Washington Tribes Warn New Casino Could Spark ‘Indian War’

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (tall guy) came to an agreement in February with Gerry Lewis (center) of the Yakama Nation and the federal government to protect land on which another tribe wants to build a competing casino. (Image: Susan Walsh/Associated Press/Alamy)

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are moving ahead with plans for an off-reservation casino in Pasco, Washington. But at least two other area tribes say that the facility would damage their livelihoods, and could start a casino gaming arms race between local tribal groups. 

The conflict came to a head on April 24, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a hearing on the casino proposal as it took comment on what should be included in an Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

Yakama, Umatilla Voice Opposition at Bureau of Indian Affairs Hearing

The Colville have sought to build a casino in the Tri-Cities area of southeastern Washington since purchasing land in Pasco in 2019 for a combined $2.9 million. The goal was to build the tribe’s fourth casino – it is allowed to operate a maximum of six under its compact with the state – but the first to be located off of its reservation, located about 75 miles to the north. 

The hearing last week was designed to take comments on the scope of what the Environmental Impact Statement should cover. Such statements are designed to consider the impact of large projects on the local environment.

However, two other tribal groups that operate casinos in the Pacific Northwest came to the meeting to blast the Pasco casino proposal.

“You’re going to start an Indian war,” Ruth Jim, a council member for the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, said during the hearing, according to the Tri-City Herald.

The Yakama were joined by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) in opposing the project at the hearing.

Both tribal groups say that the Colville don’t have the right to build a casino in the Tri-Cities based on the treaties that the tribes signed in 1855 with the United States government. 

While off-reservation casinos aren’t unheard of for tribal groups in the United States, the process is a bit more complex than building on a tribe’s own land. First, the tribe must place the off-reservation property into a federal trust, a move the Colville began last year through what is known as the “Fee-to-Trust” process outlined in the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Yakama Nation lead attorney Ethan Jones says the tribes will appeal that process on procedural grounds, saying that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has failed to disclose the full application or other documents related to the casino.

Economic Concerns at Heart of Casino Dispute

Underlying the dispute are worries that a new casino in the Tri-Cities area would undermine casino operations by the other tribes.

The Yakama have operated the Legends Casino in Toppenish, about 70 miles west of Pasco, for 25 years. The Umatilla operate Wildhorse Resort and Casino near Pendleton, which is a similar distance to the southeast of Pasco. That facility has been open since 1995.

Officials from both casinos spoke at last week’s hearing, saying that their venues provide economic opportunities for the residents of their respective reservations, and that allowing an off-reservation casino from a competing tribe in such close proximity would harm the Yakama and Umatilla reservations.

The Colville are seeking to build a casino along with a 200-room hotel, restaurants, and other amenities in north Pasco. The tribe has already worked to garner local support, reaching agreements with both the city of Pasco and Franklin County.

In February, the Yakama and Umatilla were among a group of tribal interests who signed an agreement with Washington’s state government and the Biden Administration, promising to work together to protect salmon and other native fish in the area, while honoring obligations to Tribal nations and recognizing the important services the Columbia River System provides to the economy of the Pacific Northwest. 

Pasco is on the banks of the Columbia River.
 

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