Oregon Tribes Expand Their Economies

October 2007, Oregon Business

Antone Minthorn

“There’s something called justice, but you have to do something to achieve that. You have to work to make this growth happen.” ANTONE MINTHORN, UMATILLA TRIBAL CHAIRMAN. PHOTO BY LEAH NASH

TRIBES 2.0 - As the next decade unfolds, the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon will have a major role in how the economy of the state develops. It’s not just about casinos anymore.

By Abraham Hyatt

It’s a summer day in Canyonville about a half hour south of Roseburg, and the Cow Creek Tribe is pretending their new dam is about to collapse.

It’s one of the biggest dams in Douglas County: 1,000 feet long, 95 feet high and capable of holding back 119 million gallons of water. It spreads across the mouth of a canyon that sits above I-5 and several million dollars’ worth of tribal enterprises: the Seven Feathers casino, a motel, an RV resort, a truck stop, a restaurant and self-storage units. The drill spreads quickly via radio and cell phone from the base of the dam to the floor of the casino.

This is not the tribe’s only dam. Further back in the canyon sits a smaller companion dam. And another reservoir. And a gray-water lagoon. Nearby sits a water treatment plant, storage tanks, a sediment basin — all part of a $25 million, 250-acre utility project that, come this winter, will supply the tribe and, in emergencies, the city of Canyonville with water.

“Sewer, power, water: We’re working toward total self-sufficiency,” says Wayne Shammel, the Cow Creek’s lawyer, as he drives past workers involved in the drill on the dusty road that follows the rim of reservoirs.

The recently completed project was built on the success of the tribe’s casino and resort. And while the casino will remain its crown jewel for years to come, Cow Creek — like many tribes around Oregon and the nation — is rapidly moving beyond a gaming-based economy.

It’s a transition that requires quick learning. Fifteen years ago, Cow Creek was the only tribe in Oregon with a gaming facility. Now the tribe owns and operates 12 separate companies and is the second-largest employer in the county. Its members are learning the intricacies of running a municipality-sized utility. And the tribe is learning that its successes can draw political ire from the local community.

Their growth and push for economic diversity — also typical of other tribes in the state — shows no signs of slowing. Economists hired by the tribes say tribal gaming alone had an almost $1.5 billion economic impact on Oregon in 2005. But that’s just casinos. Last year the Coquille Tribe teamed up with Home Depot on a $20 million shopping center. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have attracted two Fortune 500 companies to a new business park a few miles outside of Pendleton. Smaller examples at other tribes abound.

When Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Umatilla board of trustees, says, “We are on the cutting edge of economic development in rural Oregon,” there’s evidence to back up that claim.

Oregon state economists have no estimates or data to determine what impact tribal economies as a whole have today. But it’s clear that as the next decade unfolds, Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes won’t just be shaping the future of their children, grandchildren and culture. They’ll have a major role in shaping the economic future of the state.

OREGON TRIBES ARE NOT UNIQUE in their push to diversify. It’s a shift that some tribes across the country are making very successfully. Last year the Seminole tribe of Florida made international headlines when it announced it was buying the Hard Rock chain of casinos and hotels for about $965 million. The Southern Ute tribe in Colorado is worth nearly $4 billion, in part because it controls the distribution of roughly 1% of the nation’s natural gas supply. In Washington State, the Puyallup Tribe is replacing a riverboat casino in Tacoma with a $300 million international shipping container terminal.

Wayne Shammel

“Sewer, power, water: We’re working toward total self-sufficiency.”

Economists and the tribes agree that nearly all growth can be traced back to a 1987 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided that tribal lands did not fall under state gambling laws because of the sovereignty of the tribes. Consequently, they could build casinos. Using gaming money as a springboard, tribes bought and created businesses.

The same court first established tribal sovereignty in the 1880s. Despite that promise, the federal government spent the ensuing decades attempting to force assimilation on American Indians. In the 1950s, 109 tribes — 62 of which were in Oregon — were dissolved or had their land taken away. In Oregon, like many other states, it was the culmination of more than 100 years of forced relocation and land theft.

By the 1970s and 1980s, legal action, political pressure and sometimes-violent protest — along with a changing national attitude toward civil rights — led to a shift in federal and state positions. Through legal battles, some Oregon tribes regained federal recognition. Some received money for lost land. Some even had land returned to them. Employment and poverty rates were still tragically low. But now the tribes had a way to address that.

Seven Feathers Casino

The Cow Creek Tribe opened its first gaming facility in Canyonville in 1992. It was replaced a few years later with the Seven Feathers Hotel and Casino Resort, which has grown to 1,300 gaming machines and more than 50,000 square feet of casino space.

Four years after the Supreme Court’s 1987 gaming decision, the Cow Creek took out an $825,000 loan from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and built a tin-sided bingo hall. It was the first in Oregon, but not for long.

In 1994, the Umatilla opened a casino outside of Pendleton. The year after that, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians (Lincoln City), the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Warm Springs), the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (Grand Ronde) and the Coquille (North Bend) all opened casinos.

Today, Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes all have casinos.

In 2005 those casinos had a direct $675 million effect on Oregon’s economy, according to a study by the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest that was commissioned by the tribes. Add in the impacts to the construction, manufacturing, wholesale, retail and services industries and the number jumps to $1.47 billion.

That’s nearly the combined economic force of Oregon’s wine and dairy industries.

This story and photos originally appeared on Oregon Business.