By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
CASCADE LOCKS — One hundred and fifty years ago the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs relinquished their ownership of Cascade Locks properties to the United States.
On Thursday, the Warm Springs were welcomed home as Tribal Chair Ron Suppah and Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a compact for Oregon’s first off-reservation casino. The Native American victory chant and accompanying drumbeats echoed through the pavilion at Port Marine Park. The music carried the thoughts of many observers back into history.
Back to a time when Cascade Locks was the Wasco Indian Village of Shahala and its inhabitants maintained a thriving trade hub along the Columbia River. A return to 1855 when the tribes and bands of middle Oregon ceded most of their 10 million-acre territory over to the federal government. The Wascos, Warm Springs and Piautes then set up a sovereign nation on 644,000 acres of reservation land in Central Oregon. Under the treaty, the tribes retained their right to hunt, fish and gather roots and berries in the Gorge — making them frequent visitors.
On April 6, Suppah and Kulongoski put their signatures on the contract that marked a historic day for the rural community. The Warm Springs had returned to live in Cascade Locks and operate another trade venture. This time, their plans were to open a 500,000-square-foot gambling casino on 60 acres in the industrial park at the eastern edge of the city.
“It’s truly my pleasure to be a part of bringing the tribes back to their ancestral lands,” said Hood River County Commissioner Carol York. “This is truly a fine example of a government and community partnership.”
She served as master of ceremonies for the event that drew a crowd of local, state and tribal government heads. Many of these officials, and both Warm Springs and Cascade Locks citizens, sported buttons that read, “Two Communities, One Vision,” a sentiment also woven through every speech.
“What a wonderful day this is for my people. The process we’ve gone through for the last few years has been one of brotherhood, people working together to come to consensus,” said Rudy Clements, chair of the tribal gaming board of directors.
“This is really a historic event. We’ve been waiting, waiting and waiting,” said Cascade Locks Mayor Ralph Hesgard.
“This represents the best of Oregon, it represents the best of this community — we are all Oregon, we are all one people,” said Kulongoski.
The Hood River County and Warm Springs governments feel united in their quest for better economic times. The median annual household income income for Cascade Locks is $29,719 compared to the $41,662 statewide average. There are currently no medical facilities in the town and no bank, which has driven away many senior citizens. The situation for the Warm Springs is just as dire, with about 50 percent of the 4,365 tribal members unemployed due to a decline in timber harvest and market rates for hydroelectric power, the two main industries.
Kulongoski said overcoming the economic plight faced by both communities was one reason that he granted the siting exception allowed under federal law. Under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), the governor of each state can recommend that an exception for an off-reservation casino be granted. Otherwise, federal law prohibits tribes from setting up gaming centers on property acquired after the passage of IGRA.
Oregon policy permits each of the nine federally recognized tribes to operate one casino apiece on reservation land. The Warm Springs have agreed to stop gaming at their Kah-Nee-Ta casino once the more lucrative enterprise in the Gorge opens its doors.
“I have never dealt with the Warm Springs when they did not consider tribal members and the state. They see themselves as citizens of this state and they want to do what is best for Oregon. They have never had a narrow view of what their interests are and I thank them for that,” said the governor.
Kulongoski felt the “unique” circumstances around the Warm Springs proposal merited a deviation from long-standing policy. The governor agreed that Cascade Locks was a better option than an eligible site in Hood River that has met with strong opposition. He said the unanimous support of elected leaders throughout the county for a casino in the “willing community” of Cascade Locks also merited consideration.
In exchange for his approval, the tribe has agreed to deed over 175 recently purchased acres just east of Hood River to the state. Kulongoski said the opportunity to protect the properties located within the National Scenic Area (NSA) helped sway his decision. In addition, the tribe will allow a permanent conservation easement to be placed on its 40 acre trust parcel in that same vicinity.
Those factors — combined with the Warm Springs’ long-standing connection to the Gorge — led Kulongoski to weigh in for Cascade Locks. In addition, he believes that all of Oregon’s citizens will gain from the tribal agreement to turn as much as 17 percent of gross gambling profits over to the state.
Those funds will be channeled through a nonprofit into conservation, education and economic development projects. Tribal officials estimated that after 10 years, the casino will have contributed $270 million to state programs. Another six percent of the casino’s take will be dedicated toward betterment of Cascade Locks, such as construction of a new fire station.
“Gov. Kulongoski has made a significant choice, a choice that protects Hood River lands and supports the smart land use planning envisioned in the NSA,” said York.