s fee-to-trust request for property it owns 170 miles from its main administration offices.

Brenda Meade said the decision by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda, Kiowa, sets a precedent that threatens other tribal nations’ future land acquisitions for economic development.

“Every tribe should be concerned about this material erosion of their fundamental sovereign rights,” she said.

Brenda Meade photos: Coquille Tribe Chairman Brenda Meade said her tribe's proposed Cedars at Bear Creek casino in Medford would create about 250 jobs with a $10 million annual payroll, and in its first year would spend $6.5 million locally for supplies and support services. (Courtesy / Coquille Tribe)
Coquille Tribe Chairman Brenda Meade -- she prefers "chairman -- said her tribe's proposed Cedars at Bear Creek casino in Medford would create about 250 jobs with a $10 million annual payroll, and in its first year would spend $6.5 million locally for supplies and support services. (Courtesy / Coquille Tribe)

Meade said the Tribal Council is considering how to respond to the decision, adding that an appeal is likely. 

“I don’t know if we have a choice,” she said. “This is about sovereignty.”

A 1989 law that restored the Coquille Tribe’s federal recognition mandates that the tribe provide services for its tribal citizens within a five-county area of southwest Oregon. To Coquille Tribe leaders, those services include economic development that creates jobs and generates revenue to support education, health care, housing and public safety.

The Coquilles’ historical territory was within modern-day Coos and Curry counties on Oregon’s coast; unratified treaties in the 1850s and violence against Indigenous peoples sparked a Coquille diaspora throughout a five-county area in southwest Oregon. The U.S. terminated its relationship with the Coquilles and more than 60 other tribal nations in Oregon 100 years later.

Because the Coquille Tribe did not have a reservation at the time the 1989 Coquille Restoration Act became law, Coquilles living in the five-county area “shall be deemed to be residing on a reservation,” according to the law. It also states the secretary of the Interior “shall” place in trust up to 1,000 acres in Coos and Curry counties for the tribe’s benefit, and “may” place in trust other lands in the tribe’s service area.

Tahsuda recently denied the Coquille Tribe’s request to place into trust a 2.42-acre parcel that it owns in the Jackson County city of Medford  within its service area  because a casino the tribe proposes there would be too far from its main administrative offices in North Bend, Coos County. The site is currently a bowling alley. The Coquille Tribe owns two neighboring properties: on one side, a nine-hole golf course; on the other, 3.6 acres where the tribe proposes building a hotel.

The Coquille Tribe's Bear Creek Golf Course in Medford is adjacent to Bear Creek and is frequented by migratory birds. (Courtesy / Coquille Tribe)
The Coquille Tribe's Bear Creek Golf Course in Medford is adjacent to Bear Creek and is frequented by migratory birds. (Courtesy / Coquille Tribe)

The Coquille Tribe also has an administrative office in Medford. Meade said 10 percent of the tribe’s 1,100 citizens live in the Medford area.

“The driving distance from the Tribe’s administrative offices [in North Bend] to the Medford Site is approximately 170 miles,” Tahsuda wrote in his May 27 decision. “… While the distance does not categorically disqualify the Medford Site from being acquired [into trust], the distance must be considered.”

Coquille Tribe attorney Lael Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, said Tahsuda’s decision is the “very definition of arbitrary and capricious” given that Interior Department “rightly approved” in 2018 the Shawnee Tribe’s fee-to-trust application for land that is 390 miles from Shawnee’s administrative offices in Miami, Oklahoma.

“How is a tribe to ever know what ‘distance’ is too far?,” Echo-Hawk said. “... I hope the Coquille Tribe fights it. The precedent [Tahsuda’s decision] sets is terrible for Indian Country.”

Meade alleges Tahsuda bowed to pressure from Oregon’s U.S. senators, governor and several state legislators who have gone on record as opposing the Medford casino; and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, which owns Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville, 70 miles north of Medford.  

Indian Country Today reached out Friday to Tahsuda’s office for comment; the call was referred to the public affairs office, which asked that questions be emailed. An email response was not received by deadline.

Oregon’s biggest gaming operator: the state

The Coquille Tribe proposes building The Cedars at Bear Creek casino on the site of a 24-lane bowling alley that the tribe purchased in 2012 for $1.6 million. The existing building would be renovated and expanded, Meade said, and would have 650 video-gaming machines but no card games.

It would be part of a larger entertainment, dining and sports complex that would include the tribe’s Bear Creek Golf Course, a nine-hole course nestled along a portion of Bear Creek; and the proposed Hotel at the Cedars, a 63,350-square-foot, 111-room hotel. The hotel site does not need to be placed in trust for that project to proceed and is going through the city’s permitting and plan review process.

The hotel has local support. Medford City Council president Kevin Stine told the Medford Mail Tribune newspaper on May 28 he considers the hotel a "good investment in Medford.” 

And local tourism officials say a proposed $60 million aquatics and events facility nearby is expected to draw a lot of visitors to the area, boosting the need for more hotel rooms.

