Land buy may open door to tribal casino

The Colville Tribes’ $10.8 million purchase of 184 acres of Franklin County farmland could set the stage for a future casino just northeast of King City in Pasco.

Though opening a casino would take “many years” since the land off Highway 395 would first need to be transferred into federal trust status through the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the U.S. Department of the Interior, said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the business council for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

“That can take some time,” he said. “And then afterwards we apply for the permit for the casino, and that can take some time as well.”

The tribes own and operate three other casinos: 12 Tribes Resort Casino in Omak, Mill Bay Casino in Manson and Coulee Dam Casino in Coulee Dam.

Though a casino project is years away, the Colvilles want the land just north of the new AutoZone distribution center to begin generating money.

In the interim, there’s been talk of putting a gas station or convenience store, or maybe even a hotel on the property. It also could be left as farmland for the time being.

“One way or another, we’d like to try to do something to begin generating some revenue,” Cawston said.

The May 16 land buy took the city of Pasco by surprise.

“The city learned of the purchase through the media. That said, we are excited at the prospect of this investment by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and look forward to a long and collaborative relationship,” said Dave Zabell, Pasco’s city manager.

Franklin County Commissioner Bob Koch felt it was too early to comment but pointed out that Franklin County could potentially lose the tax base for the land if it was moved into a federal trust.

Cawston said the tribes intend to work with Tri-City leaders, including city and county governments, as they make plans for the land.

Tribal committees are being reorganized this month, and Cawston said he expects this to be one of the first issues they’ll take up.

“We want any tribal economic development project to benefit the entire area, creating good-paying, new jobs, increasing tourism and providing a catalyst for a number of new businesses,” Cawston said.

The land is important to the Colville Tribes because it’s where their ancestors once lived.

“There’s just such close personal
ties to those areas,” Cawston said. “That’s where (our) ancestors lived and where a lot of (our) ancestors were buried and where we gathered. We wanted to build a stronger relationship to protect those lands and encourage our tribal membership to go back to those lands.”

Cawston said the tribes have always talked about buying back some of their former homelands but got serious about it in the last two to three years.

“We began actively discussing this as a council and for a lot of different purposes,” Cawston said. “We still try to maintain our relationships with federal and state agencies for when anything occurs within our traditional homelands. If there are sacred sites or archeological sites that have been disturbed or could potentially be disturbed, we hope they would take our comments and considerations of those lands because once they’re taken out of state or federal ownership, the tribes no longer have access to those lands.”

The tribe bought the undeveloped farmland from private owners because of its cultural significance.

The Tri-City area is the traditional homeland of the Palus, one of the 12 tribes in the Colville confederation.

The property is expected to be used for economic development that benefits the Colville members who face challenges in Okanagon and Ferry counties, where some of the tribes were relocated in 1885.

“Both of those counties probably have some of the highest unemployment rates and are some of the most economically challenged rural areas in Washington. So that’s forced a lot of our tribal membership to look for employment elsewhere,” Cawston said.

He said he encourages tribal members to get experience elsewhere and bring back what they’ve learned to benefit others.

Several hundred of the 9,365 enrolled Colville tribal members live in the Tri-City area.

“When you look at that recent history, it wasn’t that long ago, even within my generation. I knew some of the Palus elder people across the reservation who still lived in those areas and were moved to Colville,” Cawston said. “They never really felt that was their homeland. From those earliest of times, our people wanted to return back to those lands but were never successful in being able to do so.”

The Colville reservation includes 1.4 million acres of land, consisting of tribally-owned lands held in federal trust status for the Colvilles; land owned by individual Colville tribal members, most of which is also held in federal trust status; and land owned by other tribal or nontribal entities.

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