Tribes Ask U.S. Interior Secretary to Deny Proposed Casino in Medford

Four tribes opposed to a proposed tribal casino in Medford are asking U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to stop the project from moving forward.

For 10 years, the Coquille Indian Tribe has been working to turn a bowling alley on land it owns in Medford into a casino, more than 150 miles from the tribe’s reservation near the Oregon Coast. The project would need to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Department of the Interior, and the land would have to be put into a federal trust. Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, casinos operated by tribes can be built on reservations, land held in trust by the U.S. for the benefit of a tribe and on land governed by a tribe.

Four tribes in the region oppose the project, which they say would cause them harm. Earlier this month, the chairs of the Karuk Tribe, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, Elk Valley Rancheria and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation sent Haaland a letter asking that she visit their homelands in northern California and southern Oregon to hear their concerns. They said approval of the casino would violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and would cause “irreparable harm” to other tribes in the region. They’re also worried that approval of the casino would encourage tribes across the U.S. to also open casinos off reservations, including in urban areas, drawing revenue from existing tribal casinos. In Salem, the Siletz Tribe is also proposing a casino off reservation lands in Salem and seeking federal approval to put it into a trust.

Carla Keene, chair of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle that revenue from the Cow Creek’s Seven Feathers Casino on its reservation 70 miles from Medford could drop at least 25% if the Coquille casino were built. She said that revenue pays for the tribe’s medical services, among other public services.

“It is a slippery slope,” Keene said. “I would hope that Sec. Haaland would see the necessity to say ‘no.’ This is not a good idea for the tribes, and this is going to cause harm. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for all tribes across the United States, not just one, and this is affecting more than just Cow Creek and it is only benefiting one tribe.”

The letter coincides with a federal environmental assessment of the project, among the last hurdles facing the project.

Coquille Tribal Chair Brenda Meade responded to the opposition in an email that said Haaland should respect tribal sovereignty.

“It is heartbreaking that other tribes, including tribes in California, continue to attack our sovereignty and seek to limit our economic development rights within the reservation restoration area specifically defined by Congress,” Meade said.

She added: “Sec. Haaland and the Biden administration have expressed their support for tribal sovereignty, and we trust they will honor this commitment to enable our continued economic development.”

Putting land in trust

The Coquille have faced opposition to the casino from other tribes and state leaders for 10 years. Govs. John Kitzhaber and Kate Brown and members of the state’s U.S. congressional delegation have said that the state and tribes have a longstanding understanding that each one will operate one casino on its own reservation.

Four years ago, the Department of the Interior rejected the Coquille Project casino over jurisdictional issues and the proposed use for the land. But in 2021, the tribe proposed the casino again, with a new interior secretary, and Haaland agreed to let the environmental assessment and public comment move forward.

Keene, of Cow Creek, said the project would have a wide, harmful impact. “This is not going to just affect Oregon,” Keene said. “This is going to go beyond the Oregon border, and it is going to create chaos in Indian country for a very long time,” she said.

The opponents said it’s important that they voice their concerns to Haaland in person.

“Your visit is also consistent with the department’s stated commitment to meaningfully consult with affected tribal nations in advance of policy decisions of tribal implication, as well as the Biden administration’s promise ‘to protect the ability of every Native person here in the United States to lead safe, healthy, and fulfilling lives in their homelands,’” they wrote.

by Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

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