Regarding the proposed casino, though, Tahsuda wrote that he considered state lawmakers' concerns about expanded gaming in the state. 

“Maintaining a careful balance between producing gaming revenue and the public good is a legitimate State concern, as is preserving the balance between gaming interests,” he wrote.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown opposed the Coquille Tribe’s Medford casino, writing in 2016 that the state should, "as a matter of policy, resist the building of additional casinos because state support for even a single, modest, additional casino is likely to lead to significant efforts to expand gaming across Oregon to the detriment of the public welfare.”

Meade said that’s ironic because the state’s biggest gaming operator is the State of Oregon.

(Public domain / Oregon Lottery)
A gaming machine operated by the Oregon Lottery, the state's largest gaming operator. (Public domain / Oregon Lottery)

The Oregon Lottery operates line games, video poker, keno and scratch-off ticket sales in 4,227 bars, restaurants and stores throughout the state  including the Coquille Tribe’s bowling alley in Medford  according to a list available at OregonLottery.org. In 2018, the lottery paid out more than $2.6 billion in prizes and $725 million to state and local programs, according to the lottery website.

Since the Oregon Lottery’s creation by voters in 1985, “over $12 billion in Lottery funds have been directed to Oregon’s public schools, job creation, state parks, natural resources, veteran services and Outdoor School,” OregonLottery.org reports.

Retailers who host lottery gaming benefit too. Shari’s Restaurant in Portland was the top retailer in the state in 2014, the last year for which data is readily available, with $1.4 million in lottery sales; the restaurant received $280,280 in commissions.

In contrast, there are nine tribe-owned casinos in the state. Those casinos and their amenities generated $602.4 million in revenue in 2017, according to the Oregon Tribal Gaming Alliance.

While tribe-owned casinos generated roughly one-fourth the revenue that the state lottery did, those dollars packed an economic punch, according to the gaming alliance.

“In 2017, tribal gaming directly and indirectly supported 11,262 jobs and $550.6 million in wages, benefits and self-employment earnings,” the alliance reported. “Since the first casino opened, tribes in Oregon have invested over $812.2 million building casinos, hotels and other tourism amenities. Tribes have given $134.1 million collectively to charitable community and nonprofit organizations throughout Oregon since 1992.”

In 2017, tribes invested $8.6 million in local community programs and $131.5 million in tribal government services, including community services, healthcare, education and housing, the alliance reported.

Tribes also paid a majority of the costs of gaming regulation for tribal and non-tribal gaming. “In 2017, $21.7 million was spent collectively on all forms of gaming regulation,” the alliance reported. “Tribes paid $14 million or 64 percent of these costs, even though they account for less than 30 percent of all gaming conducted in Oregon. … Oregon tribal casinos are highly regulated and pay more than their share of regulation and surveillance costs.”

Economic benefit vs. tax rolls

Some 48 percent of land in Jackson County is owned by the federal government, and county and city officials aren’t hot on seeing another taxable parcel taken off the rolls. According to Tahsuda’s letter, the casino site currently generates $8,015.05 a year in property taxes, which helps support local public services.

“The City and County assert that the Tribe’s proposed gaming facility will result in increased demand for services while at the same time removing the Medford Parcel from the tax base,” Tahsuda wrote.

Indian Country Today reached out last week to Medford Mayor Gary Hale Wheeler, the City Council, and Jackson County commissioners Rick Dyer, Colleen Roberts and Bob Strosser for comment. Phone messages and emails were not returned by deadline. 

Meade said the casino would generate more economic benefit for the city and county than the taxes they currently receive from the property. She predicts the casino would create about 250 jobs with a $10 million annual payroll, and in its first year would spend $6.5 million locally for supplies and support services.

Meade said the casino would generate more economic benefit for the city and county than the taxes they currently receive from the property. She predicts the casino would create about 250 jobs with a $10 million annual payroll, and in its first year would spend $6.5 million locally for supplies and support services.

If the Coquille Tribe’s record in Coos Bay and elsewhere is an example, Meade’s not exaggerating about the project’s potential economic benefits to Medford. All told, the Coquille Tribe employs 500 and is the second-largest employer in Coos County.

Since restoration in 1989, the Coquille Tribe has grown an investment portfolio that includes The Mill Casino Hotel in Coos Bay; ORCA Communications, a wireless and fiber-optic communications company; Perpetua Power Source Technologies, a renewable energy company based in Corvallis; Pacific View Senior Living Community in Bandon; 5,400 acres of timberland in the Coquille Forest; and the 3,200-acre Sek-wet-se Tribal Forest in Curry County; and Tribal One, a construction company based in Denver, Colorado.

