Poor, nearly landless and a long way from anywhere, the 80-member Burns Paiute tribe is banking its fortunes on a casino amid sagebrush and jackrabbits.
They don’t envision anything fancy at first - a prefab building with some slot machines. If things go as planned, a $3 million facility would replace it.
But only about 7,000 people live within 100 miles of the reservation and it isn’t even visible from U.S. 20. So far the tribe has not been besieged with investors.
The only other venture here is an alfalfa field that brings in less than $15,000 a year. Seasonal unemployment tops 50 percent.
“If we don’t do something, we’re going to sink with the boat,” said tribal chairwoman Wanda Johnson.
“We realize we won’t do the business other tribes have,” said Jim St. Martin, the tribe’s general manager. “We’ve had studies done - conservative ones - and if it’s a well-run operation, it will give us profit.”
“We don’t have any natural resources. There is right now no way we know of to give us money to operate.”
Previous efforts have not gone well.
A wood pallet operation fell as timber prices rose. A frozen-onion plant also failed.
“Can we afford to become $3 million (in debt)?” St. Martin asked. “What do we know about gaming? There are a lot of unanswered questions. The alternative is to do nothing and hope that federal dollars improve.”
The tribe, viewed as hostile by the military in the 19th century, lost a 1.7-million-acre reservation. They scattered around the West.
Those who returned patched together modest acreage through donations and federal programs. In 1972 Congress recognized it as a reservation.
But they were still too small to win federal housing grants or to compete with larger tribes for dollars.
But an infrastructure has been built. Bureau of Indian Affairs funding and other grants pay for a four-person police force, court, housing subdivision, administration building and its 29-person government.
The tribe recently landed $442,479 to build a health center, moving patients out of condemned trailers that have little privacy.
This summer the tribe hopes to replace up to 23 aging houses with federal money and has applied for a grant to develop a writing system for the Paiute language, still spoken by elders.
The casino will be tiny compared to other Indian gambling operations in the state.
The tribe, however, says it can be a part of economic growth in the area.
Attracting casino investors has not been easy.
Those interested tend to back off when they find where Burns is.
“It blew their minds,” St. Martin said. “Usually you don’t hear from them again.”
Early this year the tribe solicited management proposals and settled on Wolf Gaming LLC from Colorado.
If all goes as planned, tribe officials say, the tribe will hire the firm as a consultant, setting up a temporary casino this summer. The tribe will then negotiate a management contract with Wolf.
The tribe then hopes - with financing from Wolf investors - to build a permanent casino.
The tribe hopes to draw truckers and tourists headed to Idaho, Nevada or the nearby Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
Even if things work out, nobody has agreed on what to do with the money. There are ideas. A market. A laundry. A gym for powwows. A senior center. A larger reservation. Money to record the memories of the tribe’s elders.
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