Since opening its Mill Casino Hotel in Coos Bay, the Coquille Tribe has amassed an investment portfolio that includes technology companies, health care facilities, timberlands and a construction company. "It's about self-sufficiency," Coquille Tribe Chairman Brenda Meade said. (Courtesy / Coquille Tribe)
Since opening its Mill Casino Hotel in Coos Bay, the Coquille Tribe has amassed an investment portfolio that includes technology companies, health care facilities, timberlands and a construction company. "It's about self-sufficiency," Coquille Tribe Chairman Brenda Meade said. (Courtesy / Coquille Tribe)

The tribe is building Ko-Kwel Wellness Center on its Kilkich Reservation near Coos Bay; when completed, the 22,000-square-foot center will offer primary care, dental care, behavioral health, a pharmacy and other services to the general public. Ko-Kwel will reportedly be the first tribe-owned health center in Oregon that is open to the general public.

This year, the Coquille Tribal Community Fund  which is funded by revenue generated by The Mill Casino Hotel  awarded more than $366,000 in grants to local programs and services, including cities, fire departments and law enforcement agencies.

“The Coquille Indian Tribe has a strong track record of very real commitment to positive community collaboration and broadly beneficial community outcomes in our area,” Anne W. Donnelly, executive director of the Coos Historical and Maritime Museum, said on the tribe’s website.

‘Why are we fighting?’

According to Tahsuda, the Cow Creek Band of Umpquas’ opposition to the Coquille Tribe’s Medford casino was also a factor in his decision.

The Coquille Tribe claims its ancestral homeland encompassed more than 750,000 acres  almost 1,200 square miles  in Oregon’s southwest corner, roughly today’s coastal counties of Coos and Curry. A flood of settlers and violence against Native Americans after treaties were signed in the 1850s resulted in a Coquille diaspora that extended east into the Medford area.

Still, Tahsuda wrote, when the U.S. Court of Claims in 1945 considered the land compensation claims of the Coquilles and other tribes, it determined the tribe’s "historic area of exclusive use and occupation did not include Medford.”

Citing the Court of Claims decision and their own histories, Shastas and Umpquas spoke out against the Coquilles’ fee-to-trust application at public meetings in Medford. 

They said “their ancestors fought and died and were buried in Medford and Jackson County,” according to Tahsuda’s letter, and that “permitting the Coquille Indian Tribe to obtain trust land and operate a casino in Medford would be an affront to their ancestors and to tribal sovereignty and traditions that exist within and without federal recognition.”

Meade said strong tribal economies create good jobs and support services that benefit all Native Americans.

“When the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians proposed [Three Rivers Casino Resort] in the same town as our Mill Casino Hotel – just 2.7 miles away ⁠— we supported them,” Meade said. The Confederated Tribes have since opened a second Three Rivers Casino Resort in Florence, 50 miles north of Coos Bay.

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an Indian Country Today correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.

FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED TRIBES IN OREGON

The U.S. government signed treaties in the 1850s with Oregon’s indigenous leaders, acquiring land with the promise of reserved lands, education and health care. In the ensuing years, though, many of Oregon’s Native peoples were subjected to discrimination and violence and dispersed.

One hundred years later, the U.S. terminated its relationship with more than 60 tribal nations in Oregon. Since the 1970s, several have successfully sought to have their relationship restored, and today there are nine federally recognized tribal nations in Oregon.

  • The Burns Paiute Tribe has a 14,000-acre reservation and more than 70 allotments in the cities of Burns and Hines, Harney County.
  • The Coquille Tribe, headquartered in North Bend, Coos County, has acquired nearly 10,000 acres of land in its historical territory since the Coquille Restoration Act was approved by Congress in 1989. The tribe’s enterprises include The Mill Casino Hotel & RV Park in North Bend, Coos County.
  • Lower Umpquas, Milluk, Hanis and Siuslaw peoples comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. The Confederated Tribes’ enterprises include Three Rivers Casino Resort in Coos Bay, Coos County; and Three Rivers Casino Resort in Florence, Lane County.
  • The Cow Creek Band of Umpquas — who historically lived between the Cascade and the Coast ranges in the Umpqua and Rogue River watersheds in southwestern Oregon — is headquartered in Roseburg, Douglas County. Its enterprises include the Seven Feathers Hotel & Casino Resort in Canyonville, Douglas County.
  • There are Umpquas — as well as Kalapuyas, Molallas, Shastas and Tututnis — in the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. The Confederated Tribes’ enterprises include Spirit Mountain Casino and the Lodge at Spirit Mountain in Grande Ronde, Polk County.
  • The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin became the Klamath Tribes. The Confederated Tribes’ enterprises include Kla-Mo-Ya Casino and an RV park in Chiloquin, Klamath County.
  • The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians includes 27 tribes and bands who spoke 11 distinct languages and historically inhabited a range from Northern California to Southwest Washington, from the summit of the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean. The Confederated Tribes’ enterprises include the Chinook Winds Casino Hotel and Convention Center in Lincoln City, Lincoln County.
  • The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla became the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. The Confederated Tribes’ enterprises include Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Pendleton, Umatilla County. The resort has a hotel, two golf courses and a cineplex.
  • The Tenino, Wasco and Northern Paiute became the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. The Confederated Tribes’ enterprises include Indian Head Casino in Warm Springs, Jefferson County.
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